Brian Johnston discovers the town of Edam combines Golden Age riches with smartphone modernity.
I gaze out of the window as the bus heads beyond Amsterdam and reflect that certain things are a given in the Netherlands. Many of them are charming: polished door knockers, plump waitresses, bowls of tulips on window sills. Others aren't really what I look for in a holiday, such as chilly North Sea winds and light rain, as modest and apologetic as the Dutch themselves.
It's raining now, big drops slinking down the bus windows. But how can I mind? There's something wonderful about scudding northern clouds reflected in water. These views are Dutch landscape paintings come to life, and they are constantly changing. Arriving in Volendam, the light is Rembrandt grey and so are the waterbirds. Yachts scud along on the Ijsselmeer and, unexpectedly, the sun creeps out.
I'm only 30 minutes from Amsterdam and intend to walk between Volendam and Edam. They were rich little fishing and trading towns during the 17th century's Golden Age. Now they're destinations for day-tripping, sailing and bird-watching urbanites. Volendam's main street is a hoarder's delight of wooden tulips, clogs and postcards, but yachts and fishing boats give it a raffish air. Its alleys are a quiet jumble of mediaeval houses with tidy picket fences and window boxes of geraniums.
I sit for a while, keeping an eye on seagulls as I snack on smoked eel. Then I set off on the two-kilometre walk north along the edge of Ijsselmeer to Edam. As with everywhere else in the Netherlands, it's flat the whole way, though the wind makes me pant as it buffets me along dyke-top footpaths.
Volendam draws the crowds, while Edam - with its more famous name - appears mysteriously peaceful. I find a pretty little town of fine houses and narrow canals, with an interesting history and delightful air of somnolence: the sort of place where retirees prune roses and tut-tut in the bakery over the follies of the world beyond.
Edam was founded in the 12th century by fishermen and farmers. A Gothic wooden building from the 1530s on the Eilandsgracht is the oldest surviving building, but most date from the 17th century, when Edam got rich on ship-building and trade with the Baltic, and started building in stone. The original shipyard is still there, and now restores historic ships.
Wandering Edam's little squares is a pleasant pastime, and in the Great Church I admire a rich collection of stained glass and a humongous organ. The compact Edams Museum is informative and has a "floating" cellar that rises with the changing water levels of this damp land.
The chief attraction is really the Wednesday cheese market, which I've missed by two days. No doubt that's when the tourists come to town, to see the yellow-skin cheese wheels laid out on the cobblestones by men in traditional white costumes and straw hats.
It's a quaint tradition in keeping with the doll-size houses, bicycles and herring sandwiches, of which the Dutch are inordinately fond. I'm not fooled, though: up the road, gargantuan engineering projects keep the sea at bay and the Dutch live lives as modern as you can get.
And, yes, they ride bicycles, but they've perfected the technique of answering their mobiles as they cycle.
It's another given in this delightful country: windswept Dutchmen pedalling like acrobats as they juggle mobiles and iPods, smug in the knowledge that they combine the best of tradition and modernity.
Getting there Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Dubai (14½hr) with connections to Amsterdam (7hr 20min). Return economy fare from $1750 from Melbourne and $1766 from Sydney, low season, including taxes. Phone 1300 303 777, see emirates.com/au.
- L'Auberge Damhotel in the middle of Edam has a eccentric, baroque atmosphere and friendly staff. Phone +31 299 371 766, see en.damhotel.nl.
- The Dylan Amsterdam has boutique comfort in a 17th-century building overlooking an elegant Amsterdam canal. Phone 1800 665 433, see slh.com.
- Tasty, simple home cooking can be enjoyed at informal De Beurs Eten en Drinken in Edam. Phone +31 299 316 471, see debeursetenendrinken.nl.
- D'Vijff Vlieghen in Amsterdam serves New Dutch cuisine in a house straight out of the Netherlands' Golden Age. Phone +31 020 530 4060, see thefiveflies.com.
More information iamsterdam.com.