September 1986, Zwolle, Netherlands
River barges moored in a canal in Zwolle.
Click on the thumbnail to see the full photo.
The Netherlands and the Dutch
There are a lot of stereotypes regarding the Netherlands, some of them based in reality, some not. Yes, there are windmills still. Yes, many older people still wear traditional dress and wooden shoes. Yes, you can easily find land lower than sea level.
But you might have a tough time finding some things you might expect. For example, although growing tulips is a major industry, you won’t find fields of flowers. The farmers cut off the flowers shortly after they appear to encourage the growth of the bulbs, which is the actual exported product. You can indeed find flowers, but you have to visit at just the right time in the spring.
Another myth is the liberal attitude of the Dutch. The reality is that the Dutch are a very conservative people, but also a very practical people. For example, the attitude towards “soft” drugs is not based on liberalness, but based on their practical approach to the problem of drug use.
This conservative but practical nature of the Dutch manifests itself in other ways. In the village of Giethorn, the people are so conservative that the sole purpose of marriage is to raise children. The practical consequence is that only couples who can demonstrate the ability to produce children are allowed to marry!
If you enjoy food, consider visiting another country. For the practical Dutch, food is a necessity, not generally something to enjoy. To be sure, it’s still good. But culinary art just isn’t a priority.
We visited one restaurant (more of a bar actually), and there were only three hot meals on the menu, two of them schnitzels. I chose the “Schnitzel Speciaal”. What was the difference between the “Schnitzel” and the “Schnitzel Speciaal”? The latter had a fried egg on top.
If you want more flavorful fare, look for the Indonesian restaurants.
Believe it or not, some people actually visit the Netherlands for the weather. People from the Middle East visit to experience the cool and rainy weather. At one time, a hotel in Amsterdam offered a special guarantee to visitors from the Middle East. If it didn’t rain once during their week-long stay, their room would be free!
It’s not that there aren’t sunny days in the Netherlands. Sunny weather isn’t at all unusual. But for those who really want sun, other countries further south have more to offer.
What to See?
During my flight to Amsterdam in 1986, another passenger advised me: “Don’t visit Amsterdam – they’ll steal the shoes on your feet!”. My uncle said the same thing later that day.
A colleague described her honeymoon visit to Amsterdam: When they arrived at their hotel, the desk clerk asked about their car. He advised them to leave the car unlocked, since a locked car only made the thieves angry. He also advised them to remove the car radio and keep it with them in their hotel room.
Fortunately, since then, Amsterdam has been cleaned up and it’s now again a relatively safe place to visit. Take the train into the city and start your visit with a boat tour of the canals. Then, wander around the city on foot.
Madurodam is a popular spot near Den Haag (The Hague). It is a representation of the country in miniature. But it’s a bit overpriced. After being taken aback by the prices at the ticket counter, you may well be tempted to skip buying the guide to the park. Inside, you’ll find that the only way to see a description of each building is to buy the guide. Train fans will enjoy the model railroad winding its way through the park.
A nice way to see the countryside is a boat tour of the inland canals. Boat tours leave a couple of times a day from Katwijk aan Zee. We arrived earlier than we expected, but just in time for the 4.5 hour tour. You can easily see that much of the land is at a lower elevation than the water in the canal. The boats used for the tour are interesting in that the seats on the upper deck fold down to enable the boat to pass underneath certain bridges.
The collection of windmills at Kinderdijk is a “must see”. If you visit on the weekend, you can see the mills operating. Again, be sure to take a boat tour around the site.
Many of the small towns and villages are enjoyable to explore. Most churches contain carillons in the steeples, and if you’re at the right place at the right time, you can enjoy the music from the carillons. In fact, the Netherlands is home to about 40% of the worlds carillons!
There’s still much more to see: The polders and the water control dams (for example, Haringvlietdam) are engineering marvels. Towns where the older people still wear traditional dress on weekends (such as Spakenburg). Villages now connected to the mainland, which at one time used to be islands (such as Urk). Old towns with city walls and gates still standing (such as Amersfoort and Kampen).
The road system, like much of north-central Europe, is efficient and easy to navigate through. If you want to drive from one place to another, the signs will direct you along the fastest route. That route often takes you onto the expressways, which may not be what you want if you’re a tourist. A map can help you plot a route that avoids the major highways. The Michelin maps are indispensible. (In contrast, in Germany, often you can choose to follow either the blue signs which direct you to the Autobahn, or the yellow signs which follow the more scenic B class roads.)
Although language may be a bit of a problem in some of the larger European countries, English is commonly understood and spoken by the Dutch.
The Netherlands my not be quite what you expect. Dutch society is among the most modern in Europe, but still with old traditions. The conservative, yet practical nature of the Dutch provides some surprising contrasts. It’s still an enjoyable country to visit, provided you leave your preconceptions at home.