From Groningen To Arnhem – Holland

AT Groningen I turned my back upon the North Sea, my face to Germany, my heart to Italy, and began my home-ward journey, rapidly crossing the three Dutch provinces of the Brenta, Over-Yssel, and Gueldres, which extend around the gulf of the Zuyder Zee between Friesland and Utrecht; a part of Holland that would be wearisome to anyone who travelled without the curiosity of an agriculturist or a naturalist, but not without its charm to those who have a strong love of nature. Throughout the journey the sky was in harmony with the aspect of the country, all monotonous and grey; and I was almost constantly alone. So I was able to enjoy the melancholy beauty of the spectacle in silence.

Leaving the province of Groningen and entering that of the Dreuta, there is a sudden change in the aspect of the country. On every side, as far as the eye can see, extend immense fields covered with underbrush and brambles, in which there is no path, nor house, nor stream, nor hedge, nor any indication of labor or habitation to be seen. A few clumps of small oaks, which are considered as traces of the former existence of ancient forests, are the only objects which rise above the surrounding underbrush; the partridge, the hare, and the wild cock are the only living creatures that meet the eye of the traveller. You think you are at the end of this desert-land, when it begins again ; bush succeeds to bush, and solitude to solitude. On the dreary plain are seen here and there small mounds, which some believe to have been raised by the Celts, and others by the Germans, in which excavators have found earthen vessels, saws and hammers, calcined bones, stones for grinding grain, arrow-heads, and rings which are supposed to have served for money. Besides these mounds, there have been found, and still remain, immense masses of red granite, piled up and arranged in a form revealing the intention of a monument, either an altar or a tomb, but without inscription, naked and solitary, like monster aerolites fallen in the midst of the desert. In the country they are called tombs of the Huns; tradition attributes them to the bands of Attila ; the people say that they were brought into Holland by an ancient race of giants; the geologists believe that they came from Norway on the back of antediluvian glaciers ; and the historian loses himself in vain conjectures. Everything in this strange province is antique and mysterious. The customs of primitive Germany are found here, tillage of the ground is common on the esschen, the rustic horn calling the peasants to labor, the houses described by Roman historians, and over all this ancient world the perpetual mystery of an immense silence :

“ove per poco Il cor non si spaura.”

As you go onwards you begin to see marshes, great pools of water, zones of muddy ground, intersected by canals of blackish water, ditches deep and long like trenches, heaps of sods of the color of bitumen, a few boats, a few human beings. These are the peat-fields, whose name alone excites in the mind a hundred fantastic images :—the vast and slow conflagration of the earth ; floating tracts of land with their inhabitants and cattle upon the waters of the ancient lakes; forests wandering in the gulfs; fields torn from the mainland and beaten by the tempests of the sea ; immense clouds of smoke rising from the smouldering peat-grounds of the Dreuta, and driven by the. north wind over the half of Europe, as far as Paris, Switzerland, the Danube. Peat-live earth, as it is called by the Dutch peasant—is the principal wealth of the Dreuta, and one of the most profitable in all Holland. It gives work to thousands of hands ; almost all the population of Holland use it for fuel ; it serves many uses, with the sods the foundations of houses are strengthened, with the ashes the land is fertilised, metals are polished with the soot, and herrings are dried in the smoke of it. On the waters of the Wahal, the Leek, the Meuse, on the canals of Fries-land and Groningen, on the Zuyder Zee, everywhere circulate the boats which carry the great national combustible. Exhausted peat-fields are converted into meadows, vegetable gardens, fertile oases. Assen, the capital city of the Dreuta, is the centre of all this work of trans-formation. A great canal, into which run all the smaller canals of the peat district, extends almost entirely across the Dreuta from Assen as far as the town of Meppel. Everywhere they are working to bring the land under tillage. The population of the province, which counted a little more than thirty thousand at the end of the last century, is now almost three times that number.

Beyond Meppel you enter the province of Over-Yssel, which for a certain distance presents much the same aspect as that of the Dreuta—underbrush, peat swamps, and solitude; and you arrive in a short time at a village, if village it can be called, the strangest that the human mind can conceive. It consists of a row of rustic cottages, with wooden fronts and thatched roofs, which succeed one an-other, at a certain distance from each other, for the length of more than eight kilometres, planted each upon a narrow bank of earth which extends as far as the eye can see, and surrounded by a ditch full of water-plants, upon whose edge rise groups of alders, poplars, and willows. The inhabitants of this village, which is divided into two parts, called respectively, Rouveen and Staphorst, are the descendants of two ancient Frisian colonies, who have religiously preserved the costume, manners, and traditions of their forefathers, and live at ease on the produce of their lands and some small manufactures peculiar to the place, In this singular village there are no cafés and no streets, because their ancestors had not the former. and for the latter there is no need, the houses being all planted in one long row. The inhabitants are all Calvinists, sober, austere, and laborious. The men knit their own stockings in the intervals of time when not occupied in the cultivation of the ground ; and such is their abhorrence of idleness, that when they meet in council to deliberate upon the affairs of the village, each man brings his knitting, in order not to have his hands unoccupied during the discussion. The commune possesses six thousand hectares of land, divided into nine hundred zones, or strips, about five thousand yards in length and thirty in width. Almost all the inhabitants are proprietors, can read and write, have a horse and eight or ten cows, never leave their colony, marry where they are born, pass their lives upon the same spot of ground, and close their eyes under the same roof where their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers lived and died.

