Netherlands - The Rhine Daughters
( Originally Published 1906 )
IT seemed as if we were making acquaintance with a new land on our journey from Amersfoort through eastern Utrecht and Gelderland to N˙megen. We were actually at times upon what might be termed a "height of land" in these Low Lands, where, save for the dunes, an ant-hill is welcomed as a break in the monotony of the surface. In point of fact, the triangle of country lying between Amersfoort, Arnhem, and Apeldoorn is the Little Switzerland of the Dutch. Some of the hills are fully three hundred feet high! In this land they are as satisfying to eyes accustomed to the level lowlands as are the Alps to a native of Cumberland who knows his Skiddaw.
In the summer there is an exodus of the coast dwellers to this part of the country. The queen at Het Loo in eastern Gelderland (Loo signifies eminence, generally wooded) finds here her happiest days. The broom was in blossom and the slopes of the sand hills bright with its sunshine when we made our journey thither. Some-times when the train ran upon high land, we could see far away to the east the heaths dark with unblossomed heather. The whole of eastern Drenthe and Over˙ssel, in respect to the character of its soil and land surface, is of kin to the great heaths of Germany; they are like the Luneburg moors of which they are a far continuation. Those who have seen something of the country south of Hamburg will find little of the scenic new in these portions of the Netherlands which I have mentioned.
N˙megen, pronounced Nimvāgah, was a surprise to us in more ways than one. The large new district that forms the approach to the station impresses one as a part of modern Rome, or a miniature Washington. It is beautiful. The avenues are broad and shaded. A large circle, Keizer Karels Place, like those of Edinburgh or Washington, only finer and larger, was filled with flowers and shrubbery. It is the meeting point of two curving boulevards, one of which leads to the Kronenburg Park, the other to the terrace of the Belvedere, whence one sees the river and the surrounding country for miles. Within these two embracing curves ancient N˙megen - sits on her seven hills, a veritable Little Rome, an imperial city that wears its insignia to this day. This hilly amphitheatre slopes to the Waal, the largest and evidently the eldest of the Rhine Daughters. The setting of this city in the extreme east of the Netherlands is unequalled for beauty. Rome has her Tiber, Washing-ton her Potomac, but the imperial seat of Charlemagne has its Waal, more beautiful than either!
At the extreme right of that embracing curve of boulevard lies, as I said, the castled Belvedere. Above it, in a grove so dense that the sunshine scarcely penetrates to it, is a place which seems made for those Druid rites that obtained in the land till Charlemagne rooted them out by conversion, or decapitation of the participants. There we found the Valkhof: a small ruin more heathen than Christian in architecture, with one round blind-arched niche, and all sorts of greenery gracing its fallen stones. It is, however, a most effective small ruin, seen beneath the deep shade and against a dense background of foliage. It is just a touch, here in the Present, of an imperial Past when a Roman Emperor with Teutonic blood in his veins ruled the entire civilized world with an iron hand gloved in velvet.
To find such a city so far removed from the great commercial ports of South and North Holland was our first surprise. After we had visited the Waalkade, we had our second: The Broomstick was not there; but we found a note at the shipping office informing us that the worthy craft had been delayed by fog and would-appear within two days. She was at Vianen on the Lek — another Rhine Daughter.
We took the steam tram out to Berg en Dal, a hostelry for summer guests, noted throughout the land for its beauty of site. As we stepped onto the porch vestibule of the hotel, who should take my handbag but Ben Hardon! This was surprise number three.
Oh, but it was good to see a home face away off there in Gelderland! We forgot at the sight Berg en Dal, we forgot N˙megen and its seven hills; Charlemagne and the whole Carlovingian dynasty might have been occupying the best suites in the hotel, for all we cared at that moment and for two hours afterwards. It was something of home that had come over to us — a real live bit of that dear America. (I say "bit" but Ben weighs fully one hundred and seventy.)
"Oh, Ben!" were my first articulate words, "have you had your boots blacked since you left America ?"
I think he thought I had been long enough in the land to have water on the brain, for he looked at me a little wildly. I had to explain. "Because if you haven't, perhaps there is a particle of dust from that blessed land left on them; and if there is, I want to see it."
"Whew!" It was a long whistle. Then he smiled and said to tease: "Perhaps a little from the Hoboken docks — would that do ?" I nodded.
"You don't mean to tell me that you've been a little homesick, Persis ?"
"Oh, no, not a bit; but it's so good to see you. I can't wait now to see —" James coughed significantly, and I caught myself up in time to remember that I had promised not to say a word about the girls' coming until we should have reached Dordrecht.
"You found my letter at the banker's in Rotterdam ?" James asked, when we had come to ourselves again, and were able to answer the host coherently.
"Yes, but the steamer came in eight hours ahead of time, so, instead of telegraphing you, I came on myself."
