Simon van Gijn had the good fortune to be born wealthy. After studying law in Leiden, he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a banker. Then he married into a wealthy family. Despite his wife’s penchant for hobnobbing with high society, it seems to have been a happy marriage.

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Simon had an interest in the arts and he was encouraged at a young age to start collecting historical prints. The pursuit became a passion, and his interests as a collector expanded as he aged– from prints to arms, model ships to coins, silver to ceramics. He needed a large home for his ever increasing collections, and the canal house at Nieuwe Haven 29 in the old city of Dordrecht would do just fine.

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The house was built in 1729 for Johan van Neurenberg, a wealthy regent. There is a wide hallway, reception rooms, a ballroom, a dining room as well as plenty of bedrooms upstairs and rooms for the servants. Simon purchased the house in 1864 and lived there until his death in 1922. He left the home and most of his collections to the Old Dordrecht Society. I was not expecting to be impressed after visiting the van Loon property in Amsterdam, but a big fish in a small pond can live very well indeed.

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Dordrecht was not always a backwater. In 1220, when the town was granted its charter, it was the most important and powerful town in Holland. It remained that way until well into the 16th century. Dordrecht was one of the first cities to declare against the Habsburgs, so it was the obvious site for the Free Assembly of the United Provinces. Trade took off when the city was granted “staple rights” in 1299. All ships that transported goods over the river were obliged to store the goods and trade them from Dordrecht. Large warehouses and town houses went up on the banks of the river.

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The St. Elizabeth Day flood of 1421 destroyed over seventy towns and villages in the surrounding area, killing over 100,000 people. It permanently altered the landscape, helping to establish what is now called called the Biesbosch, a large wetland unique in Europe.

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Dordrecht hosted a whole slew of doctrinal conferences in a constant attempt to mollify the various factions of Protestantism, who argued more vociferously with each other than they ever had with Catholics. In 1574, the hot topic at the Synod of Dordt was whether or not church organs should be dismantled so as not to inflame the emotions of the church goers. In 1618, the Remonstrants took on the Calvinists over the issue of predestination.

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We had come to Dordrecht to test ride some recumbent bikes and trikes at one of the only dealers in the area. When I checked out the selection of available accommodation, I was struck by one place that was totally different from every other place we have ever stayed. Villa Augustus used to be a water tower. How could I resist?

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Construction was started in 1881 and the tower was finished in a year. With a height of thirty-three metres. (about one hundred feet), it was a squarely-built building with four octagonal towers surrounding a large, round water basin. Two towers accommodated a spiral staircase between the staff residences and the reservoir. One of the towers contained the chimney for the smoke emanating from the steam engines pumping up the water from the basements to the reservoir.

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The fourth tower was intended as an outlet should the pressure inside the reservoir run up too high. The smaller towers were eliminated in 1938, when the reservoir was raised by means of a metal shaft. The tower silhouette looks rather like a castle. The floors above contained five apartments for the operators. As an extensively remodelled hotel, the building is bizarre but quite stunning. The old pump house has been transformed into a huge restaurant and shop for foodstuffs. The restaurant certainly does a roaring business on Saturday night.

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Our ride took us on some bike paths through the Biesbosch, and we were fortunate enough to enjoy some fine weather on Saturday. I had booked us in for an early dinner, which was, in hindsight, a mistake. The restaurant does a thriving trade in family dinners on Saturday, and the staff are simply overwhelmed. Think Disneyland and you will not be far off the mark.

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Sunday mornings are quiet. After a good breakfast, we wandered through the old part of the city, which seems to have survived the war and urban planning pretty well. By early afternoon, some of the stores were starting to open, which happens just once a month in Dordrecht. Sunday shopping is a rare event in the Netherlands, something which must drive most Americans to distraction.

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I suspect the Synod has it under advisement.

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