Visit Bunschoten-Spakenburg: home of the Botters and Elvis Presley’s Ancestors

Are you eager to venture off the beaten track? And to explore less touristy destinations? Consider visiting Bunschoten-Spakenburg, two neighbouring towns with a buzzing history and culture. Never heard of them? Here’s your chance! 

Spakenburg is the most famous fishing village along the southern area of the former Zuider Zee, which is now broken up into two big lakes, Ijsselmeer and Markenmeer. Next door is Bunschoten, a farming village with a rich history and culture that dates to pre-history. The two villages prospered, added residents and grew closer toward each other. They merged in 1965 to become Bunschoten-Spakenburg.

The old medieval town of Bunschoten was established in 1204 by the Roman Catholic diocese of Utrecht and received its city rights by the Bishop of Utrecht in 1383. The town was located near the mouth of the Eem river and held at strategic military position in the area. City rights allowed the residents to build an earthen wall around the town. The fortifications didn’t last long.  Part of the town was destroyed around Christmas 1427 during a war between two rival Bishops. So much for peace on earth and good will toward men. The wall was never rebuilt. The feudal era Bunschoters did some farming, but cattle breeding was their main source of income and their horse market was famous. Taxing the consumption of beer and collecting a bridge toll over the river Eem added to the town’s wealth, which had to be split with the Bishop of Utrecht or some other overlord at the time. It was an early version of quid pro quo.

The village of Spakenburg originated between 1300 and 1350, possibly by wealthy Bunschoters who wanted a harbour for their yachts. Spakenburg had a natural harbor that was coveted for those who liked boating. Fishing was not a source of serious income. It was more of a hobby or a sport. For many centuries Spakenburg was considered a footnote to Bunschoten until the 18th century when it outgrew its neighbour due to the success of commercial fishing and the “botters.” Times were good in the Netherlands. The economy and the population grew, causing a demand for more fish to eat. Oh, “What’s a botter,” you ask? Well, just read on to learn the history and culture of Bunschoten-Spakenburg.

Grebbelinie – The Dutch Water Line Defense

Spakenburg’s Oude Haven was refurbished recently. The harbour and the Spuisluis (Sea Lock), once formed the northern areas and towns of the Grebbelinie (Grebbe Line), a pre-defense line of the Dutch Water Line system. The Grebbelinie was built in 1745 as a line of defense to protect the Netherlands from invading armies by flooding the land with water, deep enough that the enemy could not cross by foot, on horseback or by swimming freestyle. The defense system reached all the way from Spakenburg to Utrecht, 40 km (25 mi) away.

Visit Bunschoten and Spakenburg
The beautiful harbour. Photo: Jim Goyjer/Supplied

A section of the Oude Haven and the aged sea lock disappeared after the Second World War. But, thanks to funding from the Grebbelinie history and culture project, the harbour and lock have been restored to its former glory. The botters returned to their old haunts. They are now moored again in an authentically recreated beautiful harbour reminiscent of the good old days. The harbour and the lock have been designated a national monument and are protected by the government. So, don’t think of harbouring any thoughts of wanting cruise ships to dock.

That’s a Dutch Botter, Not Butter

The “botter” is an old Dutch type of fishing vessel with a flat bottom, a slightly V-shaped surface, a net protruding keel and a few other nautical peculiarities. Botters were mainly used for fishing in the former Zuiderzee but were also used for coastal fishing on the North Sea. This type of workship originated in the second half of the 18th century. The isolated inland saltwater Zuiderzee was ideal for a fast sailing wind-powered fishing fleet composed of botters.

Botters were perfectly suited for sailing in the shallow waters of the Zuiderzee and along the North Sea coast. The botters were also fitted with a “bun,” a storage compartment for storing fish. This compartment was designed so that fresh water could flow in through small holes in the hull. The botters’ sails were originally brown, because they were treated with tan colored disinfectant that protected the sail against Inclement weather. The disinfectant might have been dark amber beer, which was plenty in those days.

In the 19th century, commercial fishing in Spakenburg experienced explosive growth. The number of ships went from 34 in 1812 to 193 in 1892 and in the early 1900’s the prosperous fishing harbour was packed with over 200 ships. A devastating flood in 1916, that primarily affected areas and towns along the Zuiderzee, resulted in closing the inland sea by constructing a 32 km (20 mi) long dike called the Afsluitdijk (Shut-off-dike). For the fishermen, this was the end of commercial fishing. To maintain Spakenburg’s legacy, the heritage wooden botters are still being built, repaired and moored in the Oude Haven, along with present day sailing yachts. This is a picturesque port has the largest fleet of “botters” in the Netherlands. Today about 30 of the iconic wooden coastal fishing boats can be viewed any day of the week in the Oude Haven.

Going to Bunschoten
Photo: Jim Goyjer/Supplied

Elvis Presley and his Dutch Connection

Between 1660 and 1670 Teunis Eliassen, who was baptized on November 26, 1643 in Bunschoten, left his hometown and settled in the colony of New Netherland in America. It’s documented in detail that he had lots of offspring. Elvis Presley was one of his descendants. There were nine generations between Eliassen and Elvis Presley. The Dutch connection would reemerge centuries later.

The man who discovered, managed and made Elvis Presley one of the world’s biggest stars, was a Dutchman. Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, aka “Colonel (Tom) Parker,” was born in 1909 in Breda. In 1927, at the age of 18, van Kuijk entered the US illegally by jumping from the ship on which he worked.  From 1929 he continued to live in the US, without legal papers.

Van Kuijk had a checkered past. He was a hustler, a promoter, a scoundrel, an US Army deserter and a possible murder suspect back in Breda. Parker found Elvis in 1955 and became his sole representative that included control of most of Elvis’s private life. Many in the music industry called him one of the best managers ever in music history. Never mind that he was a shady character with a fake name. The Colonel earned more than Elvis, claiming over 50% of Presley’s earnings. He gambled away most of his fortune and died in obscurity in Las Vegas in 1997.

It’s Worth a Visit for a Glimpse at Zuiderzee History

Bunschoten-Spakenburg is now a popular tourist spot with outdoor cafes, restaurants, local taverns, art and craft shops, boutiques, three museums, hotels and visitors can sail on one the old fashioned botters. No cars are allowed in the centre of town but free parking is nearby. It is also one of the few areas in the Netherlands where you can still see people dressed in their traditional Bunschoten-Spakenburg attire.

Shortly after the Second World War, almost every resident in Spakenburg still wore traditional clothing, including men, women and children. Around the 1960s, more and more people switched to off-the-rack, ready-made, modern clothing. In 2015 traditional clothing was still worn by around 175 women. Today, primarily older women wear traditional dress daily. But, during special events, you can still see residents of all ages dressed in their traditional clothes, because it’s an important part of their heritage and identity.

traditional Dutch clothing
Traditional clothing. Photo: Jim Goyjer/Supplied

Take a day, any time of the year, to visit Bunschoten-Spakenburg. It is worth the visit to soak in some Dutch history and culture along the old Zuiderzee. Oh, and don’t forget the botter.

Jim Goyjer
Jim Goyjer
Jim Goyjer is a public relations consultant. Born in Amsterdam, he’s lived in California for most of his life. Currently living in the Netherlands with his wife, he looks forward to writing, photography, traveling throughout Europe and exploring more of the Netherlands and his Dutch family heritage going back to the 16th century in Noord Holland and in Amsterdam. He’s always been fascinated with how such a small country as the Netherlands has had such a large impact on the rest of the world.



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