I’ve been passing next to Dordrecht on my trips to the Netherlands many times and I thought it’s just a dull industrial town until a Dutch friend of mine told me how wrong I was. It took me a few years to correct my mistake, but now that I’ve finally made it there, I fully concur with him – Dordrecht certainly merits to be added to your next Dutch trip!
How it all started
South Netherlands is a land of many rivers whose deltas overlap and create a maze of water and land. In the ancient times it was covered with marshland, but the Dutch slowly transformed these fertile lands into an agricultural and economic miracle.
One of the places they chose was the strip of land where one of the branches of the Rhine and Meuse confluence. The first settlers helped in pulling the boats from one river to the other. That’s exactly where the name Dordrecht comes from.
The Count of Holland, William I, gave Dordrecht city rights in 1220, making it the oldest city in Holland. Due to its strategic location, the town developed quickly as a trade and commercial center. It traded mainly in wine, wood and cereals. Dordrecht was on a path to greatness.
Terrible fifteenth century
But then the fifteenth century came. It was a stormy night on 18 November 1421 with heavy wind and rain. The dikes did not hold the water pressure and broke in several places. The infamous Saint Elisabeth flood occurred destroying the whole area, Dordrecht included. The flood shifted the riverbeds and the river Meuse had now a new estuary. This meant that Dordrecht was not on a river intersection anymore. Additionally, as a result of the new river flow it started being on an island, which further complicated the situation.
Once the city started to recover, just 30 years after the flood a fire broke out and most of the city burned down. And then in 1480 the city was besieged and captured by the Spanish army.
Dordrecht never fully restored after all this and the power shifted toward Amsterdam, leaving Dordrecht in the second league of Dutch cities. But don’t be quickly deceived – its Dutch Golden Age heritage is still very impressive and will inspire you too.
Van Gijn House – Dordrecht’s old style jewel
Simon van Gijn (1836-1922) was a businessman, lawyer and collector. His wish was to convert his house into a museum and thanks to that since 1925 you can visit his home. The house interiors date back to 17th, 18th and 19th century. The house originally was built in 1729 as a prominent burgois city estate. The huge facade highlights the importance of its owner.
What is quite rare is that most of the interior remains original since the times of van Gijn. Not only the rooms, the wallpapers, the paintings, but even small items like cutlery or toys. This allows you to fully submerge into the reality of living in an opulent burguois house and discover it fully – from the kitchen in the basement full of copper tins and pots to the attic full of old toys and an old Christmas tree filled with decorations.
The light is dimmed in the house not only to preserve the exhibits, but also to mimick the amount of light that was there during van Gijn’s times.
The house shows also a great way how old traditional methods slowly moved away towards the more modern ones. For example fireplaces, which warmed up the living room or the library, were still kept, while the first beautifully decorated radiators moved into the corridors and the hallway.
We were really impressed by the refined nature of the decorations and the wealth of the owners. We can certainly recommend you to visit this place, as for us it is the highlight of Dordrecht.
A small surprise as the end of your van Gijn visit
You can top up your visit to the van Gijn House by visiting its cafeteria. It serves great mouth-watering pastries and deserts. The cafeteria not only has an elegant interior, but also has several tables in the garden, where you can enjoy the shade of huge old trees (unless it’s raining of course).
Water, water, water
Dordrecht, like most Dutch cities, is a city on water. The main old town is placed on four islands and is surrounded by canals, harbours and rivers. While walking around the old town, you will be crossing numerous bridges and passing several harbours and ports filled with old boats. They create the charm of the town center.
We loved walking along the docks and watched the waterlife. We found the Copper port to be the most lovely with its serenity, its old crooked houses, historic boats and sublime walking bridge. But we also liked the buzzling New Port which looked like a water highway with water vessels passing both directions like on a real highway.
Oppulent city entrance
One of the more impressive buildings in Dordrecht is its city gate. Located of course on the waterfront it was the entrypoint from the Old Meuse river. The first part of the current structure was built in the 14th century and you can see its gothic features. It has been expanded in the 17th century by adding a charming bell tower. Beneath it is a colourful relief depicting a woman holding a palm branch and a shield with the city emblem. She is surrounded by sixteen city shields of cities which rebelled against the Spanish in the Dutch Eight Years War.
The other side of the gate depicts two mythical griffins tolding a shield bearing the colours of Dordrecht.
Have you tried an uitsmijter?
We went for a short lunch to a very cosy restaurant located close to the van Gijn House. “Finn’s eten en drinken” is a rather small place serving good Dutch food. I had the pleasure of rediscovering the “uitsmijter” (bouncer) – a typical Dutch bistro dish. It is a thick slice of bread (sometimes fried in butter), covered with ham, cheese (usually Gouda cheese) and topped with a fried egg. Very filling quick dish which is great for the windy Dutch weather.
Finn’s has a great view on the New Port and the Old Meuse which is busy with ships, barges, water trams and jet skis.
Grote Kerk – reference point of Dordrecht
The main church of Dordrecht was build in the 13th century. Its imposing tower has never been finished. It was originally a Catholic church, but the Dutch protestants took it over in 1572. Due to its size it dominates the old town and can be used as a beacon when navigating through the narrow curvy streets of the old city center.
Unfortunately we could not enter the church nor climb its famous tower (on Sundays it is open only until 4 PM), but we have heard it is certainly worth it, as the views from the top are splendid.
Hof van Nederland – a vital piece of Dutch history
Dordrecht, as any vital medieval town, had an abbey. The augistine abbey was quite impressive in its size. It was exactly here, where the authorities of 12 Dutch cities met in secret in 1572 to form the Union of Dordrecht and step against king Philip II, which marked one of the founding steps of the Dutch war of independance from the Spaniards. After reformation it does not serve as an abbey anymore, but you can find a museum and a school there nowadays.
Hof van Slingeland – tranquility since ages
If you are into charming little secluded places, then the Slingelandtshof is a place for you. It used to host poor women who could not afford living alone in the late Medieval ages. Nowadays it is a tiny bay of tranquility just next to buzzling shops streets of the old town.
We loved discovering Dordrecht, as it offers authentic Dutch atmosphere without crowds of tourists. It has everything you need for a daytrip – several highlights, reasonable size old town ideal for walking, lots of good restaurants, bars and cafes and friendly people.
If you are into less known Dutch towns, we certainly recommend you also a visit to Utrecht. It is one of the best unkown places in the Netherlands 😉