Zeeland, in the south west of the Netherlands, is in some ways the quintessential Dutch province. It is green and largely flat and boasts more than its fair share of colourful windmills. Look a little closer though and this is a place apart. Sandwiched between Holland, Flanders and the North Sea these islands and former islands have their own distinct history and traditions, a unique cuisine and a people that have forged an identity all of their own.
In cities such as Veere, Goes, Zierikzee and capital Middelburg, bell towers of Flemish gothic harmoniously chime over pan-tiled rooftops. Below, shuttered windows adorn immaculate gabled houses that lean precariously – and charmingly – over cobbled, hollyhock-filled lanes. Here, in this article, we talk to Damen Shipyards Group employees who have come to the Netherlands from other countries and made Zeeland their home and place of work. We find out just what it is that attracts them to the coastal south-west of the country.
With their long traditions of farming, fishing and shipbuilding, the Zeeuws people have become known for stubborn persistence and hard work. Characteristics attested to in the provincial coat of arms, which show a lion ferociously emerging from the waves, bearing the legend Luctor et emergo – I struggle and I emerge.
It’s not all about hard graft, however. Zeeland is a land blessed not only by sea, but also by Sun. Locals will never tire of telling visitors that the area boasts the most hours of sunlight in all the country. These days the winning combination of Sun, sand and peaceful countryside attracts many visitors from neighbouring provinces and countries looking for leisure. There is much to amuse both tourist and resident alike.
Made by the sea
The sedate, peaceful nature of Zeeland belies its historical greatness. During the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century, Middelburg was second only to Amsterdam in importance and the Dutch East India Company (VOC) had offices in town.
The character of the Zeelandic people is summed up by the motto on the province’s ancient coat of arms; Luctor et emergo – I struggle and I emerge.
In those days, the quays of Zeeland hummed with the bustle of international trade. Spices, cloth and porcelain arrived from distant shores as merchants, mapmakers and shipbuilders busily went about their work.
"Everything is close here, I don’t lose precious time moving between work, home and leisure."
Djordje Kostic, a native of Montenegro, has been a resident of Zeeland for over 20 years now. He lives with his wife and two children in Vlissingen and works as a production coordinator at Damen Shiprepair Vlissingen.
“I’m happy in my job; it fulfils my passion for shipbuilding and repair. More than that though, I appreciate the family feeling at Damen. There’s a sense of solidarity with your colleagues, which makes for a pleasant cooperation. There are also plenty of opportunities for growth and personal development.”
Djordje is pleased that he was able to find his dream job in such a location. “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the country. I came here originally to work in the off shore and petrochemical industry and my role was based in the Port of Rotterdam. The traffic on the roads and the general busyness there is so different to the relaxed pace of life in Zeeland.”
He is, however, used to urban life.
“I was born in a large, busy city – a real contrast to my life here in Vlissingen. I find the pace of life here preferable. I am never stuck in traffic like I be would back home or in the more urban parts of the Netherlands. Everything is close here, so I don’t lose precious time moving between work, home and leisure.
Middelburg’s Flemish Gothic city hall is perhaps the finest in the land.
“The peace & quiet and abundance of space here mean it’s also a good place to bring up a family. Zeeland is the perfect place for being both active and relaxed. I like to do sports and there’s plenty of opportunity for that and, equally, it’s nice just to sit and read here, in lovely surroundings.
“The Zeeland coast is beautiful. My personal favourite area is the Boulevard and the Bellamypark in the centre of Vlissingen. Here you are really close to the water’s edge and the ships coming from Antwerp and Zeeland Seaports pass very close to land. It’s easy to connect to the maritime heritage of the Netherlands here.”
The cloisters of Middelburg’s abbey
A land of heroic deeds
As the name suggests, the sea is never far away in Zeeland (sealand). Maritime and naval tradition runs deep here. This was the home of famous Golden Age Admiral Michiel de Ruyter, renowned, amongst other things, for his daring raid on the Medway during the Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th century. De Ruyter sailed the Dutch fleet up the Thames Estuary in England, into the River Medway, where he destroyed numerous English ships before capturing the flagship, HMS Royal Charles, and towing her back to the Netherlands.
If a job’s worth doing…
Over the years, this low-lying area has had to contend with disastrous floods on numerous occasions. Things have changed, however. Since the devastation of the tragic flood of 1953, the Dutch coastal defences have been strengthened. Today’s flood protection includes ones of the great engineering wonders of the world – the Deltaworks.
Outside of the towns and villages Zeeland off fers some wonderful opportunities to explore nature.
… It’s worth doing well
Nowhere are the Deltaworks more spectacular than where they pass through Zeeland. The Oosterschelde Storm Surge Barrier has connected lands once separated by the sea, making these once remote islands accessible. When it comes to water, the Dutch do not do things by halves; the engineers have created here an ‘open’ dam – one that allows the tides to continue to ebb and flow beneath the barrier, closing only in times of need. In this way, both the salt-water ecosystem and the region’s time-honoured fishing traditions
Zeeland flexes its mussels
The sea has provided food to the local inhabitants since ancient times. Back then, Nehalennia, Goddess of the sea, was worshipped in these parts. Zeeland has become renowned for the bounty of the waves. Its mussels, oysters and lobsters embellish the menus of Belgium and the Netherlands’ finest restaurants. These days, Zeeuwse mosselen – Zeeland’s mussels – are available year round. In July, however, Middelburg still celebrates the start of the season with a festive street party featuring diverse mussel-based dishes, washed down with plenty of wine and beer to the sound of live performers, both modern and traditional.
"There are lots of lovely secrets to discover here."
