Floating around the oldest city in Holland

Why did we choose to stay in Dordrecht? Well the first reason was geography. It’s a waterbus ride away from Kinderdijk Windmills World Heritage Site, Rotterdam and the Biesbosch National Park (although we ended up not visiting the latter). Added to that, its train station makes it easily accessible from further afield. However, we found out that this small city is well worth a visit in its own right.

Dordrecht can be said to be both the first and founding city of the Netherlands. It received its charter in 1220, earlier than anywhere else in the country and in 1572, Dutch nobles met here to declare independence from Spain. A monument to these founding fathers can be seen in the middle of the old town and the Het Hof Museum features their meeting prominently in telling the history of Dordrecht. Talking of the old town, this is clearly the most attractive part of the city, featuring narrow cobbled streets, historic buildings and it is laced with canals that open out into picturesque harbours.

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F and I boarded a small tour boat to explore further. The vessel is owned by a local fish restaurant and we turned up to buy tickets from a white suited old gent with a panama hat, who wouldn’t  have looked out of place playing the trombone in Buena Vista Social Club. Neither he nor the boat’s skipper spoke any English, an indication that the area has significantly less international tourists than Amsterdam to the north. When it became obvious that we didn’t speak a word of Dutch (straight away), we were provided with an English language crib sheet which gave us information on the sites we were going to see on our ride. F seemed to think it was a speed-reading test. I tried to explain that she was supposed to read a section as we were passing what it was describing, but she’d already finished by then. Meanwhile the boat set off and the skipper began his Dutch commentary.

We floated at a very sedate pace along a stretch of canal called Wijnhaven, which runs adjacent to Wijnstraat. Having eaten in that same street the night before, at a very good Italian restaurant called Strada del Vino, it occurred to me that the area might have something to do with wine. Glancing at my crib sheet informed me that this was where boats used to unload their shipments of the falling over juice. Frequently they ran out of storage space, so locals in this street helped out by making the cellars in their houses available to look after the precious cargo. Hence it became known as Wijnstraat, or Wine Street. Just to ram home the point, we passed under Wijnbrug (Wine Bridge) before seeing Strada del Vino on our right.

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Next we passed under a very low bridge beneath one of the town’s main squares which fills up with diners on a summer evening, choosing from the menus of the restaurants that surround it. Surveying the scene above, you wouldn’t know water flowed below.
Continuing our journey along a narrow stretch of the canal called the Voorstaat Haven, we passed under the town hall. Originating in the 14th century, the building is a bit of a mish mash of styles with gothic arches over the canal adjacent to a neoclassical façade, added in the 17th century. F was busy taking lots of photos, although I must admit the darkness of the tunnels did mean quite a number didn’t come out to well. That certainly didn’t deter her.

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The next significant building on our journey was the Grote Kerk, also known as Dordrecht Minster. Dating from the 13th century (although a church was on the site centuries before then), this gothic masterpiece is known for its unfinished tower. As it was being built, it started to tilt like the leaning tower of Pisa, so the builders decided to call a halt to construction. Oddly (although not so odd for Holland) a terrace of houses is attached to the canal side of the church.

Nieuwe Haven, to the other side of the Minster, is a proper harbour with lots of pleasure craft moored. When we entered, there was what passes for a traffic jam in these parts. A queue of boats was waiting to exit to the river delta in the opposite direction. We exchanged waves with many of them, as F continued snapping with her phone camera.

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Grand old buildings line this haven, including a couple of small museums. We were to visit the 1940-45 Museum later in the day. It told the story of how the war impacted Dordrecht. While most of the narrative was in Dutch only, we got the gist of it and realised that the city took quite a bit of bomb damage. That pretty much explained the modern shopping centre and the occasional intrusion of modern buildings into the old town. Next door is the Huis Van Gijn Museum, showing off the home of an 18th century patrician. We didn’t go in, but did take a refreshment break at its delightful garden café – a beautiful oasis in which to rest on a hot afternoon.

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Back on the boat, as we approached the end of Nieuwe Haven, looking behind us revealed a lovely view across the harbour to the Grote Kerk.

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It was at this point that the captain revealed to our Dutch speaking fellow passengers (and I picked up from the English crib sheet) that in 2015, he had the honour of guiding the Dutch royal family around these waterways on King’s Day. His Majesty et al had sat in this very boat. There was only one snag. At the end of Nieuwe Haven is a low bridge called Roobrug. Not being able to dictate to the royal party the timing of the visit, he had to set off when they turned up at high tide. Roobrug is so low, that they couldn’t get under it, so the King and his entourage had to get off the boat and take an unscheduled walk to Wolwevershaven and wait for another vessel to continue their journey. F and I had no such problems as we sailed under the bridge without the slightest danger of even bumping our heads.

Wolwevershaven is another harbour, but this one is home to several historic ships. I can’t remember from the information sheet, but I’m guessing from the name that this area was the centre of the woolen trade. I do remember one of the grandest buildings on the harbour front is the Stokholm house. This belonged to a wealthy Swedish merchant who settled here.

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A brief sojourn into the river delta with its busy commercial traffic was followed by a return to Wijnhaven and back to Wijnbrug where we had started. It had been an enjoyable boat ride around the first city of the Netherlands. If only the ticket seller had got his bandmates together to welcome us back with a tune, it would have been perfect!

Factfile:

Location
Dordrecht is in South Holland, Netherlands, about 25kms from Rotterdam and 93kms from Amsterdam

Transport
There are regular train services from Rotterdam (20 minutes) and Amsterdam (90 minutes). The nearest major airport is Amsterdam Schiphol. A waterbus service operates in the Rhine-Scheldt-Maas delta and connects the city to Rotterdam, Kinderdijk and the Biesbosch National Park. Cycle paths are also prevalent in the area

Information
Our boat trip was organized by De Stroper and departs from a small quay adjacent to Wijnbrug. Click the links for information on 1940-45 Museum , Het Hof Museum and  Huis Van Gijn . Click here for information on Dordrecht

Accommodation
Click the link for accommodation options in Dordrecht. We stayed at the Hotel Dordrecht, originally the home of a local artist whose paintings still adorn the walls

If you enjoyed this, you may wish to read my blogs on Amsterdam and Haarlem

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