Zwolle: a sweet surprise in the north-east
2021-10-12 | By Lynette Croxford and Photography by Richard Croxford
The charming town of Zwolle, capital of Overijssel province, is a pleasant surprise. Nestled in the north-east of the Netherlands, not far from Amsterdam and the beautiful lakes of the Veluwe, Zwolle sits in a prime spot for nature- and city-lovers alike. The residents are nicknamed the ‘blauwevingers’* (blue fingers).
The city dates back to the Middle Ages, but no exact date has been pinpointed. The name Zwolle came about as a variant of the Latin word suolle, meaning a high-lying area that stays dry during floods. But again, there is no complete agreement among historians. Zwolle is one of the Hansa cities, referring to the Hanseatic League formed in the Middle Ages to foster the expansion and protection of trade activities. The League eventually included more than 200 cities across northern Europe but became less important from the middle of the 15th century.
The city centre, the ancient heart of the city, is circled by the Stadsgracht (City Canal). Many bridges cross to the wider city area and out to the suburbs. The canal brings much activity with boats, stand-up paddling and canoes. It’s possible to rent a small boat known as a ‘sloep’ by the hour or sail around the canals on larger organised tour boats. Zwolle even has a city beach with sandy terraces and deck chairs to make the most of the sun.
As you enter the city centre from the south you cross over the Sassenpoortenbrug (bridge). There you find the beautiful and ancient Sassenpoort city gate, well worth a visit. This gate was built in 1409 and is included in the list of Top 100 Dutch Heritage sites. At the base of the 75-metre-tall tower is an entrance to a winding spiral staircase leading to beautiful rooms showcasing a visual history of the area. Up another flight is a set of rooms, now used for weddings and events.
Just a short walk away is the Museum de Fundatie, housed in the Paleis aan de Blijmarkt. A huge, Roman-like building with statuesque pillars and a grand façade it once served as the home of the Town Planning Department, and was converted into the museum in 2005 and renovated in 2012. Sitting on the roof is what looks like a giant light blue egg which has been tiled to lend a distinctive texture to the feature. Above the front entrance is an enormous octagonal window. And that’s just the outside. The museum houses an astonishing array of over 11,000 breathtaking art pieces from masters such as Van Gogh and Picasso to Piet Mondrian and Isaac Israëls.
Closer to the centre is the Peperbus (Pepper Pot) tower. It’s the bell tower of the Basilica ‘Onze Lieve Vrouw Tenhemelopname’ and stands out among the city centre buildings. Consisting of three rectangular sections, an octagonal lantern and a domed roof with copper fittings, the tower is something to behold. Inside the bell tower are a set of 47 bells with the oldest dating back to 1484. These can be heard being rung at various times by one of the 18 volunteer bell ringers.
Kind of blue
*There are a number of known explanations for ‘blue fingers’ nickname. The most popular is that the city sold the its bells to arch-rivals Kampen, and grossly over-charged them. To spite the people of Zwolle, the ‘Kampenaars’ paid by producing wagons full of coins. Having to count that much coinage gave the counters ‘blue fingers’. Hence the name.
On the central square surrounded by activity you’ll find St. Michael’s Church. The origins of the church go back to 785 when the first church building was constructed on the site. Since then, it has undergone a number of transformations but still stands proudly in the heart of the city. Not far from the entrance is a striking, layered-glass sculpture by artist Herman Lamers, depicting the Archangel Michael, the patron saint of Zwolle.
Zwolle has many attractions, not least its atmosphere and café society. The many bars and restaurants lining the cobbled streets almost makes it feel like a mini- Amsterdam. There really is a restaurant to everyone’s taste in this city. A big part of the city’s charm stems from the friendly people and casual ambiance, and there is a welcoming atmosphere in even the smallest local taverns.
Want to explore more Dutch cities? Check this article about Dordrecht: Stepping back in time
About the author
Richard and Lynette Croxford were born in South Africa and moved to South Holland 10 years ago. They have two daughters and enjoy photography, running and exploring cities on foot.