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A Dutch Mountain

27 October, 2011

The Dutch are a lowland people but they love mountains. The Netherland’s highest hill of 322.7 meters is called a mountain: Mount Vaals or Vaalserberg. The native pop group The Nits hit the European charts in 1987 with the song In the Dutch Mountains. And there is of course Alpe d’Huez which is often called the Dutch Mountain by Tour de France lovers for whom this ski resort at 1,860 to 3,330 meters in the Central French Alps has become a pilgrimage site. Alpe d’Huez has been a stage finish almost every year since 1976 and is part of the alpine climbs where Le Tour is won. Alpe d’Huez is the ‘Dutch Mountain’ because a Dutchman won eight of the first 14 finishes.

But why not have a proper mountain in the Netherlands? Well there is actually a plan for a real Dutch Mountain in the Dutch campagne. Alpe d’Almere will be the Dutch’s own and first real mountain. With an altitude of 2000 meter it will be, if realized, a prominent feature in a very flat countryside. And the designers have produced a funky presentation.

My good friend and Holland’s best radio reporter Jan Maarten Deurvorst has produced a radio documentary (in Dutch) on Alpe d’Almere. It will be available here after the broadcast on Sunday 30 October. For those who do not read Dutch I have translated the text on the website:

The Netherlands is world famous for large infrastructure projects such as the Delta Works and the dam that closes the Zuiderzee. The Dutch Mountain will however put all previous ones in its shadow, a mountain of 2000 meters in the Flevoland polder. 77 billion cubic meters of sand will be needed for the highest and largest structure ever made. In comparison, the tallest building in the world is in Dubai and is 828 meters high. Yet engineers, architects and sports people are sure: “The mountain will come.”

The idea of the Dutch Mountain comes from ex-cyclist-cum-columnist Thijs Zonneveld who is keen to eliminate Holland’s geographical disadvantage in sport. At least for three months a year, the Dutch will have a mountain covered in thick snow suitable for skiing and snowboarding. Zonneveld also wants to build a high-altitude skate track to ensure that world records skating can again be set on Dutch soil.

But resistance is fierce. Earth Sciences professor Klaas van Egmond is furious that engineers, politicians and media take this “hedonistic preoccupation with stimulating the senses” seriously. He calls the project extremely decadent, especially in the current crisis which does not even allow money for the purchase of a small parcel in Flevoland for the benefit of the National Ecological Network. “The Dutch Mountain indicates the end of civilization.” Also most of the people in Almere are not very pleased with a two thousand meters high mountain in their backyard.

Dutch anthropologist and philosopher Ton Lemaire wrote a book entitled Filosofie van het Landschap (The Philosophy of the Landscape) in 1970 (the ninth edition appeared in 2009). One of the theses in that book is that every nation gets the landscape it deserves. The Dutch landscape is a reflection of an affluent society and dense population. In particular over the last few decades people struggle with the tensions between prosperity and well being, between work and leisure, between economy and ecology, and between comfort and beauty.

Over the last couple of hundred years man has left no single inch of the landscape untouched. All of Holland’s landscape is manmade, mostly because of some utilitarian need but also sometimes following aesthetic considerations and the need for recreation. The Dutch landscape reflects the tensions above.

On top of that all the previous big infrastructure projects were all built during times of social and economic crisis. They stimulated economic growth and they have generated expertise on dike building and land reclamation that has gained worldwide acclaim. This has greatly helped Dutch companies to obtain contracts for such projects as Hong Kong’s airport and The Palm Islands in Dubai. Likely the investors now interested in the Alpe d’Almere envision mountain-building adventures in Arabia after they have finished the job in Flevoland in 2018.

In many respects, the Dutch Mountain fits into an established approach to landscaping and I hardly see any decadency. I think that the mountain should be build so that it becomes a memorable example of Dutch people’s eccentric relationship with the landscape. And I can’t wait to climb it one day with my Dutch cycle friends.

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