I’ve always been interested in the Netherlands. In grade school, when we were assigned to do reports on a country of the world, I chose the Netherlands.
Most of my interest is probably due to the fact that three quarters of my ancestry is Dutch. A few years after I completed the country report, I became interested in genealogy and was eventually able to trace parts of my family tree back to the 1400s.
In 2000, my mother and I were able to attend a family reunion in the Netherlands. We spent a short week in the country, but during that week I was bitten by a travel bug that has never gone away.
I’ve been back to the Netherlands several times since that first trip and I’m thinking about visiting again this fall.
A Little Background
The Netherlands is often referred to as Holland. There are two provinces, North Holland and South Holland, that hold about one third of the country’s population, which might be part of the reason the country is called Holland, but this name is incorrect. Even though “Holland” is not connected to the name of the country, it is common with tourists and investors – so common that websites for these industries use Holland in their name (holland.com).
The Netherlands promotes itself as a politically neutral country. It is progressive socially, with legal, controlled prostitution and drug use. The Netherlands has strong welfare, health-care, and retirement systems. It ranks high in quality of life and happiness.
I have friends and relatives who live in the Netherlands. I asked them if they’d rather live in the US. They said they’d rather stay where they are, even though taxes are higher. In the US, they would be afraid of becoming poor if they had health problems or when they retired. The economic system in the Netherlands takes care of its own.
For hundreds of years, the Netherlands struggled to become a country. Because of its size, it was not able to gain much of a stronghold over larger, more powerful surrounding countries.
It wasn’t until the seventeenth century that some unity was achieved. The Dutch Golden Age, when the country excelled in trade, science, and art, became somewhat of a turning point. Throughout this time and for years after, wars were still fought and invasions were attempted by larger countries in order to gain control.
During the late 18th and the 19th centuries, the Netherlands stabilized itself through William of Orange and King William I. The Southern Netherlands rebelled and gained independence as Belgium in 1830. When William III died in 1890 with no male heirs, ties with Luxembourg were also cut. The three countries – the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg – were now independent.
Then Netherlands was able to remain neutral during WWI, because of its importance as a port country. In WWII, however, Germany successfully invaded the country. Over 100,000 Dutch Jews were sent to their deaths at concentration camps. Thousands of Dutch people risked their lives to hide Jews, but thousands more fought alongside the Germans.
After the war, international pressure caused the Netherlands to release its colonies. Bonaire, Sint Eustatius, and Saba remain as independent municipalities that are part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
The Netherlands has a king, presently King William-Alexander, but he has limited powers. The government is a democracy with a multi-party system. The party holding the majority has changed frequently over the years. Coalitions are formed among the parties to rule the country.
The country is divided into twelve provinces, each governed by a King’s Commissioner. My ancestors came from Friesland and Groningen in the north and Zeeland in the south.
The word “Netherlands” means low country – much of the country of the Netherlands is below sea level or has been reclaimed from the sea. Centuries ago, the Dutch began digging ditches and building dikes in order to control the water. The draining of the land cause the peat-heavy soil to compress, lowering the level of the land even more.
Over the years, the land compression has contributed to major flooding from the three major rivers that flow through the country – the Rhine, the Meuse, and the Scheldt. In 1287, the St. Lucia flood killed over 50,000 people.
The largest flood in recent history was the North Sea flood in 1953, when over 1800 people were killed in south-east Netherlands. Soon after this flood, the Delta Works project was begun. Over the course of more than 30 years, the series of dams, sluices, dikes, levees, and storm surge barriers were installed to help protect the southern delta area.
In the northern part of the Netherlands, a dike called the Afsliutdijk was built in 1932. The dike blocked the former Zuiderzee from the North Sea, eventually creating the freshwater IJsselmeer. Part of the lake was reclaimed from the sea creating four polders which totaled over 950 square miles.
Amsterdam and Other Cities
Amsterdam is the largest city in the Netherlands and serves as its capital. The beautiful city center has a series of semi-circular canals. Trams and bikes provide the majority of transportation around the city.
Rotterdam is Europe’s largest port, located in the Southern part of the country. It is the second largest city in the Netherlands. The city was nearly obliterated during WWII, but rebuilt during the 1950s through 1970s. It is a very modern city compared to many in Europe.
The Hague is the seat of the government. Located less than 50 miles from Amsterdam and fifteen miles from Rotterdam, it is the third largest city in the Netherlands.
Other large cities in the Netherlands include: Utrecht, Eindhoven, Groningen, Nijmegen, Arnhem, Apeldoorn, Haarlem, Delft, and Enschede. Some of the cities are more popular for tourism than others.
The Netherlands is a popular tourist destination, even for people without Dutch heritage. The country is most known for its flowers and art.
The most popular place to see flowers in the Netherlands is at Keukenhof Gardens in Lisse. Keukenhof is open from March 21 to May 19 this year. Over 70 million bulbs are planted each year – tulips, daffodils, lilies, and many others. There are four pavilions in addition to outdoor spaces.
The Royal FloraHolland flower market in Aalsmeer is the largest flower auction in the world with over 20 million flowers and plants sold every day. On a smaller scale, but maybe more accessible is the flower market in Amsterdam. Vendors line the Singel canal to sell flowers and bulbs to locals and visiting tourists.
The Netherlands has given the world several amazing Dutch artists – among them, Frans Hals, Jan Steen, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh.
Amsterdam has the large Rijksmuseum which houses works of several artists. One of the most outstanding works is Rembrandt’s Night Watch.
The Van Gogh Museum boasts over 200 paintings plus drawings and letters by Van Gogh. Some of the most recognized are Sunflowers, The Potato Eaters and The Bedroom. As a Van Gogh fan, this museum is my favorite.
Visiting the Netherlands
Writing this post makes me yearn to go back. There is so much of the Netherlands I haven’t seen and more that I want to see again.
Have you visited the Netherlands? Have you visited the country of your heritage? Leave your comments below.