Onderzeeboots by the Zee

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The typical tourist sights in the Netherlands include tulips, windmills, canals, and various and sundry museums, all quite exceptional. The slightly less typical sights include two submarines which might well have played cat and mouse with each other during the Cold War: B-80, a Soviet Zulu-class submarine, and Tonijn, a Dutch Potvis-class submarine.

The Zulu submarine sits in Amsterdam’s harbor, in NDSM-werf, where it served as a stationary “party boat” that could be rented for events. To facilitate such soirées in a submarine’s exceedingly cramped conditions required the gutting of the hull, so now it’s just a shell. Given the copious graffiti on its sail and the general lack of upkeep, it seems deserted at this point.

GVB, Amsterdam’s public transit company, runs a free ferry to NDSM-werf from behind the main train station, and while you can’t access the submarine, there are several good vantage points to shoot pictures from.

Zulu Class Submarine in Amsterdam Harbor

Perhaps an ignominious reincarnation for such a machine, but it’s likely the other fate would have been the scrapper’s yard, and it’s quite an interesting conversation piece in an already picturesque city.

Visiting the Dutch Potvis-class submarine requires a bit of a jaunt from Amsterdam, to the coastal town of Den Helder, where where the Tonijn rests on a pillar at the Dutch Navy Museum.

Tonijn, Potvis Class submarine, Den Helder, The Netherlands

About ninety minutes by train from Amsterdam, Den Helder was a delightful side jaunt, situated just inside the Wadden Sea, with the North Sea visible to the west. Walking the dike at Den Helder was a bracing and awe-inspiring experience, and getting to clamber inside a submarine was just a brilliant bonus.

Down the hatch!

Access to the submarine comes as part of the entry fee for the Navy Museum, though they don’t warn you up front that you have to climb into the submarine backwards. It was a typically rainy North Sea day when we visited, and the metal was quite slippery. I can only imagine what it must have been like to enter the sub when it was on the high seas, with ocean spray and a swaying sub.

The interior of the submarine is mostly preserved and entirely cramped. Hollywood movies simply fail to capture the true conditions of life aboard a submarine. I’m not given to claustrophobia, but my 6’3″ frame was glad to leave the submarine. Plus, I don’t think I would have been cut out to sleep on top of a live torpedo.

Two other accessible ships, a modern minesweeper and an ironclad ramship, sit at the Navy Museum as well, and the exhibits chart the development of the Dutch Navy over the years. Not many of the exhibits had English signage, but that was no impediment to enjoying the many ship models, paintings, and displays. Definitely worth a side trip from Amsterdam.

And the fact that there was a Vietnamese food truck near the train station where we could score some fresh lumpia to tide us over on the train ride back to Amsterdam made it a quite successful trip indeed.

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