Unearth magic at Efteling fairytale theme park in the Netherlands

The author Maggie O’Farrell falls under the spell of Efteling fairytale theme park, family-friendly cycle trails and a moated town…

We are in the middle of breakfast when Red Riding Hood turns up. She skips — yes, skips — to the table, swinging her basket, and trills: “How are you today?”

My youngest daughter stares, astonished, croissant in hand. She examines this vision, from the buckled shoes to the red cape, then she looks across the room to where a knight in full armour is engaging a table of children in a sword display.

Such is life at Efteling, the Netherlands’ enormous fairytale extravaganza, 100km south of Amsterdam, where fantasy is to be imbibed with your daily bread. If, like me, the words ‘theme park’ make you shudder or, when paired with the word ‘Disney’, bring you out in hives, you might find this place more palatable.

You won’t find any kitsch, bowdlerised renderings of folk tales. No singing rabbits or anthropomorphised deer. No overly gendered or cutesy messages are rammed home. Efteling is, instead, refreshingly loyal to its traditional storytelling roots.

Steam train through the amusement park Efteling in the Netherlands

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a commercial side: there is and, good grief, it’s huge. The sun is out when we arrive and people are stolidly queueing for 45 minutes for the rides. There are river-rapid boats that circle you round and round while spraying you with water; rollercoasters that shuttle you upside down and round about; a ghost train; a haunted house…Just watching makes me feel dizzy, but my teenage son seizes his day pass and disappears, delighted.

Much more my pace — and that of my six-year-old — is the little steam train that circles the perimeter of the park. We like it so much that we go twice, sitting behind the driver, a silver-haired woman, possibly in her sixties, who hefts coal into the furnace. The woman next to me has her grandson on her knee. She tells me that she lives near by and has been coming here all her life. “My parents took me,” she says, “then we took our children, and now I bring my grandchildren.”

Efteling was originally, she says, the idea of a local priest who, after the war, wanted to establish a place where children could play. So the mayor designated an area of forest for a football pitch and a playground. “And then,” she continues, “in the Fifties they started making the fairytale scenes.”

These scenes are the reason I’m here. Efteling’s Sprookjesbos (Fairytale Forest) sprang from the imagination of Anton Pieck. Even if the name means nothing to you, you will almost certainly be familiar with his work: his illustrations shape the way we think about folk tales. All those crowded, cross-beamed houses and luscious, toadstool-studded forests. There were several of his pictures on the walls of my nursery school and I also owned a copy of Arabian Nights that was illustrated by him.

Roller coaster at Efteling theme park Kaatsheuvel Netherlands

So I have come to walk through his Sprookjesbos with my children (except the eldest, who mystifyingly opts for further torture by rollercoaster). What happens is this: you walk along a winding path, through a thick fleece of oak trees and, just when you least expect it, you will come upon a scene. The house of the seven kids (young goats) with a becloaked wolf knocking at the door; Rapunzel in her tower, watching a mechanised witch ascend her plait; Geppetto’s shop, with dancing mice and leaping chisels; a donkey that excretes silver coins at the press of a button.

Fairy tale of People of Laaf. Representing their day-care centre.

‘The installations are life-sized, so children can walk through  Sleeping beauty’s somnolent palace’

It is, of course, utterly magical, but with that slightly sinister Pieck edge. The wolves have teeth, the dragon roars, the giant fish smells appropriately piscine. The installations are life-sized, so children can walk through Sleeping Beauty’s somnolent palace and gaze up at a sugary but lethal gingerbread house that just might swallow them up.

What baffles me most about Efteling is that the people in our neighbouring forest lodges, at the buffet, on the steam carousel, are largely Dutch, with a light sprinkling of Belgians. How come more nationalities don’t visit?

Fairy tale Castle at the Efteling located at Kaatsheuvel in the Netherlands. Fantasy based family themepark.

It is a question that returns again and again as we venture farther into Brabant, the low-lying, southernmost region of the Netherlands and the birthplace of Hieronymus Bosch and Vincent van Gogh.