James wrung his hand again, and after we had had a home evening of chat and earnest talk, we settled down to enjoy Berg en Dal. Ben declared he would not leave it, not even to see N˙megen. He announced that Charlemagne was a back number, and didn't know what he had missed in not opening a hotel at Berg en Dal instead of building Roman palaces in the city. And what could we do but indulge him—especially in his condition of unrequited affection ? Privately, I told James I could see few traces of the ordeal through which he had been made to pass so recently. All I received for an answer was: "Umph! You don't know Ben."
Berg en Dal, Hill and Vale, is situated on high ground nearly four miles east of N˙megen. All the little hills about are wooded with pine and other growths, and every sandy patch is bright with broom. From it may be seen a magnificent expanse of country and the rivers that water it. All of us knew the Rhine from Schaffhausen to Düsseldorf, and we all agreed that Germany had nothing to show comparable with the grandeur of this Lower Rhine as seen from Berg en Dal.
A few miles to the east above N˙megen, the German Rhine sends a great arm outreaching across the entire breadth of the Netherlands as far as the Maas below Dordrecht. It is called the Waal. A few miles to the north of N˙megen, among the wooded heights of Arnhem, the river bifurcates and sends another large arm straight north, as the Yssel, to Kampen and the Zuider Zee. Continuing on its western passage, the Rhine bifurcates again midway on the boundary line of the province of Utrecht, and sends another powerful arm, the Lek, straight across country again to the Maas below Dordrecht, and afterwards runs for a while enfeebled, as the Crooked Rhine, to Utrecht. Here again it loses a member in the Vecht, and then crawls slowly, as the Old Rhine, on to Leyden where it enters the Rhine Haven hard by the Z˙l Gate, and renews its youth within the confines of that charming city.
This curiously interesting forking process, repeated again and again by this wonderful Rhine, makes of a large portion of Western Gelderland and South Holland an island oblong in shape and embraced by the arms of the Waal and the Lek, the old Batavian stronghold. This own country of the Rhine's Daughters —the "good meadow," of those old Batavians - whom he has left to enrich it while he goes the way of age to lesser tasks in the north, is crossed and recrossed by water-ways, artificial and natural. South of this island runs the lawless Maas which forms the northern boundary of North Brabant. This explanation is necessary to understand why this Rhine Country, which may be seen in all its grandeur of expanse from Berg en Dal, is so peculiarly alluring to anyone interested in engineering, as well as to a simple soul like myself who rejoices in such natural beauty of a unique kind. A glance at a map of the Netherlands will serve, after this explanation, to fix clearly in one's mind this apparent confusion of many waters.
With Berg en Dal as our base, we crossed and recrossed this broad country, one part of which is called The Betuwe, and found all of it intensely interesting. We crossed the Maas, the Waal, the Lek — from 's Hertogenbosch, or Bois-le-Duc, in North Brabant, to Rhenen on the Lek. We discovered—or thought we did — the most beautiful tower on all the Rhine, upper or lower: St. Cunera at Rhenen. We made acquaintance with Geldermalsen and Zalt Bommel, with Hedel, a picture-village the like of which one may look far and near to find. The whole hamlet lies low among the green; the brown-thatched roofs — not a tiled one could we see — sloping so low to the ground and the meadows that the whole village looked like a colony of meadow-larks' nests hidden in the green, and no more like the dwellings of North Holland and Friesland, than a lark's nest is like a barn-swallow's.
The bridges that span these rivers are marvels of engineering. In crossing them, we could look up and down the great arteries of the Netherlands for miles and miles. Beneath, as far as the eye can see, are spread the lush meadows on which a thousand cattle graze. Sometimes a whole herd is seen standing knee-deep in the back waters of Waal, or Lek, that make clear pools as large as small lakes among the pastures. There is a fine feeling of expansive freedom, of physical and spiritual uplift in such an outlook and overlook in a wholly beautiful country. Here and there a village shows its thatched roofs, ponderous, uneven, hipped.
Here and there below us a steamer trails its smoke pennant, or a Rhine boat under full sail glides swiftly down the stream. It is this far-reaching, unbounded prospect-smiling in sunshine seems no metaphor in this instance — swept by great rain-curtains, mirroring, in its broad river-reaches, storm-cloud and sunshine as well as blue heavens and high white cloud, that makes the renown of Berg en Dal, and made us loath to leave it.
To carry with one an impression of Nymegen that cannot be effaced, one should cross the Waal on the gierpont, or ferry, to the village of Lent on the opposite bank. The pressure of the current works the ferry. After seeing this locomotive power at work one can readily understand the enormous difficulties Caesar over-came when he built that Rhine bridge over which every boy in the Latin School has puzzled.
From Lent you may see the red roofs of the city rising tier above tier from the water, and the towers of the Groote Kerk and Stadhuis dominating them. To the left is the castle on the Belvedere, to the right the remaining tower of the old fortifications, the foundations of both hidden by the foliage of the parks that surround them. It is a fitting frame for the legend of Lohengrin and the Swan, this ancient imperial city the feet of which are washed by the most beautiful of the Rhine Daughters.