426 Nine south-north routes through Maarssen

Since 1968, Schwartz has been living in a village with palpable connections in space and time to large reaches of northern Europe and its past. Here he illustrates and captions them.

There’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you about where I live, which at least in one respect is unique in the world, and perhaps in more ways than one. In a corridor 2,200 meters wide, one-and-a-third miles, there are nine south-north conduits, running from Utrecht in the direction of Amsterdam. The house on the Herengracht in Maarssen where Loekie and I have lived for fifty-six years is on the oldest of them, and the most easterly. It’s at the house logo on the river in the upper right.

From west to east, in this Google Maps view, there are

  • A2 highway, from Eijsden to Amsterdam
  • train line from Utrecht to Amsterdam
  • West Canal Dike (Westkanaaldijk)
  • Amsterdam-Rhine Canal (Amsterdam-Rijn Kanaal)
  • East Canal Dike (Oostkanaaldijk)
  • bicycle path from Utrecht to Amsterdam
  • Amsterdam Highway (Amsterdamsestraatweg), from Utrecht to Amsterdam, with changing names
  • Vecht river, from Utrecht to Muiden
  • towpath (Zandpad), from Utrecht to Muiden

Let me tell you about them in chronological order. The oldest is the river.

  1. The Vecht

From Geopark

The Vecht is the northernmost branch of the Rhine river, from which it sprang in about 850 B.C.E. Until the late nineteenth century, the Vecht, via Muiden and the Zuiderzee, was the water connection from Utrecht to Amsterdam, and thus from the German hinterland to the world seas. When I  leave my front door, I walk onto a nearly three thousand year-old riverbank in the footsteps of Germanic tribes, Romans and Vikings, to stop around the year 800. Whenever this crosses my mind, which is pretty often, it gives me a thrill.

From the Middle Ages on, the Vecht was a favored location not only for brick and tile factories but for castles and country houses. From where I am sitting, I see from my window Bolenstein Castle, first mentioned in 1340.

From a publication of 1719, De Zegepraalende Vecht (The glorious Vecht), with prints of the prestigious residences on the river. (See on Google Books.)

This is Bolenstein, on the other shore, seen downriver from beyond our house, which is invisible around the bend on the left.

Well, let me insert a photo of our house, De Boomgaard (The Orchard). It’s the middle of three houses, five bays wide, which was built with the two smaller houses on each side only a few years after 1719. It stands here for an example of the kind of houses wealthy Amsterdam burghers built on the Vecht.

  1. The Zandpad (Towpath)

Cornelis Troost, Suijpe-steijn, 1742 | Brush drawing, 62 x 41 cm | Frankfurt, Städel Museum (SMF_2822 Z)

Passenger river traffic on the Vecht, which is documented from the fifteenth century on, began with rowed barges. From about 1600, when Utrecht and Amsterdam came to terms on divvying up the traffic and revenues, the more efficient means was adopted of having a horse pull the barge. For this purpose a well-kept-up towpath was needed. This was laid down on the eastern bank, the Zandpad. Our Herengracht is actually a stretch of the Zandpad, with a fancy name.

  1. The Amsterdamsestraatweg

In 1811 Napoleon passed through Maarssen. He was on home territory, since the year before he had incorporated the northern Netherlands into his empire. Maarssen lay in the département Bouches-du-Rhin. He was appalled at the state of the road from Utrecht to Amsterdam, and gave orders for it to be paved as part of the Route impériale 2, from Paris to Amsterdam. There were 229 routes impériales. Living on number 2 (completed in 1813), one slot below Numero Uno, from Paris to Calais, is a distinction, no? After Napoleon’s fall, the road was renamed Amsterdamsestraatweg or the Straatweg (the paved road), tout court.

  1. The train line

On 18 December 1843 a rail line was opened between Amsterdam and Utrecht, the Rhijnspoorweg. For the historic role played by Maarssen in this development, see Schwartzlist 229: The glory of Maarssen station. The plan sketched there remains to be realized. With a frequency of 114 trains a day in each direction, locals, express and international trains, this is surely one of the busiest rail lines in the world, perhaps, excluding Japanese and Chinese metros, the busiest of all.

  1. The Amsterdam-Rhine Canal

When the Vecht no longer could handle the freight traffic between Amsterdam, with the potential to become the second biggest harbor in Europe, and the Rhine, with major industrial and resource centers in Germany and Switzerland, the first thought was to widen the river and cut out some of its curves. This would have devastated the countryside and the towns on the river, and providentially the plan was abandoned in favor of digging a broad canal two kilometers to the west.

The first version was the Merwede Canal, which soon after its opening in 1892 was inadequate for the heavy traffic it drew.

