Set your sights on island docks of Vlissingen in the Netherlands
The way that the Dutch pronounce Vlissingen makes it sound like "Flushing", which is what we have always called this port in the bottom left hand corner of the Netherlands, the nearest point to the UK.
Boats sailed between the two countries right up until 1994. The connections go back a long way, when Queen Elizabeth I of England sent 5000 soldiers to help the Dutch fight the Spanish, she was given Vlissingen for 30 years as payment.
This strategic position, at the mouth of the Scheldt river and the waterway into the port of Antwerp, resulted in it being heavily fortified by the Nazis in World War II. There were more than 200 bunkers, the most heavily fortified place in the war, which resulted in it being the most heavily bombed place in the Netherlands, suffering 75 days of bombing from around 11,500 bombs.
It is amazing that so much escaped the destruction – or has at least been faithfully rebuilt since.
Vlissingen is actually on an island, called Walcheren, and is joined to the mainland by bridges over a narrow waterway. The pretty railway station on the docks connects via the island capital of Middleburg (because it is in the middle, a very attractive town) with direct trains from Amsterdam Schiphol airport – typical Dutch efficiency, and much cheaper than UK rail fares too!
To keep the sea at bay, the whole island is surrounded by dykes, and to walk along the seafront dyke is fascinating. There are around 80,000 ships a year going past Vlissingen to and from Antwerp, and they sail close inshore, as the water is deepest there.
The pilots are based here. There are yellow pilot boats (Dutch) and red ones (Belgian) and the work is split 75 per cent Dutch, 25 per cent Belgian. These pilot boats are constantly zooming in and out as they escort the ships up the river.
They operate from the harbour where there is a proud statue of Michael de Ruyter. He was a local lad who worked his way up, becoming chief admiral of the Dutch navy, inflicting the biggest defeats on the English navy ever, including destroying the English fleet at Chatham in the Second Anglo-Dutch War and causing havoc in the West Indies. He was quite a man! His statue stands by the squat “Kazematten”, a series of strongpoints constructed by Napoleon’s troops to guard the harbour.
Further along the front is a windmill. This is the only tower or tall building not levelled by the occupying Nazis, who destroyed them to prevent them being used as lookout points, or places of reference for shipping coming to attack. They needed this one for themselves, so it survived.
Today it is a high-class restaurant and there are bedrooms above, a really unusual place to stay, with windows on all sides giving great views along the seashore, the coast and the town. You have to climb lots of spiral stairs though!
Nearby is a remarkable statue of a commando charging up the beach. This reflects the mostly Canadian troops who liberated this area. In fact it was Canadians who liberated the Netherlands, with help from Poles, Norwegians and Scots. The Canadians took the surrender of the German forces in the Netherlands, and are highly regarded in the country.
In 2002 the town museum was rebuilt. It is a modern structure alongside a magnificent house that was built by Cornelis Lampsins, another local lad who rose to fame, built up a fleet of more than 300 merchant ships, and conquered and governed several islands in the Caribbean. The museum is well worth a visit to learn of the past industries and importance of the town.
Being a trading port, it had a corn exchange on a dock. This dock was a frequent cause of flooding in the town, so it was filled in and today is a pedestrian area. The old ornate corn exchange building is still there, but today it is a restaurant selling Mexican food.
There are several churches (including a seamen’s mission) and while going to see the largest, Sint Jacobs Kerk beside the market place, I came across an ambulance marked “Reptielenambulance”. People frequently try to smuggle small exotic animals in through Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. These creatures are confiscated – but what to do with them? The answer is to call for this vehicle to come and collect them and they are then looked after in a special shelter here in Vlissingen.
There is much more to explore here, both in the town and on the island. Cycling is easy as it is as flat as a pancake. Train and bus travel is cheap and frequent, and it is a very interesting area, and not far away!
Need to know
The KLM flights from Inverness and Aberdeen make it easy, trains run from the Schiphol Airport directly to Vlissingen every half an hour, taking three hours in comfortable inter-city trains.