Middelburg, The Netherlands - You're never far from water in the Netherlands. Half the country sits below sea level, and few towns are far from a navigable waterway, be it the sea, a river or a canal.
My partner and I stop along the North Sea at a big, deep beach with fine white sand. It's really windy, and swirls of sand fly through the air and make patterns on the ground. Colourful kites fly and some- times - the wind is this strong - pull four-wheeled carts along the beach. The water is warmer than the air.
I can't forget the presence of water even first thing the next morning. After our beach jaunt, we've travelled to the nearby town of Middelburg, where we wake up in a bedroom called the Zee Kammer (Sea Room). Lining its walls are paintings of yachts, canals and the ocean, and a toy boat sits on the windowsill. A real ship's mermaid figurehead, hammer and adze in her hands, hangs from the high ceiling over my bed.
We're staying in the seven-room Hotel Aan de Dam, a 350-year-old house near the centre of the medieval town. The original owner, a merchant in the prosperous East India Company, lived in it only two years before a ship sank, drowning his fortune. He had to sell the house and died, according to the current owner, Dennes Kaptein, in poverty.
The house sits across from a small park, the site of a 19th-century grain market. Edging the park is the canal that rings the old fortified town. Nearly opposite the house is one of Middelburg's oldest streets, Kuiperspoort - really more like a laneway - where the original iron rings for tying up horses are still fixed in the ground.
The houses have triangular or crenellated roofs, often with a ring attached to the front. Because the buildings are so narrow, the rings are part of a pulley system used to haul things to the upper storeys.
We're lucky to find ourselves in Middelburg on market day, which turns the square in front of the city hall into a multicoloured sea of people. They're buying everything from food to flowers, kitchen sponges to stroopwafels (thin cookies filled with sugar syrup). And of course you can find wheels of Dutch cheeses, Gouda and the red-wrapped Edam, as well as wooden shoes. The shoes aren't just for tourists; some of the shoppers wear them.
Part farmers market, part flea market, the weekly event is framed by the city hall, dating from 1452, with spires, gargoyles and dozens of medieval sculptures of the former rulers of the area, called Zeeland, crammed into niches below the roof. Facing the square is a splendid clock where on the hour golden knights joust with each other at each bellstroke as golden heralds with trumpets parade nearby.
It's 8:30 in the morning (you have to come early to an outdoor market) and the square is already getting crowded. There's a gentleness to the sun's rays. Long mornings and lengthy twilights make the day feel like it goes on and on.
I've never been to a place where Vivaldi's The Four Seasons is the Muzak on the main street, but that's the case here. Wandering after checking out the market, we catch sight of a church, the Wandelkerk, standing next to an octagonal tower called Lange Jan (Long John). Now the source of carillon music, it's topped by a golden crown and a weathervane in the shape of a cock.
No surprise that public monuments dating back centuries make this show of wealth. Middelburg, we've learned, was a prosperous commercial town and the site of an East India Company trading post in the 17th century.
The canals meandering through most of the country were the paths to distribute that wealth. These days, though, most tourists use the waterways for sightseeing in a picturesque Dutch city.