Veenhuizen. You may never have heard if this place yet, but it is nominated to become a Unesco world heritage site. So why not visit Veenhuizen before anyone else does? Veenhuizen was built in the 19th century to house and “reeducate” the poor. This social experiment was not a success and we look back on it with a sense of shame. If you are interested in Dutch history, and want to look beyond the glory of the 17th century, a visit to Veenhuizen should be on your list!
Why visit Veenhuizen?
Dutch people tend to feel some pride about their history, especially about the 17th century. In this period Holland was one of the mighty seafaring nations of the world and the big trading ships of the East India Company sailed across the oceans. But despite the riches of some, still reflected in the architecture of Amsterdam center for example, most people were poor.
By the beginning of the 19th century nearly one third of the Dutch population lived from charity. The government tried to solve “the problem of poverty” by reeducation projects and by sending the homeless, the poor and orphans from the big cities to “the colonies“. There were 7 of these colonies, and Veenhuizen was one of them. The village of Veenhuizen was built especially for this experiment, in the peat bogs in the northeast of the country.
Nowadays the area is peaceful, and many people from the big cities love to spend their holiday in those surroundings. However, in the 19th century life was tough out there. It was like a labor camp. Tens of thousands were sent to the peat bogs without having committed a (serious) crime. Begging for example was considered a crime in that era, and was reason enough to send you off to a colony, but so was being an orphan. The inmates had to work all day, cultivating the land, got limited amounts of food and were basically prisoners without any personal freedom. Many people died of exhaustion and illnesses.
If you are interested in learning more about Dutch history, and if you want to look beyond the riches of the 17th century, the famous painters, the windmills and the tulips Veenhuizen is a very interesting destination!
What is there to see in Veenhuizen?
1) The Prison Museum
Of the 3 original prison buildings only one remains. This now houses the Prison Museum, where you can learn more about the history of the penal system in Holland, and more specifically about the history of the colony in Veenhuizen. I thought it was a very interesting and interactive museum. It was shocking to see how the inmates had to live, and especially the thought of the life of the orphans is heartbreaking.
Text and audio in the museum are in Dutch, but at the ticket office you can get a free English-language audio tour. In this tour you’ll hear historical figures explaining their perspective on the custodial sentences and the events that took place in Veenhuizen. At Wednesdays and Sundays the museum organizes guided tours in Veenhuizen village. They drive you through the village in a former prison bus.
2) The village
Veenhuizen has a very specific architecture, as this was built as a prison village in the 19th century. The staff of the Colony lived in Veenhuizen too (they were obliged to!), in houses that were built in the same style as the prison. It was a completely self-sufficient town. You don’t often get to see an entire village in one architectural style, but here you will. The staff houses have very moralistic names on them such as “Order and discipline” and “Labor and prayer”.
Some of the buildings surrounding the museum house café’s, restaurants, shops and hotels/bed&breakfasts. You can even sleep in the former prison! Their website is in Dutch, but if you’re interested send them a message via the contactform on their website.
Note that there is still a real prison in Veenhuizen too! This is a modern building that is heavily guarded. When you take the guided bus tour with the Prison Museum you’ll drive past it and they will tell you some more about it.
3. Maallust brewery
Last but not least, Veenhuizen has its own brewery! It is called Maallust and is located in the former gristmill of Veenhuizen. It’s a 20 minute walk from the Prison Museum and just a few minutes from the bus stop.
Maallust is a microbrewery, but one of the bigger ones in the Netherlands. Contrary to many other craft breweries, that use cheap Chinese brewing kettles, Maallust invested in the looks and uses copper kettles from Germany. It’s quite a sight when you enter their brewpub. The copper brewing kettle shines in the middle of it giving the place a true historic atmosphere. But the outside seating is nice too, especially for people like me, who live in a city. It feels like a woodland garden. Yes, there is a road nearby, but not a lot of traffic, so it’s a very relaxing place to have some drinks, and snacks or lunch.
The Maallust beers are brewed in traditional Belgian style such as blond, dubbel, tripel and quadruple. Plus they have some seasonal bock beers. The beers are decent, though in my opinion they don’t stand out. I guess it is kind of difficult to stand out as a brewery nowadays… So should you travel all the way to Veenhuizen just for this brewery? No, I don’t think you should. However, if you are here for the prison museum and you like beer, you should definitely go. It’s a beautiful brewery with enthusiastic staff. They organize tours/tasting sessions too, but if you want an English tour you should warn them beforehand. Use the contact form at the website.
Address: Hoofdweg 41, Veenhuizen
website Brewery Maallust (in English)
for opening hours and to book a tour
Note that they’re not opened in the evenings
Is Veenhuizen an off the beaten track destination?
In 2008 journalist and writer Suzanna Janssen wrote a book about her family history that is closely connected to Veenhuizen. This book, The pauper paradise, was a bestseller in Holland and has been translated in German and Spanish, but not in English unfortunately. Veenhuizen became better known in Holland because of this book and many people became interested in visiting. This is why Veenhuizen is not a completely off the beaten track destination. Still, due to its remote location, it doesn’t attract huge crowds such as Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. When I visited, on a sunny day in July there were plenty of other visitors, but not so many that I couldn’t move around at my own speed.
How to get to Veenhuizen by public transport?
First take a train to Assen. From Assen railway station catch a bus to Veenhuizen. The bus ride will take about half an hour. Get off at the bus stop “Bushalte Generaal van den Boschweg, Veenhuizen“. Or ask the driver to warn you when you’ve arrived at the Prison Museum.
From the bus stop it’s about 15 minutes walking to the museum. You will pass by many houses that used to belong to the staff of the Colony. They are easy to recognize by their moralistic name signs.
Mind that when coming from Amsterdam or Rotterdam the trip to Veenhuizen will take you about 3 hours. If you want to return at the end of the day you’ll have to leave pretty early, but it’s possible to make a (long) day trip out of this.
Where to go after your visit to Veenhuizen?
Visit Veenhuizen as a day trip
It is possible to visit Veenhuizen as a day trip from one of the cities in the west. It will be a long day trip, true, but if you want to you can do it.
Combine your visit to Veenhuizen with other points of interest in the area
Another option is to stay in the area and combine your visit to Veenhuizen with a visit to the hunebedden (dolmens, or megalithic tombs), Kamp Westerbork and some hiking in the area. Kamp Westerbork is the place where the Dutch Jewish, Sinti and Roma people were brought to by the nazi’s before they were transported to the concentration camps in Eastern Europe. Anne Frank lived here shortly after the nazi’s discovered her hiding place. It is a sad place, but interesting at the same time.
Move on towards Groningen or Leeuwarden
If the quietude of your day in Veenhuizen lasted long enough to your taste, why not move on to one of the two northern cities: Groningen or Leeuwarden? Groningen is a lively university town with an amazing museum. And Leeuwarden is the capital of Friesland, the only bilingual province of the Netherlands. People speak Frisian here!