Holland is a water country. Therefore, the way to see Holland is to go about by water. This, which seems a self-evident truth, is a truth so neglected that almost all visitors to Holland travel by train, except for the single trip from Amsterdam to well-staged Maarken; and even that is not a watertrip in the sense that I mean, for it is a trip on the Zuyder Zee, and what I have in mind is the leisurely travel along the rivers and canals.
Holland is so small that it is apt to be too hastily seen; the visitor will not leave enough time for it; it is usually sandwiched thin between England and France. A few cities, a few museums and galleries, a glance at a few canals from the train-and the traveler hurries on to Paris or London, thinking that Holland has been “done.”
Holland is so genial, so pleasant, so smilingly sedate, so happy, so prosperous, so scrubbed almost to godliness, as to make it beyond most countries in intrinsic charm. And it is peculiarly a quiet country, and this because so very much of its business and pleasure traffic is this water traffic.
To know Holland is to love Holland. The people are agreeable to look at and pleasant to meet. The buildings are attractive. The cooking is delicious. Expenses are not high. And in every direction there are things to discover: this feature putting it in the desired class for those who would find what everybody does not see.
I learned, for example, with joy, that the principal literary character of America is Nikkater!with the accent on the Nik. I came across this fact in conversation with a colonel in the Dutch army, a man of affairs and position. “I admire your Nikkater so much!” he said, raising both hands in a gesture of admiration, while a look of ineffable delight came over his face. “Your Nikkater is so wonderful!” And I did not instantly gather that he meant Nick Carter!
The stories of Nick Carter, in translation, are really looked upon with admiration in Holland, as highly interesting in themselves and as the most prominent examples of American literary art.
The second time that I heard Nikkater spoken of was on a fete night in Amsterdam, when, standing for a few minutes at the corner of a crowded street, I asked some question of a lieutenant of police. He answered my question, and then: “You are an American?” he said, and went on with the same enthusiasm that I had noticed in the case of the colonel: “You are from the home of Nikkater!” he exclaimed, with awe in his voice.
That the Dutch have a surprisingly small literature of their own for such an intelligent race explains why they depend upon other countries for their supply, although I could find no reason why it is that, in reaching across the Atlantic for books, they especially single out Nick Carter.
The fete day upon which I met the second enthusiast for Nick represents another of the unexpected and worthwhile things I came across in Holland, for the fete is in honor for the birthday of the Queen, August 31, and all Holland joins in it, and the quiet, staid, sedate, prim citizens of Amsterdam indulge in decently dissipated but decorous Dutch saturnalia.
Throughout the day there are marching and music, and carillons during which half Amsterdam stands in a hot square with its collective neck almost broken and its eyes upturned to the belltower of the town hall. But when evening falls the revels begin, and they center along the beloved Kalver-Straat.
Anticipatorily, the hotels and restaurants take in their sidewalk-tables and bay-trees, and most of the shops build solid boarding in front of their windows, for the coming of sunset means the filling of the KalverStraat and Rembrandt-Plein with a surging mass of laughing, pushing, singing, happy, dancing Dutch.
Numberless street musicians are suddenly in evidence, mostly in bands of four or five, and around each music center the people dance. Introductions are a disregarded formality-everyone seems to know everyone else.
From my balcony I counted ten dancing groups, at one time, within one short block, the groups momently shifting and changing, increasing or lessening in number, as dancers quit and went hilariously down the street or new ones joined. At times it seemed as if there were nothing but swaying, bobbing, bowing heads as far as one could see, under the brilliant street lights.
And with it all there was very little of intoxication; there was practically none at all; it was a gay but after all a sober saturnalia, and an amazing metamorphosis of staid Amsterdam, a city which thus shows that it has mastered the delightful art of being happy in public.
And while the streets were packed and thronged with merrymakers, to honor their Queen, who is immensely popular in Holland, the restaurants were jammed with diners and gay with orchestral music.
In the morning following the fete I went on a watertochtje; watertochtjes being water-trips.
The trip was to an ancient little town called Alkmaar, and I went there to see a world-marketthe great market for Edam cheese.
The journey, of some twenty-five miles, was by a little steamer, barely longer than an American tug, and was mostly on canals; these being not the usual canals, but great, broad waterways, of very considerable depth; the two greatest canals of Holland. Now and then there was even an expansion to the width of a lake.
It was ideal traveling, the perfection of restful leisureliness. The water was never rough, but at the same time it was never entirely placid; it was really that delightful desideratum, the golden mean.
For a while we kept passing ocean-going ships. We passed huge warehouses, with names upon them that were full of the fascinating call of distant lands: India, Sumatra, Japan, Russia, Brazil; remindful that for centuries the Dutch have gone down to the sea in ships; only, here the Biblical phrase must needs, for correctness sake, be reversed, as the people of this diked-in land go, literally, up to the sea!
