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The Netherlands might be a small country in terms of geographical size, yet it certainly enjoys a far reaching, global presence. Let’s face it, who hasn’t heard of Dutch cheese, Dutch tulips or of course, Heineken beer? And the country boasts an almost disproportionate number of international celebrities, and not just its famous artists such as Rembrandt and van Gogh, but sports stars including footballers Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten and Wesley Sneijder. The Dutch have put themselves on the map quite literally too, by reclaiming vast swathes of land in their epic struggle against the sea. The resulting dykes and windmills are iconic landmarks synonymous with Dutch ingenuity.
‘God Created the Earth, but the Dutch Created the Netherlands’.
The Netherlands are known as the low countries for good reason – the country is under constant threat not only from the North Sea, but from the large estuaries of the Rhine, Maas and Waal, that feed it. The Dutch have been building dykes, windmills and elaborate drainage systems called ‘polders’ all along its coastline and major rivers since the Middle Ages. They have done this in an attempt to prevent the type of devastation caused by several major floods and to reclaim the land for agricultural and commercial use. Without this vast network, some 27% of the country would still be under water, including economically strategic Randstad.
Major achievements in the battle against water have included the reclamation of large areas of land including Flevoland and the Noordoostpolder and engineering triumphs such as the Delta Works and the Afsluitdijk. Built in 1932 and spanning more than 30 kilometres, the Aflsuitdijk is a remarkable construction which transformed the choppy waters of the Zuiderzee into the calm pleasure lake that is now known as the Ijsselmeer.
As a result of their successful water management campaign the Dutch are known as the experts in the field and are often called upon for advice on flood prevention in other countries around the world.
Holland or The Netherlands?
Many people incorrectly refer to the Netherlands as Holland, when in fact the name only applies to two out of twelve provinces that make up the country as a whole. Each of these proudly maintain their own colourful customs, traditions and unique dialects, whilst Friesland even retains an official language known as Frisian.
A number of Caribbean islands also belong to the greater Kingdom of the Netherlands and enjoy a special ‘municipality’ status – these include Aruba and Curacao.
The Dutch Government
The Netherlands is a both a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy, which means that it has a democratically elected government and a royal Head of State, currently Queen Beatrix. The royal family has extremely limited political power, however, and the Queen performs an purely ceremonial role.
Despite this, the Dutch hold their Queen and her family in extremely high regard – a fact which they demonstrate very clearly on Queen’s Day, when they come out en-masse, dressed from head to toe in orange, to take part in the country’s biggest annual street party.
The Dutch People
The Netherlands is one of the most densely inhabited nations on the planet, with a growing population already in excess of 16 million. Although normal population growth is largely responsible, the country’s high standard of living and tolerant, open-minded attitude of its people has attracted a large number of foreign immigrants. This has created an incredibly colourful and dynamic contemporary society that incorporates a sweeping range of religious beliefs including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism, while Christianity conversely is in decline.
Despite a reputation for complaining about the weather (not unlike their British neighbours across the sea), research has shown that the Dutch are one of the happiest people on the planet. This could in part, be attributed to their healthy approach to work life balance. The Dutch benefit from more paid annual leave than anywhere else in the world and during the August summer holidays offices and factories around the country are quite literally deserted!
The Netherlands has a very international outlook and is an active member of both NATO and the European Union as well as a prolific exporter of fuel, chemicals, machinery, flowers, fruits and vegetables. It was this innate ability for commerce that enabled the country to establish new colonies and trading posts in the United States, South Africa, Indonesia and Surinam which precipitated a wave of Dutch emigration during the Golden Age. At the end of World War 2 there was a Dutch exodus to countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which offered a new life full promise, far away from their war torn homeland. Despite successful integration, many of these Dutch settlers held on fiercely to their native customs and culture and no doubt missed many elements from home. These days, with all the advantages of the internet, Dutch emigrants are far more fortunate by being able to keep in touch with family and friends, catch up on the latest news or even order some of their favourite Dutch food products to enjoy a taste of home.
The Netherlands is an incredibly diverse land of bustling historical cities, wide, open landscapes and areas of outstanding natural beauty and contrast. And the fact that the country is so compact makes it relatively easy for tourists to include a large number of its many top attractions in even the most fleeting of visits.
The charming and historical cities of Amsterdam, Utrecht and Groningen are perfect for shopping, visiting the impressive number of world class museums and art galleries such as the Rijks Museum, the Van Gogh Museum and the Groninger Museum, or generally soaking up the authentic Dutch atmosphere in the plethora of friendly cafés and bars.
And Noord Holland is literally brimming with pretty villages that are more than worthy of extensive exploration. A fine example is the Zaanse Schans, famous for its iconic Dutch houses and cobbled streets and the traditional manufacture of Dutch cheese and clogs. Time seems to have almost stood still in the fishing villages of Volendam and Marken, where you can still witness the fishing boats sail into harbour, laden with freshly caught eel just as they have done for centuries. Visitors can enjoy one of these delicious fish, smoked in the old fashioned way or sample typical Dutch liquorice from the quaint selection of old fashioned shops.
The breathtaking Hoge Veluwe National Park is a must for nature lovers, whose visit will be rewarded with treasured glimpses of the wild deer and boar that roam undisturbed amongst the protected heath lands and verdant forests.