Yunzhu first came to Zeeland, from China, to attend the Hogeschool Zeeland University of Applied Sciences in Vlissingen. During studies for her MBA in Business Administration, she carried out an internship at Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding (DSNS). This led to her working for 9 years at Damen’s head office in Gorinchem, as sales support for the Asia Pacific region. During that time, she met her husband, Erik Luiten, who works at DSNS as a contract manager for weapons systems. Around the same time, Amels was looking to increase its presence in Asia, paving the way for Yunzhu to return to Vlissingen.
“Zeeland is a great location for me. In my role I travel to some of the busiest cities in the world, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Beĳing, Shanghai. So when I come home I am happy to be in a peaceful, quiet place.” Yunzhu, who has a young son, also feels the region is a good place for family life.
“It’s not just that it’s beautiful and unspoiled, there are also some of the best schools in the country here. And the house prices are very good, too. You get a lot more for your money here than you do in the big cities of the Netherlands.
“Some people have this idea that Zeeland is very far away from everything. It can certainly feel that way as it can be very quiet and relaxed here, but, really, it’s a very convenient location. Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Bruges, Gent, Antwerp and Brussels are all easily reachable for a day trip. Though, actually, the cities of Zeeland have everything you need anyway. The shopping is very good and there a lots of excellent restaurants.” The cuisine is something that particularly appeals to Yunzhu.
“The seafood is outstanding here. There are lobsters, oysters and mussels, all harvested from very pure water and served fresh in restaurants that know how to serve these local specialities.”
“Working here is also very pleasant. It’s unique to have heavy industry this close to such an unspoiled coastline. It makes it very nice to leave the office and go for lunch with colleagues on the Boulevard.
“Despite all this, Zeeland is still relatively unknown, but there are lots of lovely secrets to discover here.”
Marking the turn of the seasons
There is always something happening in Zeeland and events cater for all tastes – often by the sea. There’s Whisky by the Sea, Film by the Sea, Concert at Sea…
In May, Vlissingen celebrates ‘liberation day’, in July Middelburg parties to the City of Dance
Festival. Throughout the summer numerous, assorted food and drink festivals pop up all over the place.
As the season comes to a close, the Nazomerfestival (after summer festival) marks the turning of the seasons with music, drama and temporary works of publically displayed art. Then, as winter approaches, the lights go out in Middelburg for the Nacht van de Nacht (night of the night). People dine and drink by candlelight as lantern-lit processions weave though the cobbled lanes. With winter in full swing, the cheer is kept alive with Dickensian markets and ice-skating rinks.
"Living in Zeeland is like being on holiday, but all the time!"
Roberto Santoro has lived in Zeeland’s capital city, Middelburg, for the past three years. He moved to the area after taking on the position of design engineer combatants for Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding (DSNS). Prior to his locating in the south west of the country, Roberto had lived for two years in the Randstad – the urban area that contains most of the country’s larger cities in the centre of the Netherlands.
“Zeeland is a distinct place,” he says. “Coming from Italy I expected the Netherlands to be this highly developed country with an extremely dense population, busy roads… That’s not Zeeland at all!”
Roberto’s decision to move to the Netherlands was career-based. “During my time as a naval architect in Sicily, designing fast ferries, I worked on projects that gave me a taste of northern European culture and I liked the way it was structured. After my son was born, we decided to move and it was in the Netherlands I found an opportunity.”
He first worked at a yacht builder, but was attracted by the technical challenges available at DSNS.
“So it was the work that brought me to Zeeland, but I’m very glad that it did.”
What does he like about living in the region? “The quality of life is very high here. With Middelburg being a small city, there’s less pressure on the municipality and so everything functions very well. Things are arranged very quickly and efficiently.
“And there’s no stress. In Italy I had a commute of just 5, maybe 6 kilometres, but it was on busy roads. It used to take me 40 minutes. 40 minutes of dealing with congestion and aggression. There’s no traffic here. I don’t even know if the horn in my car still works!
“I like the fact that I can step outside my door and I’m instantly surrounded by nature. In my spare time I like to cycle and the cycling network here is wonderful. I also enjoy nature photography and the landscape here is perfect for this. For example, the forest, dunes and unspoiled beaches at the Oranjezon nature reserve.
"Living in Zeeland is like being on holiday. All the time."
Beautiful cobbled lanes are to be found in Zeeland’s cities, a reminder of the Golden era of the 17th century. In this quiet corner of the country, the old and new exist harmonioulsy side by side.
Something for all
On a summer’s day, the sails abound on the calm waters of the Veerse Meer. All along the province’s coastline are the safe, clean beaches that bring visitors from afar. The Zeeuwse coast is the perfect place to relax, but also to indulge in watersports – there’s blokarting, surfing, wakeboarding and kitesurfing in abundance, including plenty of schools to get you started.
Inland, the countryside is the perfect setting for a relaxed cycling tour. Get lost in the back lanes, pedalling through seemingly endless fields of green and quiet, slumbering villages. If mountain biking’s more your thing, you can also go off road through the thick forests that line the dunes.
And when it’s time to rest, in the towns and cities you’ll find a diverse choice awaits you. Thriving café terraces and bars provide easy access to Dutch gezelligheid (cosiness), while fi ne restaurants rub shoulders with countless Golden Age historical treasures.
Keeping traditions alive
Zeeland is an important place in the operations of the Damen Shipyards Group. The province is home to companies encompassing a wide range of the group’s activities – Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding, Amels, Damen Schelde Marine Services and Damen Shiprepair Vlissingen. Damen is proud to play its part in sustaining the ancient maritime traditions of this vibrant, unspoiled corner of the Netherlands.
Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding (DSNS)
Damen Shipyards Gorinchem
Damen Schelde Marine Services
Damen Shiprepair Vlissingen