A day or so later we are in the middle of Heusden, a small, walled town on the River Meuse. “In order to stop cannonballs in their tracks,” our guide is saying, “all the streets were built with a slight curve in them.” We look and, sure enough, the long, narrow street has a slight kink at the end. Our guide points up to a high gable, where a cannonball remains embedded, a black pustule in the brick work.

Heusden, once the locus of fierce and bloody battles, is today filled with autumn sunshine: dogs are slumbering in doorways and people are sitting in coffee houses. A few bicycles swish along the cobbles, past the hollyhocks and green-painted front doors. A more peaceful place would be hard to find, but Heusden’s strategic position on the river has meant a chequered past: first the Spanish invaded, then the French and then the Nazis.

‘on a map the now peaceful town of heusden looks like a cartograher’s  doodle’

On a map the town looks like a cartographer’s doodle. Follow the Meuse inland and you’ll find wide, estuarial meanders until you come to a startling star-shaped blot in the middle of all that blue water. This is Heusden, constructed with defence in mind, ringed by moats and ravelins, trying in vain to keep out conquering armies.

The Netherlands, The fortified, star shaped city of Heusden, Aerial.

As we stand on the town walls, gazing over the moat, my husband says: “If this place was in Tuscany it would be mobbed.” He has a point. Heusden is remarkably beautiful and bafflingly empty. We take a boat up the Meuse, we wander the narrow streets, we admire the creaking sails of the windmill, we buy cloth mice at the toyshop, we have pancakes at the café, all the while encountering barely another tourist.

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect place than Brabant for a family holiday. The landscape is straight from a Breugel painting, with flat fields, dykes, windmills and grazing cows.

As well as Efteling, there is the newly opened holiday camp of Beeske Bergen Safari Park, where you can have breakfast on a terrace next to herds of impala and wildebeest, and briefly pretend you’re in Tanzania. The ranger who drives us around to see the giraffe calf and the lemurs, which have an entertaining penchant for climbing on anyone wearing a backpack, confirms that the park hardly gets any visitors further afield. “I don’t know why,” she says with a shrug.

Did I mention the joy of family cycling? If, like us, you have exited the buggy years, a relaxing stroll around a historical town centre can be fraught. Children are not natural flâneurs and in the face of a city amble tend to stage early mutinies, citing exhaustion and/or malnutrition. In the unusually punctuated town of ’s-Hertogenbosch, however, we hit on the solution: hire a cargo bike for the smallest child, a tandem for the other two, and off we go. Dutch streets are a cyclist’s dream. You can hire a bike pretty much anywhere, at any hour. In the pecking order of traffic, bicycles come a firm first, followed by scooters, then electric cars, with motorcars trailing shamefacedly behind. There are proper sectioned-off lanes, designated crossings, special traffic lights. Everybody, cycles, from newborns cocooned in slings on their pedalling parents’ chests, to octogenarians with their shopping.

My husband and I get our fix of urban wanderings, albeit at a hugely accelerated pace. Our youngest child shrieks into the wind from her cargo cabin; the other two are zooming ahead on their tandem; nobody is wearing a helmet and I try not to watch as my middle child is steered gleefully close to the water’s edge by her brother. Canals, cathedrals, windmills, cottages, cattle and lock gates whizz past. Nobody complains about tired legs and nobody demands a compensatory ice cream, not even once.

Several circuits of the town later, we lock up the bikes and take a boat around ’s-Hertogenbosch’s waterways, which thread themselves underneath the streets and buildings. The 14th-century brick arches house colonies of slumbering bats and, as the boat slides along the dank water, flashes of blue sky appear down drains, plumblines of light reaching into the dark.

How can it be that, for the most part, tourists will go to the thronged streets of Amsterdam, but no farther? That they are yet to discover what lies only a couple of hours south of that city? On my return I am seized with a near-evangelical urge to grip my friends by the arms and say: “Go to the Netherlands. Quick, before everyone else does.”

Credit: Maggie O’Farrell/The Times/News Licensing
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