Anglers sit back lazily on the banks of the River Mark, staring at their float. People on SUP boards paddle silently along the winding stream. In the distance I can see a white cow grazing right next to a courting couple on a picnic blanket. A bit further on some children are counting how many tadpoles they have caught in their net. Exited teenagers scream as they jump off the bridge next to the Suikerpad path. It is a beautiful spring evening. After weeks of absence the sun has finally made an appearance again. There is a feeling of joy in the air. It’s just like being in a dream. Here, in this beautiful part of North Brabant, the Markdal Valley near Breda, I am reminded of what Vincent van Gogh had to say:
“I dream my painting, and I paint my dream.”
The Markdal Valley was the end of my day trip through the Vincent van Gogh countryside and landscapes in the area south of Breda. After moving in with his parents in Etten early in 1881, Vincent was inspired by the rural surroundings and by the peasants who were ploughing in this part of Brabant. If he was still alive, he would have been inspired by the happy and carefree people I am looking at right now.
The times and people’s activities have changed but the countryside has for a large part remained the same, or hard work is continuing to restore and reinforce it. It is characterised by woodland, heathland, pools, river valleys, polders and sand dunes, and has numerous authentic villages, lively squares, farmhouses, country estates, winding brooks, pollard willows and avenues of poplar. I will be discovering all of these during my trip past Vincent’s gems in West Brabant.
The Pannenhoef nature reserve and country estate near Zundert, Vincent’s birthplace, is large: no less than 706 hectares! It was marshland from 1400 to 1750. The dried marshland, which became peat, was transported along peat channels to the towns where it was used for fuel for homes and breweries. Afterwards the area became woodland and agricultural land, and Het Brabants Landschap (The Brabant Landscape) has changed in the past 40 years into an area of mixed woodland with eleven pools.
I started my day with Vincent as my ‘guide’ at the Scouts Pool. In the 1930s this was a place where ‘scouts’ or ‘pathfinders’ (sick children from metropolitan areas) came to a summer camp to recuperate and refresh themselves with water from the wells. Vincent often came to this area in his youth to make some drawings. A fragment of one of his letters has been carved into a stone bench that looks out over the pool:
“You see, there are moments in life when everything, within us too, is peace and atmosphere, and all of life seems to be like a path across the heath, though it isn’t always so.”
After a short car drive I walked from the south side of the Pannenhoef along a lovely wide avenue of trees past a wood with a carpet of ferns under my feet towards the Zwarte Schuur (Black Barn) and a photogenic former bakery. The countryside looks different here from around the Scouts Pool, it is denser and greener. I listened to the rustling leaves in the tall trees and appreciated the burst of purple from the rhododendrons beside the path. Many (electric) bikes passed me and the riders called out ‘nice, here, isn’t it?’ as they looked back and saw me on my knees with my camera while I photographed the moss. All I could do was confirm that.
Surprising idyllic splendour. These are the words that come to mind when visiting the nearby Oude Buisse Heide heathland. The name is a bit confusing, because there was no heath to be seen in the part that I visited. What I did see were giant knotted birch trees dating back to the beginning of the 19th century, various fences, wheat fields and leafy pathways leading to three tea houses and hunting pavilions. Vincent van Gogh got a lot of inspiration from here. Other artists who were also associated with this estate included the Roland Holst couple, with whom the Van Goghs had contact as both they and the Van Gogh family were Protestants. This couple created an artistic country estate at the beginning of the twentieth century and received guests from the world of politics, art and literature. I walked past their former estate, the ‘Angorahoeve’, to the uniquely characteristic studio designed by the first female architect in the Netherlands, Staal - Kropholler. A feast for the eyes.
“I also have nature and art and poetry, and if that isn’t enough, what is? ´
I could see rows of pollard willows on the Laaksche Vaart at the intersection of the Hillekenseweg and the Lage Donk, just outside the town of Etten-Leur. The very same pollard willow avenue near the old station at Etten-Leur that Vincent immortalised on canvas may no longer exist, but this little bit of nature could well be it. The texture of the knotted willows’ exposed tree trunks evoked immediate recollections of his work. Vincent made numerous paintings, sketches and watercolours with the robust and whimsical pollard willows as the main feature. They were also a favourite subject for the farmers who worked in the fields around these parts, just like the freshly-mowed corn that lay drying in the sun beside the cycle path, and which impressed him so much that he often painted it. This place exuded Vincent van Gogh.
Vincent’s father preached in the Johanneskerk in the Breda neighbourhood of Princenhage. Vincent’s godfather ‘Uncle Cent’, a wealthy art dealer, lived in this district. Vincent often went to visit him. Although the Van Gogh family were Protestants, the artist Vincent often visited the Catholic Martinus church, just opposite the Johanneskerk. He found the light so beautiful as it shone through the windows in the evening onto the women with their white caps and the men in their dark hats.
A visit to Princenhage was enough inspiration for a pleasant change to my otherwise countryside-dominated tour. Seeing two elderly men sitting on the terrace of the Aogse Markt café, I asked them where I could find Uncle Cent’s house (Villa Mertersem), and they took another sip of their beer and looked at each other questioningly with froth on their lips. They knew he had lived here and that Vincent van Gogh had a connection with their beloved neighbourhood, but they were in doubt about the location. There was still plenty to be discovered about this connection, not only by me but also by the local residents. With a bit of help from the other regulars and from Google, I found the house. It is now used as offices. I strolled through the streets of Princenhage. It turned out to be an attractive neighbourhood with stately homes, lovely facades, great catering establishments and shops. It felt like a village within a city.
“Yesterday evening I was at Uncle Vincent’s to tell him that I’d just been to Dordrecht, it was a stormy evening, you can imagine how beautiful the road to Princenhage was with the dark clouds with their silver linings. I also went briefly to the Roman Catholic church, where evening Mass was under way, it was a beautiful sight, all those peasants and their wives with their black clothes and white caps, and the church looked so friendly in the evening light.”
The Vincent location that most appealed to me on this lovely journey was the Marktdal valley. What a wonderful treat to end the day surrounded by rose-coloured dock leaves lit up by the setting sun. I could see spacious meadows and the stately Villa Valkrust on the other side of the River Mark in the elongated shadows of the willow and alder trees. I was treated to geese flying overhead and a bobbing family of swans in which the father chased away those geese with a great deal of drama, to protect his offspring. Frogs croaked in the ponds. Dark blue dragonflies flew above the wild flowers. It was meal time for the young storks high up on the chimney of the Nature Conservation building. How can you have such a variety of natural beauty in one single place? It must have been so beautiful here in the early morning. I know what I want to do in the autumn.
As I walked back along the footpath that followed the flow of the River Mark to my car at Bouvigne Castle, I waved to the church towers of Ulvenhout and Ginniken as they reflected the pastel glow of the evening. It was a beautiful and inspiring day. Vincent van Gogh, thank you for the wonderful tour through the West Brabant countryside!
PS. In the autumn I enjoyed Vincent van Gogh locations and countryside in and around Eindhoven and Nuenen. Read my blog about it here.
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 @you should be here. Follow her adventures via @simone_wit.