A broader horizon; islands close to home: Willemstad.

Willemstad from the rampart

The islands we carefully picked to visit in 2020 are out of reach. They require border and water crossings and long-distance travel. So we have been looking for islands closer to home, reachable by car, bicycle, foot. What more is an island but a piece of land surrounded by water? This question kept popping into our heads when we were aching for an island view, some new surroundings, a sense of space and freedom. Apparently to us the sense of an island goes together with broadening your horizon. 

We live in the Netherlands, so islands reachable to us are located in the Netherlands, a country known for its water. But what about its islands? Some are famous and very beautiful (the Wadden), some lack that inexplicable but irresistible island feel. Islands usually have interesting histories, even if they are not obviously ‘beautiful’ or wild or breathtaking. Is an island ever just ordinary? Time to explore!

Travelling apart together. Our first island destination of 2020: Willemstad, located in the western corner of our home province of Noord-Brabant. We took the car, and because we are not part of each other’s household, we had to keep our distance. Margo was behind the wheel and I sat in the back, being chauffeured to Willemstad, a small, star-shaped town, surrounded by water, steeped in history. 

We walk around the handful of quiet cobbled streets. The three main streets, Voorstraat, Groenstraat and Achterstraat, all come to an end at the small harbour, and the smell of water prevails. Not the salty seawater, but a crusty smell of the peeling metal paint of boats. The smell comes from Stadshaven with its many boats, mostly pleasure yachts. A bit further, in Hollands Diep, cargo ships pass to and from Rotterdam Harbour.

Willemstad is named after William of Orange and was ‘designed’ by his son Maurits, who granted the small town a charter. Many of the buildings reflect the history of this strategic town. An old City Hall (with a clock from the 12th century) in Renaissance style; an Armoury built by the Orange family to store weapons and ammunition; the Domed Church from the early 17th century; the prince’s residence Maurtitshuis; and an 18th century Corn Mill, its sails restored to their former glory. So much jostling history on a tiny surface area. Due to its strategic position Willemstad has been attacked, besieged and occupied countless times, the last time by the Germans in 1944, when the population was evacuated to safer regions in the province.

We walk around the almost intact city walls (we think away the modern cars) and feel transported to times past. We look out across the water on all sides and towards the forts in the southern vicinity. We remember the Sea Beggars (refugees who had left the Netherlands during the revolt against Spain in the Eighty Years’ War and who lived as pirates) and we feel happy to be free (and to be out and about)!

Isle of Mull – The Letters of Ivor Punch by Colin MacIntyre

Usually after I finish reading a book, I know exactly how I experienced it. Sentences and scenes can stay with me for days. With The Letters of Ivor Punch by Colin MacIntyre I wasn’t sure of my ‘final judgement’. It was such a mixed bag. I thoroughly enjoyed some parts, but struggled with others. And it’s hard to summarise in a few lines what the book is about, which can be a good thing.

Ivor Punch is an old man and former policeman on a small island in the west of Scotland. He doesn’t speak much. But when he does, he throws in the word fuck every few lines, a habit that I found utterly annoying, because it made him come across as an imbecile, and it halted things, I didn’t see the point of it. But what Ivor does do really well, is write loads of letters (which, again, he peppers with countless fucks). The letters are revealing, touching and very true, and are the framework of the story. All those letters are linked to island stories, to the people who live(d) on it, including multiple Punch generations. Fiction and facts are liberally mixed up.

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Isola Tiberina; a ship built of stories

Sometimes an island pops up in an unexpected spot.

In the hectic city centre of Rome, the Tiber splits in two to create space for an island: Isola Tiberina. Just as in the rest of the Eternal City, this islet is steeped in legendary anecdotes. It abounds in spectacle and horrors that dull its true history.

Isola Tiberina is moored like a ship in a bend of the river, the concrete stem riveted to one of Ponte Garibaldi’s piles.

Myths speak of Tarquinus Superbus as the central figure of the island’s genesis. Farmers threw their corn harvests in the River Tiber, furious at the iniquitous policy of their ruler. However, the stream of the river did not carry away the corn, but held it in one place and thereby formed Isola Tiberina. A more bloodthirsty version describes that not corn was thrown in the river, but the body of Tarquinius. Sludge and plants stuck to the corpse, which grew into an island.

The truth is not as sinister. Like all of Rome, the island consists of volcanic rock.

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