On the last Sunday in November, I found myself strolling around the peaceful fishing village of Urk, one of the most charming and isolated corners of the Netherlands. My presence here at the northern notch of the Dutch Bible Belt — 50 minutes and a world away from Amsterdam — originated in the most incongruous of places: Twitter.
Due to my self-aggrandizing tendency to brand my own writings with #urk, a sobriquet derived from my last name, I began to build an audience on this former isle in the Flevoland province. Some locals even started to reach out to me through the social media platform with amused curiosity. I wanted to explore the nuances of this conservative settlement — which largely preserves its old-time virtues by dint of its remoteness — and get a taste of the Holland of yesteryear. And I wondered if, by virtue of my name and my openness, I could be accepted as an honorary Urker.
I tweeted about Urk and followed denizens and businesses alike to invite some rapport with those in the village. But as I embarked upon this newfangled travel experiment, I wondered: Would I be Urked upon arrival, or would the locals be irked?
Enter Anneke van Urk, a 56-year-old who was the most enthusiastic Urker in my correspondence. She became a sort of Dutch guru, fairy godmother and cultural concierge. Through her, I learned that the world is more welcoming than you might think. And that social media, despite its bad rap for being impersonal, can be a great way to make personal connections in faraway places. After I booked my trip, Anneke invited me to the house she has shared for 37 years with her husband, Bert, for her family’s Sunday huddle.
“Be prepared,” she warned. “It will be busy.”
The day of my visit, her friend Kees de Visser, a local doctor who grew up on Urk, was kind enough to fetch me at the Lelystad train station and take me on a walking tour of the city.
Filled with stout, orange-roofed houses, Urk is dominated by Dutch Reformed congregations. There are 19 churches for its 20,000 residents; Sunday is dedicated to worship and family, with only a couple of pubs open for business.
As de Visser (yes, his last name translates as “the Fisherman”) and I walked around the wharf, which was lousy with personal sailboats and small fishing vessels, we saw some denizens dressed in all black. The most religious of locals typically go to church at 10 a.m. Sundays and head home for tea, followed by a meal and a siesta to pass the time until a second round of church at 4 p.m. If the men in the family work as fishermen, as 35 percent of Urkers do, they’ll head out to sea at midnight and return Friday evening.
We walked toward the waterfront — where nonreligious bikers and speed walkers, the local joke goes, worship at the “the Church of the Seagull” — and saw the Ommelebommelestien, a stone sticking out of the water off the coast in the IJsselmeer, the lake where, legend has it, mothers-to-be can row out with a midwife and pay two cents for a son or one cent for a daughter.
The rich folk tradition in Urk stems from its long history. In 966, the first writings about Urk appeared when Holy Roman Emperor Otto I referred to “Urch,” an island in the Zuiderzee. But Urk’s island existence ended last century: In 1939, the government finished the Afsluitdijk, the causeway that closed the gap between the North Sea and the Zuiderzee. The Zuiderzee became the IJsselmeer, with salt water turning to fresh, and connected Urk to Noordoostpolder and the rest of the Netherlands.
The government expected Urkers to move and end the fishing trade, but the locals are a stubborn bunch. They sailed through the sluice of the Afsluitdijk and continued fishing on the North Sea, where they still fish today. With fishermen, processors, auctions and exporters, Urk has one of the largest seafood economies in Europe.
The freshness of the seafood will spoil you, and in this off-the-beaten-path locale, you won’t be elbow-to-elbow with Americans and Britons. For those looking to experience the excitement of one of the largest fish markets in Europe, it’s essential to see the fast-paced fishmonger auctions. Afterward, visitors can savor the moment with some freshly baked scholfilletje, fillet of plaice. (It’s a flatfish similar to trout.)
The watery tradition that I observed is soon to become famous for a different reason: Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” coming out in July, was filmed in Urk and on the IJsselmeer last July. Urk’s beauty, its calm waters, and Dutch subsidies attracted location scouts, and so even Hollywood is putting this lesser-traveled place on the map. In fact, Ben van Urk, Anneke’s 35-year-old son, is an extra in the movie.
De Visser and I continued our constitutional, past the 1786 Kerkje aan de Zee (Church on the Sea), rebuilt from the remains of a church constructed around 1600 that was later swallowed by the sea, and the Vissersmonument, a statue and surrounding memorial plaques dedicated to the fishermen lost at sea. I was struck by the pleasantness and quietude of Sunday on Urk, the inhabitants greeting each other in their meanderings and the homey chimney smoke piping through the village.
Wandering the small connections between the main streets, we slithered through the old village with its jumble of lanes, glops (alleys) and ginkies (passageways). Most streets in the old village do have names, but they are hardly used. The Urkers prefer the name “wijk” (quarters), of which the old village is divided into eight. Visitors can take an official Ginkiestocht, for five euros a pop, to tour the fairy-tale streets and the harbor, while the Old Hall museum pays tribute to the thousand-year history of Urk with its fishcentric economy, and its unique dialect and manner of dress.
In late afternoon, we arrived at Anneke’s abode, a capacious gingerbread-house-style structure. She greeted me, this stranger from the wilds of the Internet, as an old friend — with a hug, chocolates and a pot of tea. Soon thereafter, just as she warned, we entered into a full-on party. Her husband, five of her kids and their partners, and four of her grandchildren all gathered for a Sunday meal — a “plankert” of meats and cheeses, delicious baked salmon, warm smoked salmon, a vegetable medley and a dessert mousse of Speculoos paste and a pear poached in port wine with cinnamon.
As each person entered, I was greeted with an “Euj,” the guttural and familiar Urker alternative to “pleased to meet you.” On Urk, one does not shake hands, except with a stranger. I tried to ingratiate myself with them further by noting that besides the Urk present in my last name, I’m such an Urker that even my initials (R.K.U.) are an anagram of Urk.
I am of Russian Jewish extraction, I explained, and “Urken” is an exceedingly uncommon name in the United States — such that basically the few dozen folks with the last name are related to me. Given the rarity of our name, the existence of Urk has a certain mystical allure.
There has been something of a rite of passage for men on my father’s side of the family in visiting Urk. Well, at least my uncle and father passed through Urk separately in the 1970s on trips to Amsterdam. But they barely scratched the surface. I desired a more authentic immersion than my relatives and thanks to social media, I got it.
This year, I have a particular interest in going to the Azores and Jersey, the island in the English Channel.
I’m just now getting set to start my Twitter campaign.
Urken is a writer based in New York. His website is rosskenneth
urken.com; find him on Twitter at #urk.
More from Travel: