Quaint, once-impregnable, Naarden

Looking from the old arsenal towards the Groote Kerk (Great Church) of Naarden. The former arsenal building to the right is now home to one of the trendiest restaurants in the region.

The weather in Holland has been simply terrible — cold and rainy — for most of the four weeks we’ve been here, so with some break in the forecast predicted for this past Saturday, we set our compass to a couple of small towns I’d been wanting to see.  Our good friend Corinne went with us – in fact she insisted we take her car instead of renting one – so come mid-day Saturday, off we three went.

First we drove to nearby Naarden, a small town north of Utrecht and east of Amsterdam, and a delightful throw-back in time.  One of the many star fort-cities of late medieval Europe, it is beautifully preserved and maintained.  (Explanation and history of the star fort to follow.)  Colorful flowers abound in planters and window boxes, and the town-within-the-fort is well maintained.  St. Vitus Church, locally known as “the Great Church,” dominates the town center, although, like most Dutch churches, it is no longer used for religious purposes.

St. Vitus Church, locally known as “the Great Church,” or Groote Kerk.

The main street in Naarden, leading from the Utrecht Gate in the south to the arsenal at the northern end.

More bright flowers. The building in right center is a nice example of the stepped gables of Dutch architecture in the first half of the 17th century.

One of the canals going through the star fort town of Naarden.

Today, Naarden is mostly a bedroom community in the southeastern suburban reaches of Amsterdam in the province of North Holland.  Because of its picturesque charm and well-maintained historic buildings and fortifications, several locales in the town are sought after wedding venues, such as the historic town hall, the renovated arsenal, and even in the old cathedral.

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Naarden Town Hall, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Council Chambers within the town hall

One of the arsenal buildings used for weddings, as it was on the day we were in Naarden.

The Utrecht Gate, now pedestrian-only.

Now for some history….A simplified and brief history of the star fort

The star forts or trace italienne, was a form of city fortifications developed in the mid-15th century as cannons and other gunpowder-based weaponry began to dominate warfare.  The round towers and vertical, flat walls of earlier fortifications had proven impractical in the age of gunpowder:  cannon balls fired directly against the flat walls could inflict great damage.  Moreover, the round towers of these earlier fortresses and castles had dead zones, where defenders could not see invaders amassing at the foot of the towers:

By contrast, the points and angled walls of the star forts solved these sighting problems: in the star fort, defenders arming cannons placed along the sides and ends of the star points could better see large stretches of the adjoining walls and the area below the points, thus more effectively provide fire coverage.  The star forts usually sat atop glacis, high earthen embankments angling down to broad, deep moats, making it far more difficult for attackers to get close enough to breach or scale the walls.  In later designs, many star forts had overlapping star formations to cover larger areas; building an outer perimeter of steeply banked glacis, all equipped with cannons, added to the fortifications.

Once ingenious war mongers developed more explosive shells and mortars, however, the effectiveness of the star fortifications was greatly diminished, and their construction largely abandoned by the early to mid-19th century.  For an example of an old star fort in the U.S., there’s Fort McHenry in Baltimore, of Star Spangled Banner fame.  Below are some examples of both simple and more complex star fort plans, as well as an aerial photo of Naarden, all courtesy of Wikipedia.

Ideal fortified city: 1663 plan of Neuhäusel, Upper Hungary (Nové Zámky, Slovakia), drawn c. 1680

17th century map of the city of Palmanova, Italy, an example of a Venetian star fort


Bourtange fortification, restored to its 1750 condition, Groningen, Netherlands

Aerial view of Naarden

After an hour or two of delightful meandering, the three of us finally tore ourselves away and headed to the equally old town of Muiden, a few kilometers west, where I wanted to see the Muiderslot, or castle.  Unfortunately, once there, we had only 40 minutes to see the castle before it closed at 5, and at €12,50 a person (with no senior discount!), it didn’t seem worth the heavy entrance fee.  So we did what everyone else does on a pleasant Dutch afternoon:  retired to a café along the canal, sip beers, and watch the boats go by.  I did manage to take a few pictures, which I will end with below.

Muidersot, or Muiden Castle

Swinging bridge opening to let a sailboat come through the lock.

Not quite done yet….

Okay, I wasn’t quite finished.  In search of the highway on our way out of Muiden, I spied an unusual sight for here in Holland.  I made Michael turn and go back, because he and Corinne thought the (one) beer had gone to my head.  But, I wasn’t hallucinating on hops, and here’s the proof:

Who’d have thunk you’d see camels grazing in Holland?!