Castles and gardens; the hidden Amsterdam

Naarden's Grote Kerk church spire can be seen from miles around.
Naarden's Grote Kerk church spire can be seen from miles around. / SUR
  • Adventure beyond the city and discover the country's verdant, living history

Ferdinand Bol called this place home. It's on Keizersgracht, the Emperor's Canal, in the centre of Amsterdam's historic district. A pupil and prodigy of Rembrandt, this 17th-century artist had made so much money selling his art to the Dutch ultra-rich that he joined their ranks; splashing out on fancy digs in this, the best part of town.

The house is owned by the Van Loon family, descendants of the co-founder of the Dutch East India Company. They still maintain apartments in this fine residence, but as the Van Loon Museum, now many rooms are open to the public.

Visitors to Amsterdam can enjoy the delightful secluded garden, which like so many is hidden from the street, behind the high façade of the narrow, gabled mansions. Wondering through the main drawing rooms, where silk-covered walls display the family's curated collection of old masters, one is surrounded by the splendour and extravagance of the Dutch Golden Age. The sound in the house is of intricate gilt mantelpiece clocks simultaneously ticking; and the creak of the grand staircase as visitors climb to the first floor. This place epitomises an extraordinarily moment in Dutch history, captured and preserved.

Escape to the country

Yet despite the wealth and grandeur of the time, Amsterdam was not the place to be in summer. Rapid urban expansion and an infrastructure that failed to keep pace meant that the new canals were heavily contaminated. To escape the stench, the rich would migrate to the countryside - their favourite porcelain, silverware, even furniture and paintings would be taken out from their noble townhouses and reinstalled in their summer country residences, many of which can still be found along the banks of the river Vecht.

Amsterdam Castle fulfils the fairytale stereotype.

Amsterdam Castle fulfils the fairytale stereotype. / SUR

For modern day visitors, following their footsteps is made easy thanks to the new integrated Amsterdam & Region Travel Ticket. In less than 40 minutes one can be in the verdant, refreshing countryside where 17th-century merchants built their grand summer retreats, with parkland gardens decorated with follies. For the best voyeuristic perspective of these fancy homes, hire a classic period saloon boat and let the captain navigate the Vecht whild you sip a chilled glass of wine and ponder life as it must have been in the Golden Age. It's an entertaining and relaxing way to be reminded of this decadent era, passing some of the finest grand estates, stately homes, palaces and even some castles.

Amsterdam Castle

For the most impressive fortifications, one needs to visit one or two of the quaint Dutch towns that make up the 135-kilometre line of fortifications that once protected Amsterdam. The historic town of Muiden is home to one of the region's finest castles - Amsterdam Castle Muiderslot. With a classic moat, draw-bridge and turrets, the castle fulfils the fairytale stereotype assured to make for a successful family visit. The classical gardens have been restored too and are a pleasure in summer.

Fortified Naarden

A little further east is Naarden, about half an hour's train ride from Amsterdam. It's another fortified town that defended Amsterdam, but it's probably the most impressive. Naarden is unique for its fortifications, built by the Spanish around 1572. The bastions extend out into the surrounding moat like giant arrow heads. Together they make up a unique snowflake shape with a double moat.

Tightly-packed historic town houses define modern Naarden.

Tightly-packed historic town houses define modern Naarden. / SUR

From the top of the town's Grote Kerk church spire one can get a better perspective of this remarkable town, largely unchanged since medieval times. After climbing the 235 steps to the top of the steeple, one emerges from above the belfry, onto a narrow platform that runs around the entire slate-tiled pinnacle of the tower.

The view is tranquil; below one sees rows of neat, tightly-packed historic town houses, with windows dressed with flower boxes; street pavements furnished with café tables and chairs; and manicured parkland that reaches out to the city walls. It's peaceful, just the sound of the breeze and song birds. The contemporary, summer life of this privileged picturesque town makes it impossible to imagine the war that was fought here between the Dutch and the Spanish over four centuries ago, shaping this town of Naarden into the place we see today.

The town remains one of the best-preserved medieval fortified towns in Europe. In these peaceful times, one can now enjoy fine dining in the former barracks or walk among wild flowers along the moat. Yet these walls are a testament to not only Spanish military architecture, but also to one of the most brutal episodes of the Netherlands' history.

These castles and forts are a legacy of war; a very long war. For 80 years the Dutch fought for independence from the Spanish Empire. It is said that the complete destruction of Naarden and the slaughter of its residents by Spanish soldiers, galvanised the Dutch in their fight for independence from the Spanish.

Avoiding 'over-tourism'

Amsterdam is a favourite destination for millions of visitors; it's international Schiphol hub offers links to more cities than almost any other airport in Europe. World-class galleries, museums, cool hotels, award-winning restaurants and a relaxed, tolerant environment has meant that Amsterdam has become a victim of its own success. It is faced with the challenge of over-tourism, where so many visitors and so many tourist attractions are threatening to alter the very nature, way of life and culture of the destination.

So, if you're heading to Amsterdam this summer, and you're looking to have a short escape from the summer crowds and the ubiquitous chocolate waffle houses of the city centre canal district, then take the train and head out to discover the hidden Amsterdam of castles and gardens.