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Helmond: Perfect idyll

The relative anonymity of his home town is an absolute asset, in the view of Helmond’s town historian, Giel. Located a mere hour and a half from the tourism Mecca of Amsterdam, it boasts an enchanting collection of narrow lanes, idyllic canals and a smattering unmistakably Dutch charm.

Many visitors to the Netherlands are seemingly oblivious to those treasures on offer away from the famous canals of Amsterdam. Such is the beauty of the capital’s many and various bridges, cobbled-stoned streets and bike paths that few ever feel any need to stray further afield. Yet away from that well-beaten trail, the flat landscape beyond is dotted with enchanting villages, entirely off the radar of most tourists. Helmond is one such place. This little town lies to the east of Brabant province, somewhere between Eindhoven and Venlo… its precise location, however, is almost irrelevant.

Tucked away between bright green summer meadows und yellow rapeseed fields, Helmond Netherlands has practically everything that Amsterdam has, but without the tourists. A small canal snakes its way through the little town, with bustling, terraced bars and restaurants lining the paths on either side. Bridges connect the town’s two sides, which the locals traverse (however else?) on bicycles. The idyll is perfect. Perfectly Dutch. Cosy, as our neighbours would say.

On the trail of the tales of town historian Giel

“It’s really far too lovely a day to be showing you inside the castle,“ Giel says, swapping his sunglasses for reading glasses and stowing his hat away in the pannier satchel on his bike. He then strides purposefully off, leaving us to scurry behind him. Helmond Castle is by far the biggest attraction this small town has. From the outside, with its ancient masonry and traditional turrets, its suspension bridge and giant wooden door, it has all the characteristics of a picture-book medieval castle. On the inside, it also houses an interactive and rather engaging museum. Anyone inclined to do so is welcomed to dress up in the chainmail and armour of a knight, and to parade, shield and sword in hand, through the cool corridors of the stone building. To be lord of the castle for a moment is an entertaining experience. On a tour, from one room to the next, the various époques of the castle and wider region are presented to the visitor. Some of these are almost pompous in their complexity, others are more visual multi-media display, and some consist of prosaically simple information boards.

Giel, who has a lot planned for us today, taps pointedly at his watch and swings his leg back over his bike. This sprightly 70-year-old and his bicycle are clearly inseparable. Outside again, the sun is shining, the lawns around the castle gardens are a vibrant green and the air smells of summer. We follow Giel on the tour of his hometown. He was born here, he explains, and grew up in the Brabant region. Today, he is honoured to carry the title of town historian. Little wonder, given he appears to know this place better than anyone: every corner, every alleyway. He even appears able to pre-empt the movements of the traffic lights at the last second. We listen as attentively as possible to his tales as our cycle tour proceeds around Helmond, Netherlands, and we struggle to keep up with his pace.

On our way we pass the canal, the bustling terraces and little houses and with them, also the history of a place, that today seems almost forgotten. And yet, once upon a time, Helmond was regarded as one of Holland’s most prosperous industrial towns. A number of textile manufacturers and metalworkers established bases here. Little trace of this period now remains, apart from a row of chic former factories, some of which have been converted into factories, while others stand empty.

Helmond Netherlands: Contemplative, idyllic, enchanted

Among these is the factory of the West-African fabric manufacturer ‘Vlisco’. Over a period of more than a century, Vlisco has printed the famously patterned, brightly coloured ‘Wax Hollandais’ fabrics, often sent to countries like Ghana or the Ivory Coast to be tailored into traditional dresses, skirts, headscarves and jackets. Vlisco’s old water-tower still towers over the town of Helmond, the grinning face of an African lady painted on it, overseeing the otherwise factory grounds.

Giel guides us through the winding streets of the town, showing us the place where, as a young boy, he once worked in the dairy, and pointing out the church in which his sister was married. Finally, he takes us to a little farm where he grows dahlias. It is very comfortable here, but slightly bewildering. The sequence of impressions along the course of our bicycle tour are like scenes from a film, perhaps something along the lines of the Truman Show, with Jim Carey. We are presented with a series of snapshots of a perfect little world, in which everything runs smoothly, everyone is happy, everyone knows everyone else and all goes to plan. A notion, which is rather reassuring, in a time of commercialism and hectic urban life.

We leave the town behind us and set off across the fields and into the state forest. Here, the wealthy factory owners once chased game through the trees, bedecked in the finest hunting attire, hounds at their sides and guns at the ready.

After passing through a short tunnel, we arrive in Brandevoort. The name sounds a bit like Brandenburg, and the place itself seems every bit as quiet and under-inhabited as its German namesake. The Brandevoort area, the masterpiece of a colourful team of architects, has attracted numerous international awards. We stand in the middle of a central square. The water in the nearby canal glitters. The brickwork on the buildings offers a perfect contrast to the colour of the trees, which have been planted around them in a precise, geometrical formation. The metallic roof of a market glimmers over the uniformity of the estate. Everything is complete. Everything is attractive. Everything is ready for the new residents.

A sense of comfort

And so an idyllic little town was created anew here, built from the ground up, and the end effect is so silent and so tranquil, that it almost feels like a ghost town. And actually, Brandevoort is a bit of a ghost town. Giel smiles. “That will probably never change“, he says, shaking his head and climbing back on his Fiets, as the Dutch call their bikes.

Helmond and Brandevoort are connected via broad bicycle paths. These traverse the flat landscape of the region, past fields and meadows, little houses and cafes, the latter located along the way deliberately for passing cyclists. A web-like network of bicycle paths weaves between the two towns and throughout the district, which attracts so few of Holland’s international tourists. In Giel’s opinion, Helmond is pretty much perfect. Yet he can’t imagine tourists wanting to bother with the place. „We don’t have a town centre and there’s nothing to really look at“, he muses, sipping thoughtfully from a wineglass in the town’s oldest house. Outside, the setting sun tints the town in a heavenly pallet of colours. The diffused orange of the sunset transforms the town’s brick buildings into a warm red. The terrace outside „Il Borgo“ is full of locals, meeting on this Saturday evening for an Italian supper. The glasses clink, the scent of truffles lingers in the air and the laughter in the bustling restaurant exudes a certain flair. It is a distinctive sort of flair, one which is completely unique to Holland, and to which the bulk of tourists remain largely oblivious.

This flair, is to create a feeling of comfort and welcome, engendering a sense of a temporary home in a place where sociability still matters, and where the frantic bustle of Amsterdam is simultaneously 1.5 hours, and a world away.

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