One of the best preserved fortified towns in Europe, only 20 km from Amsterdam : Naarden, with its double ring of 17th century bastions and moats.
Today a very peaceful place. Old houses and cobblestone streets, great to stroll around, with pleasant terraces.
And a varied countryside around to explore.
But when walking or cycling along the shores of the former Zuiderzee (Southern Sea) north of present day Naarden, very few people realise that they're passing along the grave of one of those drowned towns in the Netherlands.
Right there, on the above picture in the top right corner, somewhere half way between the beach and the new polders of Flevoland on the horizon, the remains of Old Naarden must lay scattered on the bottom of the waters.
This oldest town in the region once thrived.
In the 9th century, there was even a stone church here. Very expensive material that had to be imported from far away. A sign of the importance of the small, but strategic town. A sign of wealth too.
The Vikings certainly were interested. First in a long series of attacks, bringing plunder and destruction.
And there was more doom to come, from nature as well.
Old Naarden was situated on the shores of the Almere, a large fresh water lake.
The open sea was far away in the north, with a lot of land in between protecting.
But for hundreds of years, the rising sea had been eating land. Slowly but steadily.
The final blow came around 1200 AD. A rapid succession of super storms washed away enormous areas, thousands of people must have drowned. The brand new Southern Sea (Zuiderzee) was formed.
Also Old Naarden suffered greatly, and when in 1350 it was again heavily damaged during one of those many wars of the epoch, people gave up. The town was abandoned and "given to the seas".
A few miles inland, on higher ground, and within a few years, the new town of Naarden was swiftly rebuilt on its present location. It rapidly became the regional capital, and a prosperous merchant town.
Then came the Dutch revolution against Spanish rule, what turned into the Eighty Years' War of Independence (1568-1648).
In the early years of the uprising there was confusion and mixed feelings among the population : an all out rebellion against the king or a compromise ?
So, when in 1572 a Spanish army made its way, the city gates of Naarden were rather reluctantly opened, and the army officers welcomed with a banquet.
What the people did not know was that there were secret orders. The king wanted to frighten once and for all his Dutch subjects into submission. To set an example the doomed town had to be burned to the ground, and not one soul was to be left alive. And that's exactly what happened, the Spanish commander could report later with great satisfaction.
The Naarden massacre proved to be one of the decisive turning points in the revolt, and an immense mistake of the Spanish. Because now, the war started in earnest. The Dutch felt they had no choice but to fight on to the bitter end.
More on this dramatic episode in Kenau - a woman who stood up to fight.
A few years later the town was rebuilt all over again, and being the key to Amsterdam, it was gradually surrounded by the elaborate fortifications we can see today, a unique example of 17th century military design. The strategic place was subject of much more fighting and bombardments. By various invading armies, the French in particular. And also by the Dutch, every time they had to recapture the fortress. The last siege dating from 1813-1814. Still plenty of canon balls in the walls and tower of the church from those days.
The Fortress Museum is located in one of the bastions. You can walk through a network of underground tunnels and fortifications. And the functioning of the Water Defence Line is explained: military lines of defence around Amsterdam, and extending 85 km long from north to south.
The Great Church is one of the few surviving medieval buildings. Plundered during the 1572 massacre, as a scarred massive door still witnesses, but not burned down. Very special paintings on the arched timber vaults. An austere altar stone is believed to be the only remnant of the drowned old town, carried to the new place. The church being famous for its acoustics, there are regularly concerts, especially of organ and choral music.
The tower can be climbed, for a bird's eye view of fortress and surroundings.
Also in Naarden : The Comenius Mausoleum and museum, 'holy ground' for many visiting Czechs.
A walking visit to this pleasant fortified town and its museums is possible year round.
A bicycle trip is a perfect way to explore the surrounding countryside full of history as well. In one tour, you can visit all three fortified towns in the region, Naarden, Weesp and Muiden (with medieval castle). If you're especially interested in defence structures, there's a War & Peace bike tour, "from medieval castle to WWII bunkers".
Best time of year for a cycling trip is between April and October.