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The Netherlands is comprised of twelve distinct provinces – Zuid Holland, Noord-Holland, Noord-Brabant, Utrecht, Limburg, Zeeland, Gelderland, Overijssel, Friesland, Groningen, Drenthe and the most recent addition in 1986, Flevoland. Each of these unique provinces retain their own individual culture, traditions and dialects and are proud of their regional Dutch food products such as Groningen ginger bread and Gelderland smoked sausage. Yet, whilst the provinces all celebrate their regional differences, they also share a strong national sense of affinity and togetherness.
The History of the Provinces
The birth of today’s twelve provinces coincided with the declaration of the Republic of the Seven United Provinces, way back in 1648. Although some regions didn’t yet enjoy the official status of province, they still belonged to the Dutch Republic and were governed by the General States.
The County Council
Each province boasts its own capital and a Provincial Council which, in close collaboration with the government, is able to determine regional policy on issues such as planning, traffic, environment, recreation, welfare and culture. The Provincial Council is elected once every four years in fiercely contested regional elections and tends to reflect the entire gamut of Dutch political parties.
The West and the Randstad
The Dutch frequently refer to the three provinces of Noord-Holland, Zuid-Holland and Utrecht, which form the financial heartland of the country, as ‘the west’.
The west contains the four largest cities in the Netherlands – Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and the Hague which are collectively known as the Randstad. This affluent area also contains some vital infrastructure and transport hubs including Amsterdam Schipol Airport in Noord-Holland and the busy port of Rotterdam in Zuid-Holland. Noord-Holland also boasts the flagship headquarters of many prestigious national and global businesses in addition to the capital of the country, Amsterdam. Curiously though, the capital of Noord-Holland is not Amsterdam, but the charming town of Haarlem where the people are said to speak the only pure form of Dutch.
The West also incorporates Flevoland, which at less than thirty years old is the newest province in the Netherlands. Most of the population in Flevoland are concentrated in the modern towns and suburbs of Almere and Lelystad and commute to jobs in the Randstad.
The historic city centres of Utrecht, Amsterdam and the Hague have thankfully been carefully preserved and visitors can admire the unique architecture of the traditional Dutch houses that line the cobbled streets and pretty canals. The charming town of Delft, famous for its Delft Blue earthenware factory, is another example of this proactive approach to protecting Dutch heritage.
Away from the metropolitan sprawl the West opens up nicely into the flat landscape dotted with Dutch windmills, polders and dykes that we typically associate with the Netherlands. Visitors that fly into Schipol on a clear spring day, will immediately recognise the vibrant tulip fields from the souvenir postcards and famous Dutch paintings, spread out below.
The Southern Provinces
Zeeland, Noord-Brabant and Limburg make up the southern provinces where farming is the mainstay of the economy.
Until the 1960’s mining was an important industry in Limburg and the province suffered from high levels of unemployment when the pits finally closed due to lack of profitability. The government reacted with a stimulus package that did manage to entice a number of prominent businesses to the area including ABP (a civil service pension fund) and DSM (a chemical company). Limburg is also famous for its delicious fruit pie called ‘vlaai’ and several well-known brands of beer such as Brand, Alfa and Gulpener.
Pig farming and poultry are the core industries in Noord-Brabant which also boasts the two beautiful cities of Breda and Den Bosch. Den Bosch is the culinary home of the Bossche Bol, a delicious choux pastry stuffed with whipped cream and dipped generously in chocolate.
Zeeland gained notoriety for the devastating flood of 1953, which killed more than 1800 people and destroyed innumerable livestock. The disaster resulted in the implementation of the Delta Project, an ambitious and ultimately successful scheme to construct innovative flood barriers in the North Sea. Zeeland is also known for its sweeping beaches and stunning coastline that is home to an abundance of oysters, mussel and Oosterschelde lobster.
The Eastern Provinces
Gelderland, Overijjsel and Drenthe are found to the east of the country.
Gelderland is best known for its bountiful fruit harvest in the fertile area of the ‘Betuwe’ and for the Hoge Veluwe – the biggest and arguably the most breathtaking National Park in the Netherlands.
Overijssel enjoyed a prosperous past, a fact that can still be witnessed today in the Hanseatic cities of Deventer, Kampen and Zwolle. Today Overijssel is popular with visitors who come to explore its green landscape and unspoiled nature reserves or to enjoy the delicious game dishes that can be sampled during the Autumn.
Drenthe, is rich in sand and peat which until the 1950’s was mined and sold as fuel. As this industry died out, the naturally sandy soil was reclaimed by heath lands that were until recently exploited for sheep farming. These moorlands have now been replaced by lush forest and a natural landscape that is best explored by bike, particularly as the province features 1400km of cycle paths!
The Northern Provinces
Friesland and Groningen are the most northerly of the Dutch provinces.
Groningen is an agriculturally driven region that, with its magnificent and varied countryside, is ideal for cycling and walking. It has long history of wealthy landowners whose extravagant stately homes are a clear reminder of the gap that once existed between rich and poor.
Friesland, to the west of Groningen, is known around the world for its Elfstedentocht (the Eleven Towns Tour), a punishing ice-skating race that is held on natural ice only when the ice is thick enough and stringent conditions permit. During the summer its picturesque lakes and spectacular islands are a real attraction, drawing tourists from both home and abroad.