There are long stretches of farmland, and there are lush and watery fields of green; there are little villages-and some of the villages are almost altogether inhabited by those whose sole business is the building and repair of dikes, and as you pass you see their piled-up mats and fascines.
There are square farmhouses, low-built, except that the roof rises high in a point in the center; houses intended not only for farmers but also for four-footed accessories of the farms, with hay stored up in the peak. “They are convenient, and they are warm in winter,” I remember a phlegmatic Dutchman saying, in evident assurance that there was no further desideratum.
We passed boats loaded with vegetables, boats piled high with hay, for it is boats rather than wagons upon which the people depend. Yet there are farm-wagons too, and mostly of one type, as if run out of a common mould; high-set wagons, of varnished oak, round-topped, with cloth on slatted frames. The horses, also, are mainly of one type
in Holland, order being Heaven’s first law-and that type is a sort of tan-colored, easy stepping, medium-sized draught horse, and from the boat you now and then see one-seldom a pair hitched together-driven along the road, that frequently runs on the dike at the very edge of the canal.
The little steamers are for local freight and passenger traffic, and the rates are very cheap. But although this was in the first days of September, and Europe was full of visitors, we passengers, besides the few local Dutch, were only seven in all! -a family of five Spanish-Mexicans, banished from home through the troubles there; traveled folk restlessly spending their enforced absence from Mexico in revisiting cities they most loved and giving a month to each (Amsterdam standing high in their affections) and already wondering what they should do when a few more cities and a few more months should be exhausted; and only one other besides myself: a Greek, a man of middle-age, with a really classical face, who could readily be led into ardent talk of Athens and the Parthenon and the blue of the Grecian sky. He spoke a fluent French, but no English, but he listened intently when the Mexicans spoke English to me, and at such words as “enthusiasm” he would go into mild rapture: “A Greek word!” he would cry.
Finding so few on the steamer, I supposed that visitors to Alkmaar must prosaically go by train; by train is the only way in which Baedeker tells how to get there, instead of by this delightful watertochtje; but at least on the day I was there, marketday though it was, none went by train. I saw, however, a couple of English folk who had gone by an earlier boat. In places such as this, not large and with the interest centering in certain welldefined points, one may always know how many visitors there are in town.
At length Alkmaar was reached, and the cheese market was readily found, for it is the point toward which everything and everyone naturally gravitates.
The market is held in a large open space around the ancient weighing-house; a building of the 16th century, built at that period for this purpose; a building of beauty and distinction, constructed of brick and stone, and surmounted by a tall tower that goes up in diminishing square and hexagon to a crown that overtops all.
Edam cheeses, of the familiar round cannon-ball shape, are gathered and handled for the world in the shadow of this old weigh-house, just as they have been gathered and handled here for hundreds of years.
The yellow balls are for Holland consumption (Holland is loyal to its own cheese!) and the familiar red balls are for the export trade; and all are arranged in numberless long piles, usually upon canvas, with hundreds and hundreds also covered with canvas and protected thus against sun or rain. Men are loading and unloading along the cheese wharf; and it is interesting to watch them handling the cheeses, for they so cleverly toss or roll them; and other men are carrying the balls into or out of the weighing-house. The hundreds of buyers and sellers are in busy confabulation. Everywhere there is an atmosphere of geniality and frank pleasantness.
Bargains are literally “struck”; if an offered price is accepted the buyer claps his hands together and the deal is thus closed. And decisions are quickly made, for the Dutch have so long been a trading race that they know the value of time. Often one hears a continued volley of claps!
Over seven thousand tons of Edam cheese are handled at this market annually, the round balls selling here for an average of about sixty cents, American, apiece. The cheeses are carried to and fro in boat-shaped cradles, between two men who wear a sort of harness on their shoulders and barely lift the cradle off the ground. They have a curious shuffling trot that enables them to carry pyramided cheese at a quick pace, and never a cheese rolls off. They are a picturesque set of men, these bearers, perhaps some thirty or so in all, dressed in suits and stockings of white (and white means white in Holland!), with hats, according to the color of the scales to which they are to go, of bright yellow, bright red, or bright blue.
The dealers are largely cooperative; most have organized, to build better cheese factories, and get better prices and terms for less expenditure; although still some individual farmers prefer to do their own individual business in their own individual way. The cooperation, among other advantages that are pointed out, has made it possible to hold the market weekly, on Fridays, all the year; because by banding together, and putting their milk together, there is enough for the making of cheese even in winter time, when the supply of the individual might by itself be too little.
The scene at the market-and it is mostly in the forenoon, most of the trafficking being over by noon-is pleasant and animated; interesting in itself and the more so when one realizes that it is the continuation of an ancient market, in the town that is the center of the region that produces Edam cheese. And every fifteen minutes the chimes in the weigh-house tower ring out strange old tunes.
One need not fear being stranded in an out-of-theway place with little to eat, for close beside the market is a restaurant frequented by the farmers and their customers; and I remember it, not only because of the throng that literally pack it, upstairs and down, as noon approaches, not only because of the excellence of its service-for almost every restaurant and inn in Holland is excellent and clean-not only because, in spite of its rush of custom, it sees to such nice points as giving its customers real cream for their coffee and the sugar in individual little packages, but from the careful particularity with which the prices are figured; for although I was a stranger, supposedly not overconversant with a Dutch bill-of-fare and Dutch money, and although there was such a rush that hasty adding might have been excused, the waiter figured my slip, for a generous meal, to the correct hairsbreadth, and penciled for me just 99 (Dutch) cents.
Everything is impossibly shining and clean in Alkmaar: the people, their houses, their little shops, the cheese market itself, the very streets.
This trip to Alkmaar was a watertochtje to get to a definite place, but I think that on the whole there is even more interest in taking watertochtjes for their own sake, without definite objective. For it is an ideal way to get at the very heart of the real country, and it gives one such absolutely perfect hours of enjoyment. One comes to love the watertochtje for itself alone!
Dordrecht, itself one of the most fascinating cities of Holland, with its amazing number of ancient houses, is the best place from which to take watertochtjes. It is itself a city of water with long lines of canal within its limits; more than any other city of Holland, it may fairly be called a Dutch Venice -and I remember that one morning at Dordrecht I was reminded of the callow traveler who, having visited the real Venice, was asked how he liked it. “Why,” he replied, “I really can’t say, for I didn’t see it properly; I was there only one day, and then all the streets were flooded.”Well, I saw the Dutch Venice flooded, after a night of tremendous downpour, and it was certainly a strange sight, for water was up over the wharves, and had flooded lower floors and cellars.
The watertochtjes from Dordrecht can be taken in little sidewheel steamers that, under the management of a man rejoicing in the delightful name of Fop Smit-suggestive of the name of an American artist and author who loves Dordrecht!-ply frequently, at regular intervals, over the Maas and the Waal, to Rotterdam, some miles from Dordrecht in one direction, and Loevestein, the gloomy old fortress prison, noted in Netherland history, some miles distant in the other, stopping at every little town on the way.
Incidentally, the matter of rivers is itself an interesting one. “Where is the Rhine?” the traveler in Holland will ask. And he will not find it. It separates, and spreads through Holland in a number of great outlets to the sea, and the Dutch give these outlets names, carefully avoiding that of “Rhine,” or Rhein, as, of course, the Germans have it. The Waal is a part of the Rhine; it unites with the Maas (known in its southern course as the Meuse), and then, going on to the North Sea, bears neither the name of the Rhine nor Waal, but that of the Maas. In other words, the Rhine flows into the Maas !
The circling windmills, the superb stretches of low-lying landscape, the passing boats, broad-beamed like models for Dutch skirts, the mellow glory of the sky and water, the smiling fields, the red-roofed villages, the river itself, giant-like and slow, sweeping splendidly around mighty bends, the branching waterways shimmering across endless fields of green-all is beautiful.
And you will get off at some little village at random, and you will walk about, nodded to cheerfully by the cheerful busy folk, and it may well be that you are the first American in the place! You will see the homely, comfortable little homes and the little shops. I remember, in particular, at such a village a tiny shop where nothing was sold but wooden shoes. “These are fourteen cents a pair [I am translating into American cents], these are seventeen, these are nineteen”; there was certainly no effort to take advantage of a stranger, and, of course, I bought a pair for the pure pleasure of it.
You walk about for a while in these out-of-theway, and fascinating places-out-of-the-way though so near the visited cities!-and you look in at the little shipyard where the resin smells are wholesomely sweet, and then you take the next steamer and sail again on the glorious restful water, and when you feel like it you stop off at some other place that chances especially to attract.
After all, too, this is the country from which our English Pilgrims sailed to Plymouth; and it comes remindfully that they had sojourned in Holland for some years when one sees, here, ancient-looking cradles looking precisely like the cradle in which was rocked small Peregrine White, the first child born in New England.
I think that a part of the charm of these inland voyages comes from the fact that one looks for long distances across level water and level land. For there is a great restfulness in it. One views the scenery with such absolute ease, with no craning of the neck or tilting up of the eyes, that he is ready to appreciate every beauty to the full.
A friend, a London physician, a man of travel and intelligence, accustomed to visit Scotland and the Continent, could not understand why I cared for Holland.
“What is there in Holland that is especially worth while?” he asked. “Frankly, I am puzzled. What is it?”
I thought of the splendid cities, rich in beauty and in brave, historical associations, I thought of the noble museums and picture galleries, I thought of that delightful watering-place, Scheveningen, the home of the hooded beach-chair! But I said nothing of all these. He might have replied that other countries have cities, museums, seaside towns.
“What is there?” he repeated.
And I said, knowing that there was nothing that he could retort: “There are the watertochtjes!”