A maze of water and soil
TEXT: ARNE ADRIAENSSENS | PHOTO © LANGEDIJK/HEERHUGOWAARD
The northern tip of North Holland harbours one of the Netherlands’ best-kept secrets: the water-drenched landscape of Langedijk and Heerhugowaard. With its multitude of islands, picturesque views and interesting Museum BroekerVeiling, it is a great destination all year long. Yet, during June, the region boasts a new, temporary attraction on its territory.
The Realm of a Thousand Islands. Although it might sound like a faraway destination from a fairy tale, it is actually a magnificent green area close to home. In the north-east of the Netherlands, this patchwork of elements unfolds. “1,000 years ago, this place was a swamp,” says Ron Karels, director of the nearby Museum BroekerVeiling. “The muddy water was too deep to walk through but too shallow to take a boat through as well. Therefore, the locals dug small channels through it for their boats, creating tiny islands with the soil they’d shovelled up. In total, they created around 15,000 of these small pieces of land. Because of the sludge, they were also very fertile, attracting local farmers to grow crops on them.” During the 1970s, however, agriculture on small parcels like these was no longer profitable and the beautiful area got drained to make room for a big residential neighbourhood. Only a small part with around 300 islands remained intact and is now a protected reserve. “Luckily, this preserved part is a very interesting one. Not only because of the big pond in the middle, but also because of its interesting buildings like the windmill, the old gardener’s houses and the BroekerVeiling, the last remaining vegetable auction of the region.”
Up until the late 19th century, the farmers would sell their produce at the docks through a bidding system. Throughout the years, more and more buyers would appear, stretching the bidding process longer and longer. To counter this, the farmers came up with a reverse-auction procedure, where they started with a high price and went down until someone was willing to buy it. To date, nearly all fruit and vegetable auctions in the world operate with this so-called ‘Dutch auctioning’. In 1912, the economic activity moved from the harbour to a first real auction house: the BroekerVeiling. “It was a sail-through auction,” Karels explains. “The building hangs over the water and has a small channel flowing through the auction hall. Farmers would navigate their crop into the building for the buyers in the hall to inspect it. Then, the auction clock against the wall would start to count down until one of the buyers pressed their button to stop it and buy the vegetables for the indicated price.” Today, the BroekerVeiling houses an interactive museum about the auction and the unique region surrounding it. To immerse yourself even more in the auctions of yore, you even can participate in a vegetable bidding yourself. Multiple times a day, you can take a seat in the auction hall while floats with small amounts of vegetables and fruit enter the arena. As a visitor, you can purchase yourself a lettuce or bunch of bananas with a simple push of the button beside you. But don’t push too early, or you might royally overpay for your little dose of vitamins.
A boat ride through history
To see the Realm of a Thousand Islands in all its glory, you must descend to the water and flow through the meandering landscape. During the entire month of June, the villages of Heerhugowaard and Langedijk host a boat ride in between their beautiful towns. “The free trip over the channel takes just ten minutes, during which the sailor delights you with stories about the region’s history. Once on land, activities galore await you in both villages.” For boat trips through the Realm of a Thousand Islands itself, you can join a guided boat tour that starts at Museum BroekerVeiling. Those longing for some more peace and quiet can even rent an electric boat themselves and take it on a spin through the wet labyrinth. There is no reason to be hungry, either. The museum’s restaurant happily provides you with a delicious picnic basket for an on-deck lunch.