The Netherlands, or is it Holland?
Colourful fields of tulips and quaint windmills set by canal banks are the ‘chocolate-box’ cliché that does not do justice to this pretty corner of Europe. The other side of the coin is of hedonistic adult pursuits and stag nights. The truth is somewhere between and including these facets.
The Netherlands packs a tourism punch far above its weight. Very few countries (especially considering its size and, shall we say, “vertically challenged” geography) offer such touristic richness and make it so easy to visit, as does this pocket sized, almost man-made country.
Holland, the Netherlands and the Dutch! Confused? Then read on…
Holland is actually a region of the Netherlands, but even the Dutch use it to refer to the whole. It is fortuitously located at a crucial intersection between the most influential economic and political European countries. This centricity, combined with its small size, trading history and skill account for its international outlook. Importantly for tourists, most Dutch speak at least 4 languages (although not all equally well) and the country is well organised to receive foreign visitors.
The extreme north is its least visited part, not being particularly hospitable in winter. In the summer, however, the islands there are packed with mostly northern Dutch and German families, giving it a very northern European feel. The next stop is Scandinavia. In the extreme south, in a place like Maastricht, on the other hand, you would be forgiven for thinking that you had crossed the border into Belgium, or even France. Geraniums, lovely terraces, fine eating and drinking, there is a palpable joie de vivre. And all of this in the space of a few hundred kilometres.
In the middle of the country, close to the North Sea, is the reason most people visit The Netherlands: Amsterdam! And it more than lives up to its reputation. Some may see it as “Disneyland for adults” (especially during the large festivals, such as Queen’s day and Gay Pride), but it is also a beautiful, sophisticated, stylish, unique and cultured city.
If one sees only one thing in The Netherlands, it should be Amsterdam’s canals, their houses and the streets that connect them. Simply get lost (which is very easy to do, despite it small size) along the beautiful canals and their quaint little bridges, marvelling at the flower market, interesting little shops and bicycling skills of the natives. And a boat tour, as “touristic” as it may seem, gives one an additional perspective, highlighting the importance of this city’s relationship with water.
Conveniently placed within a few hundred metres of each other on a beautiful square, are 3 magnificent museums, which together will exhaust even the most demanding culture vulture. The Rijksmuseum is devoted to more traditional and classic arts and crafts, while the Stedelijk specialises in modern art. And right in the middle of the museum square is the architecturally stunning Van Gogh museum, drawing millions of visitors annually to see the largest display of works by Van Gogh together in any place in the world.
Don’t expect the same “wow factor” in other Dutch cities, but many have their own special charm, and you’ll find travelling to them easier than in almost any other country. Fifteen minutes by train from Amsterdam is beautiful Haarlem. Compact, cosy and authentic, much of the centre seems little changed in centuries, apart from most probably being in the best state it has ever been in. Perfect for a day trip. Delft is at least as popular as Haarlem, and for the same reasons, with the added draw of Vermeer’s close connections to the city. Don’t bother trying to identify locations from his paintings; almost every part seems worthy of being immortalised by him.
The larger cities, such as Utrecht, The Hague and Rotterdam are less suited to meandering, and more to targeted visits to their attractions, such as the government buildings and international institutions in The Hague, and the modern architecture and museums of Rotterdam.
To get a complete picture of Holland, however, venture beyond the cities. A delightful way of doing this is a trip to the National Park De Hoge Veluwe. A large nature reserve, it also houses a sophisticated art museum and the stunning residence of the initial owners. More generally, any trip in the bucolic areas (and these start surprisingly close to the cities), especially along the dykes, is sure to leave one with lasting memories of this green, calm and saturated land.
The Netherlands: unusual, unique and rewarding.