There are plenty of things to do and see in the historic hamlet of the Achterhoek. This captivating corner of the Netherlands boasts prehistoric burial mounds, roads trodden by Roman legions, medieval castles, Napoleonic forts, royal country estates, and remnants of the industrial revolution and the Nazi occupation. There is something for everyone to see and experience — from the hardships of the feudal system to the luxuries of wealth.
The Achterhoek is located on the eastern-most part of the province of Gelderland bordering Germany. It translates as “back-corner” in English, but don’t think this area of the Netherlands is hidden in any way. It is a quiet region, mostly rural, with lots of open space, forests, farms, hamlets, and towns.
Visit the Achterhoek for its history
The Achterhoek is one of the few regions that was not occupied by the Roman Empire when it ruled most of the area around it. The Roman legions only marched through the land that was inhabited by Germanic tribes. It was not considered strategically important by the Caesars and Emperors in the second and third centuries. That was fine with the German tribalists who preferred sauerbraten over the Mediterranean diet.
The largest towns in the Achterhoek are Doetinchem, Winterswijk, and Zutphen. Doesburg and Zutphen are old Hanseatic cities and both have well-preserved centres with historical buildings dating back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Both were members of a group of towns throughout Europe with great wealth.
The 200 members of the Hanseatic League were the economic centres in Europe during the Middle Ages. By the late sixteenth century, the League imploded and could no longer deal with its own internal struggles, the social and political changes caused by the rise of populism. Sound familiar?
Have a stopover at Bredevoort: the book town of the Netherlands
Although Doetinchem, Winterswijk, and Zutphen are wonderfully historic towns to visit and bike around, the little village of Bredevoort, just south of Winterswijk, is a definite stopover for book-lovers. With a population of only 1,600, it has more than 26 second-hand bookstores and is known as the boekenstad (book town) of the Netherlands.
Bredevoort is an active member of the International Organisation of Book Towns that was started 1961 by a young academic, Richard Booth, living on the Welsh border in England. He decided to fill the numerous empty buildings in his little hometown with secondhand books to sell. The first ‘book town’ was Hay–on–Wye in Wales and Richard crowned himself the “King of Hay.” That’s all the UK needed, another King Richard.
In August 1998 Bredevoort organized the first International Book Town Festival with booksellers from towns, villages, and hamlets in England, Scotland, Germany, Finland, Switzerland, and Belgium. Today the organisation counts more than 45 townships throughout the world as members.
Visit Ruurlo Castle at the Achterhoek
The Achterhoek has more than 29 unique museums. One is Ruurlo Castle. It is a stately castle and a worthwhile museum to visit. It’s surrounded by a moat and a beautiful, majestic landscape. The museum’s collection is focused on the life and work of the master artist Carel Willink. The exhibition shows the development of an artist searching his way, and who grew to become a truly extraordinary painter. In addition to 45 works by Willink, five special creations by world-renowned fashion designer Fong Leng can also be seen.
Where to stay when you visit the Achterhoek: consider Vredenhoff in Voorst!
There are more than 200 B&Bs in the Achterhoek. One of them is Vredenhoff (Freedom Court) in the hamlet of Voorst, which has around 300 residents. Vredenhoff is remote and surrounded by lots of open green spaces and large family farms. The B&B is next to the Aa-strang river and walking along the river’s bank, it is less than a kilometre from the German border. The house has its own WWII story and visible bullet holes to tell the tale.
When the British and Canadian forces crossed the Dutch border to liberate the western part of the Netherlands in March and April 1945, a platoon of English soldiers approached Vredenhoff with caution. There were German soldiers holed up in the house shooting at the Brits. They were guarding a strategically important bridge next to the house.
The squad eventually overran the house, without having to blow it up into small pieces. Several German soldiers were killed and the rest surrendered. Vredenhoff was freed and has become a historic landmark for over-nighters and vacationers.
Where to eat when you visit the Achterhoek
The Achterhoek has around 75 restaurants, cafés, and breweries. Each with its own story. Near the village of Hummelo is one of the oldest inns in the Achterhoek, Hotel Restaurant Café De Gouden Karper. Since 1642 the farmhouse has been used as an inn and a beer brewery. Here a traveler could stall the horses, eat something simple, drink homemade beer and spend the night. The inn was located on a dirt road travelled on by horseback and coaches. Several centuries later the road was paved for a horse-drawn tram, which later was followed by a steam-driven tram.
Near the hamlet of Voorst is Restaurant van Hal. This fourth-generation restaurant began in 1867 when an ancestor of the current owner became the first miller of a flour windmill. He married and in 1899 the couple’s daughter married Johannes Hubertus van Hal. They not only ground flour but also started a coffee shop and bakery.
In 1905, van Hal obtained a license to “sell spirits in small portions.” Generations later the family officially opened a restaurant in 1958 specialising in their famous chicken dish, halve haantje (half cockerel). Caspar van Hal, the current owner, and head chef has calculated that a million half cockerels have now been served. It’s difficult not to be cocky about a successful dish.
In the meantime, the windmill fell into disrepair. In the Second World War, the mill was damaged and, in the fifties, there was a lightning strike, which caused a sail to break off. Grinding was then no longer possible, and it was closed in 1952. Several years ago, a foundation was established, and a campaign began to raise money to restore the van Hal Windmill. In November 2010 the restored windmill turned its new sails to the wind and the mill was back in action for visitors to marvel at its unique engineering mechanism.
If you are passionate about hiking, cycling or just sauntering through nature and experiencing historic towns and villages in a quiet, stress-free environment, the Achterhoek is the place to spend some quality time.
Did any of the things mentioned here tickle your fancy? Or do you have more questions about visiting the Achterhoek? Let us know in the comments below.
Feature Image: Jim Goyjer Photography
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in August 2019, and was fully updated in August 2020 for your reading pleasure.