From the south, the flat countryside takes a gentle saucer-like upturn, which could pass for a hill, though it hardly warrants a change of gear on my bicycle. In front of us, the Lek, a fast flowing, busy tributary of the Rhine, requires dykes to contain it as the river bed is slightly higher than the countryside through which we have so leisurely cycled. It forks here, where in stark contrast, the river Vlist winds like a peaceful melody through the Dutch countryside, past slowly turning windmills, their sails like vast ladders propped against the blue sky.
Situated in the province of South Holland, lies the city of Schoonhoven in the fork of the river. Despite its ancient origins, once you enter the city through the medieval gate, the Veerpoort (“Ferry Gate”), next to the Lek and pass inside the grey, stone walls, the city has the feel of a college town.
The Veerport played a major role in protecting Schoonhoven from the North Sea floods of 1953. A combination of high spring tides and a severe windstorm, combined with a tidal surge in the North Sea, drove local water levels to exceed 5.6 metres above mean sea level on the morning of 1 February 1953. For Holland, a country that is located below mean sea level, it spelled disaster and many of the dykes protecting provinces such as South Holland and Zeeland, were unable to resist the water pressure and were breached. The flooding is estimated to have inundated 1,365 sq. kms of the Dutch countryside, killed 1,835 people and drowned 30,000 animals. But the Veerport held and it still acts as a water barrier today.
Lively cafes, like the Blaue Duif (“Blue Dove”) and the Cafe de Ton, which remain open late into the night, attract the many students, both European and from overseas, who come to Schoonhoven to immerse themselves in the professional training at the International Silver School, that turns them into 21st century artisans - silversmiths, jewellers and engravers. The Silver City, also lists clock and watchmaking amongst the skills being taught to its more than 800 students and on the medieval town hall, the Van Gheyn Beiaard, is a fine example of large clockwork and the special skills of the clock makers of Schoonhoven. Other examples of the exquisite craftsmanship of the city can be seen at the Gold, Silver and Clock Museum. But it is silver that the city is justly famous for.
In 1280 Schoonhoven was granted “city rights”, a medieval custom peculiar to the Low Countries, where, faced with mounting financial problems, feudal landlords, offered certain privileges to settlements owned by them. Such rights included the right to build city walls and hold markets and even the right to mint their own coins. It was a double edged sword for the landlord in many ways, as although obtaining revenue, by providing a settlement with city rights and selling these privileges, the Landlord lost his power over it and its people.
As we wandered the cobbled streets, intersected by the Town Canal, history was being made around us. Stalls and quaint shops display the intricate and innovative designs of these modern artisans of a trade more ancient than history itself. Known by mankind since pre-history and first mentioned in the book of Genesis, the Romans called silver argentum, keeping this as the international name of the element and from where its chemical symbol is derived.
These modern masters, have abandoned the world of IT and electronics, to re- birth as craftsmen and woman, using instead the simple tools of hammer and anvil, file and blow torch. Only the highest quality of workmanship can bear the coat of arms of the city – St. Eloy the patron saint of gold and silver.
Beyond the medieval spires rising above the city’s defences, flows the river, its surface criss-crossed with heavy barge traffic, destined for ports deep within Europe, through which our ferry threads its way like a shuttle on a loom. Germany, Switzerland and even Russia are destinations accessible to the river traffic, which churns the waters to a chocolate fury, whether battling the wily current upstream or riding the turbulence of the flood, like a muddy imitation of a frothing cappuccino.
Reaching the far bank, the ferry pauses as we climb back onto our bicycles. Glancing behind us, we see it crabbing its way back to the Veerpoort. All that remains to be seen of the city is the tip of a spire or two poking shyly up from behind the medieval walls, now tinted with a rosy-gold sheen from the setting sun.
It could all have been an illusion, except for the delicate, leaf-patterned silver book mark bearing the crest of St. Eloy, in my guide book.