Get hooked on old Holland

There's more to going Dutch than the bars of Amsterdam. Take the Golden Circle, for example.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When a friend left a message on my answerphone asking if I wanted to visit the Golden Circle my initial reaction was "where?". I turned to the Internet for enlightenment but, other than learning about Golden Circle fruit juice, I emerged none the wiser. In fact, the Golden Circle is the name given to the ring of historic towns and villages around Holland's one-time inland sea, now called The Ijsselmeer. If you want to see rolling hills, flat-as-a-pancake Holland is not for you. But if you want to see another side to the Netherlands, then a visit to the Golden Circle is an affordable option - especially if you like being by the water.

As soon as you visit Marken, an old fishing village half-an-hour's drive north of Amsterdam, you realise how the Golden Circle's towns and villages, like Holland itself, have been irrevocably shaped by the sea. Until 1959, when a dyke linked Marken with the mainland, it could only be reached by boat. Tides and frequent flooding forced inhabitants to build their distinctive tar- painted wooden houses on clusters on man-made mounds (called werfs) above the waterline.

Life on this sea-battered outcrop forged a strong sense of community among its inhabitants and, even now, Marken is in many ways a place apart. Older residents still wear traditional costume. Boys and girls both dress in skirts until they're six years' old. Fishing is no longer the mainstay of the area. The old Zuiderzee was cut off from the North Sea by a 20- mile dyke in the 1930s. This eliminated the danger of flooding to low- lying land but also deprived the fishermen access to huge stocks of herring and mackerel. But, as you wander around somewhere like Volendam, you sense that the sea still courses through many of the locals' veins.

It might be a tourist trap in peak season but the old sailing ships in Volendam's harbour still possess an old-fashioned charm. These old fishing vessels (botters) can be chartered, and the skipper who took us out in his turn-of-the-century smack looked every inch the seadog with his bushy moustache and weatherbeaten face. In the summer it's possible to go out on an evening cruise for a few hours for just Dfl25 (pounds 8) per person.

Despite being dubbed one of the Zuiderzee's dead cities (the harbour silted up in the 18th century), Hoorn is also worth a detour. This is where the Dutch sailors who "discovered" Tasmania and New Zealand, and navigated a passage around South America's treacherous Cape Horn (named after Hoorn), set sail from.

There's not a huge amount to see nowadays besides the Westfries Museum - which Aldous Huxley described as an "absurd museum filled with rich mixed rubbish" - and the waterfront with its gabled houses looking out to the Hoofdorten, a 16th-century defensive gateway, but it's a nice place to while away a few hours and recall the exploits of bygone seafaring heroes.

Another village on the Ijsselmeer worth singling out is Urk, in Flevoland, an area of largely reclaimed land. It might not be the prettiest of places but it has character. Like Marken, it is a place where hardship and isolation bred a close and deeply religious community that took pride in doing things its own way. Today, it's still difficult to buy a drink on a Sunday in this staunchly Protestant outpost.

The Dutch seem to build museums with the same fervour the British show in erecting DIY stores. And anyone interested in finding out more about just how tough life was for these people should visit the Zuiderzee Museum, a "living" open-air museum where old houses have been preserved, and actors in period costume demonstrate daily tasks at the turn of the century. You might also check out Workum's Jopie Huisman Museum which has a collection of drawings and paintings by the former rag-and-bone man.

Personally, I was drawn to the clog factory shop in Marken where hundreds of newly-made shoes hang from the ceiling. And no good tourist should leave without seeing a cheese factory. At Volendam's Alida Hoeve I found not all Dutch cheese tastes like the rubbery pre-packed blocks of Edam in your supermarket. Finally, you can raise a suitable toast to your successful Golden Circle tour at the Frisian Brewery, apparently the smallest brewery in the country.

York Membery paid pounds 215 for a Stena five day/four night Golden Circle tour for two people and a car travelling from Harwich (call 0990 747474 for reservations). The Dutch Tourist Board (0891 717777) or the Golden Circle Tourist Board (00 31 320 286 767) can help with arranging bike and boat packages. For boat trips, call 00 31 299 350 324, to visit the Alida Hoeve cheese factory call 00 31 299 365 830 and, for more information on the Frisian Brewery (open Mon-Sat except Wed), call 00 31 515 57744.