A historic line of defence, a hydraulic masterpiece and a chain of heritage sites that connect some of the most beautiful locations in Brabant. Getting to know the Zuiderwaterlinie means becoming familiar with stories, monuments and expansive landscapes. On a two-day journey along this water line, which is the oldest, longest and most used water line in the Netherlands, I swing past five of the eleven fortified cities by bicycle and car with more than enough to see, do and taste.
Traditionally, the Netherlands struggles not only against water but also with water. In Brabant, water was used as a means of defence already during the Eighty Years' War. The Zuiderwaterlinie crosses the entire province, from Grave in the east over to Bergen op Zoom in the west. The water line defended Brabant against the Spanish and, later on, against the French and the Belgians as well. Today the water line is a chain of historic locations with places of interest connected to one another by expanses of countryside.
Tip: There is also a hiking path that has been marked out along the Zuiderwaterlinie. The Zuiderwaterlinie Trail can be followed in shorter, partial routes or in its entirety, which means that you visit all of the fortified cities over a distance of 290 kilometres.
My exploratory journey began in ’s-Hertogenbosch. Did you know that the capital of Brabant is a fortified city as well? At the time of the Eighty Years' War, the city was known as Moerasdraak, the Swamp Dragon, because of the swampy area around the city. There are great opportunities for hiking and cycling in the Bossche Broek, located at the foot of the beautifully restored city walls! This is also the location of the iconic Bastion Oranje, with beneath it the Bastionder, the visitors’ centre. On can still feel the military history of the city. But the character of ’s-Hertogenbosch can only truly be felt at the café Bolwerk Sint Jan. Once the most important gateway, it is now the place to settle down for a drink or a delicious lunch next to the water.
A round trip on the Binnendieze, climbing the Sint Janstoren and strolling through Uilenburg, the historic district – these are all things that should not be missed if you want to explore this city thoroughly. This also includes a visit to the Noordbrabants Museum, which displays works by, among others, Hieronymus Bosch and Van Gogh. I’m restricting myself to the city walk this time, because I have another fortified city on my list for today: Heusden!
It takes me fifteen minutes to drive from the inner city of ’s-Hertogenbosch to Heusden, which is famous for its beautifully restored fortress. And rightly so. Here I wander endlessly through the delightful streets, very much feeling the past. I climb up the city wall and gaze over the fish market. This centre of the fortress is now a bustling catering plaza filled with terraces. Don’t miss the viewing hole with the view of the city harbour and the mill! Although Heusden is compact, in addition to its many monuments, there are also charming streets with cute shops and good restaurants, which makes the city very appealing. Dinner tip: starting from the city wall, walk through the harbour over the drawbridge to gain access to Boei35. This restaurant gives you an amazing view of the fortress!
I go back to ’s-Hertogenbosch, where I stay overnight at the Soete Moeder (Sweet Mother), a unique monastery hotel that has preserved the atmosphere of the past right down to the smallest detail. After a good night’s rest and a delicious breakfast in the monastery garden, it is time for part two of my route along the fortified cities.
I travel towards the northeast of the province, where I explore the fortified cities Grave, Megen and Ravenstein by bicycle. For a long time, when it belonged to, among others, the Duchy of Kleef, this area in Brabant made you feel like you were abroad. Traipsing over the typical cobblestones, I wander through the historic inner city of my starting point, Grave, the most besieged fortified city of the water line that often held five times as many soldiers as there were residents.
The first stop is city hall, which contains not only the Tourist Information Office but also the Zuiderwaterlinie visitors’ centre. A stroll through the centre takes you past iconic places with names like Bastion Bekaf (Bastion Dead Tired). There is a surprise on the edge of the centre, which is where I climb the Vestingpark de Kat (fortress park ‘the Cat’) by way of the impressive Hampoort, now the Graafs Museum. At the top of the 11-metre-high wall, originally built to stop bullets, you have a wonderful view of the fortress.
Time to get on your bicycle and go, because there are a lot of beautiful kilometres to travel. The trip begins well right from the start in the village of Velp, where the Emmaüs Monastery, the oldest Capuchin monastery in the Netherlands, looms above the metres-high corn fields. It is even possible for visitors to stay overnight here. I cycle on, winding my way through farmland where, left and right, the most delicious products are sold on the premises, such as the farm shop the Streekhoeve in Reek. Following the forest paths of the Herperduin nature reserve, part of the ‘primal area’ of the Maashorst, I end up on delightful Dutch polder roads. Straight ahead of me, Megen beckons, but I make a quick detour towards the Oijen Brewery. On the terrace, in the midst of the meadows, I enjoy an Oijen’s Radler. If you have a hard time choosing, take the time to enjoy an Oijens tasting session!
Megen is the smallest fortified city along the line, but its historic gatehouse, the Gevangenpoort, buzzes with activity. Built in 1386, this was the infamous prison. Now it is possible to enjoy a delicious gastronomical meal in the restaurant of the same name.
This is where what may very well be the nicest part of the bicycle ride begins. Biking along the dyke, with the Maas always visible, I wind my way through the vast countryside, adorned here and there with churches and windmills. I soon catch sight of Ravenstein, the fortified city that has quickly become my favourite because of the picturesque streets that lead you to unique places. For example, there is the city garden with the tannery house. This oasis of rest, with its lush cover of flowers, is one of the last remnants of the 19th-century industrial buildings on the historic city wall.
Back at the market plaza, I wander towards the mill. This is where the city brewery Wilskracht (will power) is located, and where the brewers Wil and Wil brew traditional beer in Brabant’s highest tower mill. I take a look at the bubbling brew-kettles and browse through the shop that sells local beer as well as various delicious local products. On Saturday afternoons, a guided tour through the mill is possible.
During the final kilometres towards Grave, right at the end, I go through a very unique area. The Keen nature reserve is actually an island in the Maas that has been connected to the mainland. To prevent flooding, a large part of the Maasbocht that had been filled in during the 30s was dug out once again. This has created a unique nature reserve with splendid footpaths. I cross the area on my bicycle and stop at each bend to look at something else that is amazing, such as an impressive herd of grazing aurochs (wild cattle). This area also has Scottish Highlanders and Exmoor ponies.
This completes the experience of this unique route. Unique because, in addition to cities and picturesque places with a rich heritage, the Zuiderwaterlinie also treats you to open landscapes filled with places of interest and gastronomic addresses. With the setting of the sun, I once again catch sight of the fortress of Grave, the end of my route along the Zuiderwaterlinie: Two days, five fortified cities and countless new discoveries along this historic and green route in Brabant.