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Dear fellow travellers
Saturday morning dawned dreich and dismal. But soft drizzle suits the Frisian landscape. So I took the train from Amsterdam to Leeuwarden, capital of the Dutch province of Fryslan. This is a ride made all the better late last year by the opening of the new Hanzelijn - a brand-new rail route which cuts across land reclaimed in the last decades from the Zuiderzee.
The train sped across Flevoland, stopping along the way at two new cities created on the polder: Almere and Lelystad. I dozed, dreaming of terrible inundations, and woke to scenes of quiet beauty: gulls, geese and reed beds. It was somehow satisfying to have traversed the world's largest artificial island before breakfast.
Dutch Friesland (or more properly Fryslan) is a world apart from the densely populated parts of Holland where cities rub shoulders with one another. Dutch planners ensure that a strip of open land divides Rotterdam from Den Haag, but one dyke and a windmill do not stack up to real countryside.
Fryslan is different. There are no neat cities, no tired industrial estates. Instead there are just those black and white cows, fresh air, big skies and lots of open space.
While Flevoland is a new land created out of the sea, Fryslan is an ancient territory which reflects how residents have tussled for centuries with the waves. Nowhere is that struggle more obvious than in and around the Lauwersmeer, a watery inlet on the coast north-east of Leeuwarden. Part of this body of water extends over the border that divides the province of Fryslan from Groningen to the east.
Today the Lauwersmeer is separated from the sea by a coastal dyke and dam, protecting the villages inland from the terrible floods that have so scarred these communities. Flooding in 1953 and 1954 led to loss of life and the residents of villages around the inlet petitioned the Dutch government for action to secure protection against future flooding.
Over the last half-century the landscape around the Lauwersmeer has experienced a quiet metamorphosis into something of quite remarkable beauty. Now there is fresh water where once the sea ebbed and flowed. Grasses have colonised the sandbars and beaches. Herons, bitterns, marsh harriers and waders have moved in. Even the rare Caspian tern makes an occasional visit. This summer there have been many sightings of otters. Visitors who choose the right season are surprised by great spreads of orchids.
There is a sense of wilderness, a rare commodity in the Netherlands, in the landscapes around the Lauwersmeer. Though wilderness is of course carefully contrived. A big herd of Highland cattle keep the grass short. Semi-wild horses do their bit to help too. The horses are Koniks, a breed once threatened with extinction but now making a comeback on grasslands across Europe.
The decision to sever the connection between this huge body of water and the sea was surely not an easy one. Conservationists worried about the environmental impacts. Villagers in communities around the Lauwersmeer welcomed the move, but many suffered a loss of income. The small quay at Oostmahorn, once the mainland departure point to the Frisian island of Schiermonnikog, lost its traffic.
It is a mark of the environmental importance of this area that ten years ago this autumn it was designated as a national park. Today the Lauwersmeer National Park is a model in the manner in which it balances conservation and access. And it is remarkably beautiful. Even in the September drizzle.
(editor, hidden europe magazine)