After the Second World War it was widened, deepened and since it no longer joined the Rhine at Merwede, was redubbed the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal. Quoting Wikipedia: “The Amsterdam-Rhine Canal is the busiest canal in the world. An average of 100,000 ships sail the canal every year.” Queen Juliana opened it in 1952.

(RTV Utrecht made nice videos on the Merwede Canal with Annechien Steenhuizen and with Maarten van Rossem on the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal.)

  1. and 7. The West and East Canal Dikes

For most of its length, the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal is flanked by dikes to keep the water, which is above the level of the surrounding lands, in its place. It is covered by roads that allow for two-way traffic but are always pleasant for biking or walking. The photo above, with the tower of the Catholic church of Maarssen in the left distance, shows four of the nine connectors: the Oostkanaaldijk, the Amsterdam-Rijnkanaal, the Westkanaaldijk and the train tracks.

  1. The A2 highway

In 1954 the A2 highway opened, with 2×2 lanes.

After an intermediate period when they thought 2×3 was enough, in 2010 a widening to 2×5 lanes was realized.

  1. The bike path along the Amsterdamsestraatweg

In stages, a two-way bike path along the Straatweg came into being that runs for most of the distance from Utrecht to Amsterdam. One of these days I have to take it as far north as it goes.

The unique feature is the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal, as the busiest waterway in the world. What I also think is unique is the narrowness of the corridor, with so many conduits. And the number of trains that stop in Maarssen or ride past it might also be a record. There are places where the routes impinge a bit closely on each other, and places where the noise of traffic, trains or boats can be annoying. But none of that reaches us. We also enjoy the privilege of having a large garden in back of the house, closed off by a brick wall, with a warming microclimate and no sounds but birdsong. Otherwise, houses in the villages on the Vecht have their gardens on the river, which in summer is full of loud boat tourists.

This is just to let you know that our good fortune is not lost on Loekie and me. We try to bestow sufficient thankfulness on these wonderful surroundings.

To cap off the column, after writing it I took off on my e-bike, on a lovely sunny afternoon, to make fresh photos of all the roads, tracks and waterways above.

© Gary Schwartz 2024. Published on the Schwartzlist on 4 March 2024. Some of the images can be enlarged by clicking on them. You return to the file by clicking on the return arrow of your browser.

See Loekie Schwartz, with photography by Herman van Doorn, Langs de Vecht, The Hague (Scriptum Art) 1999

Grieving over the loss of cherished friends Mac Bell and Hans Van Miegroet and my cousin Eugene. And over the tragic, unnecessary loss of life in Ukraine, Russia, Israel and Gaza. It’s hard to get through the day.

Last Thursday, on the quadrennial 29th of February, I was presented by Leonore van Sloten of the Rembrandt House Museum with the first copy of the catalogue of the exhibition that opened the next day: Directed by Rembrandt: Rembrandt and the world of theatre. The gesture was in recognition of my having been, in 1984, the first to incorporate Rembrandt’s themes and personal ties to the theatre into a monograph on him. The exhibition is fun and the catalogue is full of delightful surprises.

Coming appearances: In a week or two, a lecture I will be recording for the National Museum of Taiwan History will be aired on its website: “Robertus Junius brings Dutch Reformed Christianity to the aboriginals of Formosa,” in connection with an exhibition that opened at the museum on 2 February: Transcending 1624: Taiwan and the world.

14 March, 8 p.m., Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerp: I will be joining Mirjam Knotter and Bart Wallet to introduce to the Belgian public the book Mirjam and I edited, to which Bart contributed: Rembrandt seen through Jewish eyes: the artist’s meaning to Jews from his time to our own. Under auspices of the Institute for Jewish Studies of the University of Antwerp.

16 May, 7:30 p.m. Theatre Hall of the Amsterdam Public Library (OBA): I will be moderating a panel on Spinoza with Ian Buruma, Steven Nadler, authors of biographies of Spinoza, and Ronit Palache, initiator of an attempt to have his ban rescinded.

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4 thoughts on “426 Nine south-north routes through Maarssen”

  1. Your writing style is lively enough as it is, but this reportage had even more zest to it, being so close to home. Yet all these thoroughfares made me think of a Paul Simon song: there must be 40 ways to leave Maarssen.

    1. Many thanks, Jean-Marie. Right now the gravitational pull of Maarssen is still stronger than the centrifugal force to leave it. It’s working on us probably more than on most.

  2. I very much enjoyed your insights into your lovely home village. It looks like heaven to me. The Netherlands is my favourite country to visit. One could spend a (very happy) lifetime exploring its treasures.

    1. Glad to hear it, David. Your comment gives me occasion to advertise the b&b in our garden: On Airbnb it’s called Private realm in glorious garden.

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