As you go on beyond Over-Yssel the country changes its aspect. Near Zvolle, the native town of the painter Lerburg, capital of the province, with about twenty thou-sand inhabitants, there are fine roads, bordered by trees, which refresh the eye after the bare and dreary country you have just traversed. Here, in the little convent of St. Agnes, lived and died, at the age of sixty-four, Thomas à Kempis, the reputed author of the ” Imitation of Jesus Christ.”

On every side now the brambly waste recedes, giving place to patches of verdure, fields and meadows, and new plantations; houses rise, herds of cattle are seen, and new canals run from the peat swamps to a great one called the Dedemsvaart, the main artery of Over-Yssel, which has transformed the desolate country into a flourishing province, where an industrious population advances like a victorious army, where the poor find work, the laborer becomes a proprietor, the proprietor grows rich, and all have the hope of a prosperous future. From hence, the road, following the course of the Yssel, enters Salland, the Sala of the ancients, where dwelt the Franco Salii before going south to the conquest of Gaul, where the Salique law originated, at Saleheim and Windeheim, which still exist under the names of Salk and Windesheim, and where agricultural traditions and customs of those antique times are still existent. Finally the road reaches Deventer, the last town in Over-Yssel, the city of James Gronovius, of carpets and ginger-bread, which still preserves, in one of its public halls, the boiler in which counterfeiters were boiled alive, and which rejoices in the neighborhood of the castle of Loo, the favorite residence of the King of Holland. Beyond Deventer begins the province of Gueldres.

Here the spectacle changes. You are skirting the land inhabited by the ancient Saxons, the Veluwe, a sandy region extending between the lime, the Yssel, and the Zuyder Zee, where a few villages are scattered here and there over an undulating plain, like a tempestuous sea. Wherever the eye turns it sees nothing but arid hills, the most distant veiled in a blueish mist, the others in part darkened by a wild vegetation, in part white with the shifting sands which the wind spreads over the face of the country. There are no trees and no houses; all is solitary, bare, dreary as a steppe in Tartary ; and the frightful silence of these solitudes is only broken by the song of the lark and the murmur of the bee. Yet in some portions of this region the Dutch people, with their patient courage, and at the cost of infinite labor, have succeeded in making the pine, the beech, and the oak grow; they have even formed fine parks and have created complete groves, covering with useful plants, in less than thirty years, more than ten thousand hectares of land, and raising populous and flourishing villages where there was neither wood nor stone nor water, and where the first settlers were obliged to shelter themselves in caves dug out of the ground and covered with turf.

The road passes near the city of Zutphen and soon reaches Arnhem, the capital of Gueldres, a pretty and notable town posted on the right bank of the Rhine, in a region covered with lovely hills which have earned for it the name of the Dutch Switzerland, and inhabited by a people who have the reputation of being the most poetic in Holland, according to the proverb which describes them as ” Great in courage, poor in purse, sword in hand.” But a traveller from the south of Europe finds here nothing remarkable either in the country or its inhabitants ; and the same may be said of Limburg and Southern Brabant, the only two provinces of Holland which I did not think it necessary to visit. So after seeing Arnhem I left for Cologne. The sky was darker and lower than it had been throughout the day, and I, though at heart glad to return to Italy, felt the weight of the depressing atmosphere, and, leaning on the window of the carriage, looked silently at the landscape, more like one who was leaving his native country than one who was departing from a foreign land. I found myself close to the German frontier almost without consciousness of the distance I had passed over, and roused by the voice of another traveller, looked about me and saw a windmill, by which I knew that we were still in Holland. But the land, the vegetation, the form of the houses, the language of my travelling companions, were no longer the same. I turned to that windmill as the last image of Holland, and contemplated it with much the same interest as that with which I had greeted the first, seen one year before on the banks of the Scheldt. As I gazed, something seemed to be moving with it in the circle of its mighty wings. My heart beat more quickly. I looked again, and saw the flags of ships, the tree-bordered canals, the pointed gables of houses, the flower-decked windows, the silver helmets, the livid sea, the downs, the fishermen of Scheveningen, Rembrandt, William of Orange, Erasmus, Barendz, my friends, and all the most beautiful and noble images of that glorious, modest, and austere country ; and as if I beheld them in reality, I kept my eyes fixed, with a sentiment of respect and tenderness, upon the windmill, until it appeared a black cross through the mist which covered the landscape ; and when even that vision had disappeared, I felt like one who departs upon a journey from which he shall never return, and sees the face of his last friend grow dim and vanish.