“If you really love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.”
This comment by Vincent van Gogh inspired me to go literally in the footsteps of Brabant’s most famous painter. I discovered five places in the Brabant countryside that Vincent recorded on canvas a century and a half ago. In this blog I’ll accompany you past places in the Dommel Valley marshland and heathland, and I hope it will be my turn to inspire you. For what could be more enjoyable than to explore and experience your own surroundings through the eyes of an artist?
1. Genneper watermill in the Genneper Park
The first port of call during my Van Gogh trip is just 2 km from my house. Not in ‘Van Gogh Village’ Nuenen, but in Eindhoven. Van Gogh had more connection with Eindhoven than most people realise. He went to the doctor in Eindhoven, collected his paints and canvasses there and gave drawing and painting lessons in Eindhoven. During these visits to what was still the small town of Eindhoven, he must have come up with the idea of painting the Genneper watermill on the banks of the River Dommel in Gestel. And he did this not just once, but at least four times.
I’ve often walked past this listed monument while taking a stroll through the park, but I must admit that I never knew that this mill, just like the more famous Opwetten watermill in Nuenen, had been painted by Van Gogh. I had never noticed the picture on the other side of the water, showing the contours of Vincent van Gogh painting in front of his easel, but it should have been a clear signal to me.
When Vincent portrayed the mill on his canvas, the surrounding countryside was still open and empty and the bridge next to the mill did not exist in those days. Now the Genneper Park, where the watermill is situated, is more overgrown. It contains tall, fully grown trees, small bridges, fishing facilities and cycling and walking paths. It’s a park where a surprise awaits you around every corner. It was no trouble at all to recognise Van Gogh’s painting of the black wooden watermill with its water wheel on my mobile phone. Strange to think that this master went to work on this image in exactly the same spot.
2. The Old Tower at Nederwetten and the ‘Boktse Beemden’ nature reserve
With the stars and moon still visible in the sky, the sun just rising and nature awakening, I arrived at the second spot: the Old Tower at Nederwetten. Although this is not the actual tower that Vincent painted (he painted a similar tower in Nuenen that was demolished before his very eyes in 1885), the similarities are obvious.
Panting horses stand at the foot of the tower and waving grasses rustle around me. I look at the tower from the edge of the Boktse Beemden nature reserve, where long rays of sunlight emerge through the low-lying mist. The magical atmosphere immediately makes me think of the song ‘Vincent’, with the text “Starry starry night. Paint your palette blue and grey” by Don Maclean. Although this song is based on Van Gogh’s French period, the lyrics suit this moment perfectly.
I walk through the adjoining Boktse Beemden nature reserve for a while, which you reach by walking over a small bridge next to the tower. It’s a still relatively unknown and open area in the Dommel Valley between Eindhoven and Nuenen. When you think of East Brabant, you normally image woods, heathland and dry ground, but this part of Brabant is rich in extensive wetlands. The Dutch word beemden means wet grasslands which in the past were only used for making hay from the grass as winter feed for the cattle, and for cows to graze on. They were inundated in winter when small streams burst their banks. The Boktse Beemden is still marshy, and in spring and summer it’s full of plants and flowers. Sitting on a bench, enjoying the countryside and a sandwich, it’s easy to forget that you are so close to the town. Certainly worth discovering, this unknown no man’s land on the outskirts of Eindhoven.
3. De Roosdonck windmill
I continue on my route to a meadow just north of Nuenen. The white birch tree trunks, so loved by Vincent, divert my attention to the turning sails of the Roosdonck windmill (1884). If these young birch trees had stood here in the 19th century, Van Gogh would certainly have used them to frame the windmill in his artwork. The windmill was sketched and painted by Van Gogh no fewer than seven times and can be admired from all angles. The surrounding field was empty when I was there, but grain is grown here in the summer which is then ground into flour in the mill. I can see that a bare feet footpath leads past the windmill and I decide to come back when the temperatures are higher and walk barefoot through the fields of flowering daisies to buy some flour in the mill shop for some home-baked bread. Interesting fact: the windmill has been recreated 9000 km from Nuenen in the Van Gogh Friendship Park in the twin town of Nanjing in China.
4. Kollen Watermill and the ‘Urkhovense Zeggen’
“It’s the same sort of thing as the two other water mills that we visited together,
but with two red roofs, and which one views square on from the front - with poplars around it. Will be magnificent in the autumn.”
Yes, Vincent, I can certainly agree with that. The golden autumn colours on the poplars next to the Kollen (Collse) Watermill stand out strongly against the blue sky. I’m in the spot that is probably the most well-known of all the places I will encounter on my Vincent tour. I had been to this watermill, run by volunteer millers, on a previous occasion. What I didn’t know then, but do now, is that the Urkhovense Zeggen nature reserve is located south of the Kollen Watermill, between the Eindhoven suburb of Tongelre and the towns of Geldrop and Nuenen. That’s where I’m going to explore now.
I start out on my walking tour on the south side of the watermill and walk past agricultural fields with hay bales. You don’t get more ‘Vincentian’ than that. I then pass by meadows with white cows and their calves, and walk for a bit beside the Eindhoven Canal, before once again heading north along the Kleine Dommel river. I consider myself fortunate to be wearing my long rubber boots during the next part of my walk; it is very marshy here and I have to walk through big deep puddles. In some places the water almost reaches the top of my boots. The views of the meandering Kleine Dommel, the pollard willows that stand guard on the banks, and the reflection of the poplars in the water certainly justify this small attempt at survival. But this is an essential tip if you want to view this bit of countryside off the beaten track; walking shoes are no good at this time of the year, put your rubber boots on.
5. Kamerven in the Stiphout Woods
My final destination is not far from the Roosdonck windmill I visited earlier, between Nuenen, Gerwen and Stiphout: the Kamerven pool. It’s almost certain that Vincent sketched these trees in his 1884 work ‘Pine Trees in the Fen’. This spot is just a stone’s throw from his parents’ house in Gerwen and the Stiphout Woods. The pool, which often dries out, is surrounded by about fifteen hectares of heathland, where it forms a large open space in the middle of the quietest part of this wood. Rare marsh gentians grow here.
As I arrive, the orange-brown colours of the moor grasses shine beautifully in the afternoon sun. You can go on the eleven pools walk here in the Stiphout woods, and the Kamerven pool forms one part of this. You don’t need to go to the town of Oisterwijk to indulge in pools; I’m concentrating now on a walk around the Kamerven pool, along paths on both sides of ‘Vincent’s pine trees’. Horse riders trot along happily with me. This is pure enjoyment.
As the sun fades behind the trees, I daydream about my trip past the Van Gogh spots and landscapes, and what a lovely extra dimension it brought to the experiences of my own Brabant by following the painter’s trail. I was walking along the same paths, over the same fields, admiring the same (sort of) towers and mills, spotting the same birch, pollard willow and polar trees as he did. And that made the experience extra special. Honestly, you don’t need to travel far to experience unforgettable moments out in the countryside.
“Find things beautiful as much as you can, most people find too little beautiful.”
I will be off again soon to discover parts of Vincent’s West-Brabant. This time, I might take my sketch book with me!
Simone Wittgen tells stories in words and images about places she feels a connection with. Her focus: so-called ‘calm spots’ by the sea, in cities and in the countryside. Her mission: to show how beautiful the world and our own country is, because there’s so much to be discovered. She lives in Waalre in North Brabant with her husband, two teenage sons and her dog. In 2020 the Columbus travel magazine nominated her as “Travel Influencer of the Year”. In the next few months Simone is an ambassador for Brabant for @the place to be. Follow her adventures via @simone_wit.