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F rom the Frisian Islands in the north to Zeeland in the south, the Netherlands packs quite a punch for such a small country, with its fine sandy beaches, picturesque villages and vibrant, progressive cities. This mix becomes more remarkable when you consider that one-third of their present land was reclaimed from the sea. “God may have created the earth, but t h e D u t chcreated the Netherlands”, as the popular saying goes. Water and trade shaped its history, and as any visitor will soon discover, this friendly, outwardlooking nation is adept at managing both.


For one of the world’s great cultural centres, Amsterdam wears its riches with remarkable ease. It has a wealth of art gems and handsome buildings in an old centre bathed by beautiful waterways. Lined with elms and spanned by hump-backed bridges, the canals frame the gabled mansions built for Dutch merchants and bankers . In the 17th century, they frequently commissioned artists such as Rembrandt van Rijn, whose celebrated Nightwatch can be seen in the Rijksmuseum . This repository of Old Masters includes works by Johannes Vermeer, Frans Hals and Jan Steen. It is located near the unmissable Van Gogh Museum , which has over 200 paintings on display, the largest collection of the artist’s paintings in the world. The Stedelijk Museum  has a rich collection of modern art. The city has museums galore, from the moving displays of the Anne Frank Huis  to ones devoted to sex, tulips and hemp. Wondrous architecture is seen everywhere, from the elaborate Westerkerk  to the designer offices on the IJ riverside. From the 14th century, sailors sought more transient pleasures in the Red Light District , today a mish-mash of bars, brothels and neon-lit sex shops, though the council has started a clean-up campaign. The Dutch have a strong café culture . It is arguably cosiest in the renowned “brown” cafés, some 400 years old, named for their dark, cosy, wood-panelled interiors. Many are hidden in the tiny lanes of the Jordaan, the popular former workers’ district .


NORTH HOLLAND • Rich heritage of Haarlem • Windmills at Zaanse Schans • Traditional cheese markets • The past comes to life at Enkhuizen A short distance from Amsterdam you’ll find charms that rival any the capital has to offer. The historic city of Haarlem has a well-preserved old centre, anchored by the vast Grote Kerk and buildings in classic Dutch and Art Deco style. Here the Frans Hals Museum is a must for lovers of fine art. To the north lies Zaanse Schans with its picture-book windmills . The old ports of Hoorn and Monnickendam  along the coast of the IJsselmeer exude an oldtime prosperity. On the West Elegant houses lining Amsterdam’s canals Frisian peninsula, the one time fishing village of Enkhuizen is home to the intriguing Zuiderzeemuseum, an open-air museum depicting village life of yesteryear . Of all the traditional Dutch cheese markets, the most famous is held in Alkmaar .


The river Vecht weaves lazily through this petite province, where many landed gentry kept their summer estates. The church bishops of Utrecht city once wielded enormous power, and their influence is still palpable in this merry university town. Its soaring Domtoren, or cathedral tower, is the country’s tallest. A milestone of the De Stijl movement, the fascinating architecture of the Rietveld Schröderhuis features moveable walls . Superstition is the thing in sleepy Oudewater, which still has a set of witches’ scales 

home to the Dutch government and the industrial heartland, yet vast areas are chocolate-box pretty, with verdant meadows, windmills and grazing cattle. Come springtime, the bulb fields erupt into a riot of colours, an event choreographed at Keukenhof gardens . Leiden is famous for its university, the country’s oldest, and the exotic gardens of Hortus Botanicus . An air of refined elegance pervades The Hague, where French was once the lingua franca of the upper class . Due to a compromise with Holland’s trading elite, the city became the seat of Dutch parliament but never the capital. Its impressive Maurithuis contains Vermeer’s masterpiece, Girl with a Pearl Earring . Weaving and brewing put it on the map, but Delft is known best for its distinctive


Of all the watery Dutch provinces, none experiences Neptune’s wrath more than tiny Zeeland. Lakes and river estuaries slice the landscape into islands and peninsulas, giving its communities an isolated feel. It was a fitting spot for monks, as chronicled at the Zeeuws Abbey Museum in Middelburg . Nowadays the sea is checked by the Delta Works, a marvel of Dutch engineering . Hundreds of listed buildings, some of them from the Middle Ages, can be admired in historic Zierikzee .


This necklace of sandy isles offers some of the most alluring and remote terrain in Europe. The shores of the Waddenzee have wetlands favoured by breeding and migratory birds . A curious local pastime is wadlopen, or walking through the mudflats when the tide goes out . The largest and most diverse island is Texel, with its wide beaches, dark pine forests and sleepy villages . Schiermonnikoog is perfect for hiking, and entirely carfree . The smallest island, Vlieland, consists only of dunes .


In the Middle Ages this northerly province grew rich through farming, and later through its links to the Hanseatic League of trading cities. Agriculture is still big, but the region is also noted for its windmills, castles and terps, or ancient knobs of elevated land. Historic Groningen is the provincial capital, a lively university town with the cutting-edge Groninger Museum of art, archaeology and history . The seal nursery at Pieterburen attracts visitors from around the country . The geometric beauty of Bourtange, a star-shaped fortress commissioned by William of Orange, is now an open-air museum .


The Frisians are known for their singularity thanks to a distinct language, sports like fierljeppen (ditch-polevaulting) and an unmistakable breed of black-and-white cow. Its hub, Leeuwarden, was home to World War I femme fatale Mata Hari as well as the House of Orange-Nassau, a branch of the Dutch Royal Family, and its generous parks, courtyards and gardens bear their royal stamp . The region produces champion ice-skaters who race at the Thialfstadion in Heerenveen . In summer, Sneek comes alive with boaters in their sailbarges on the glistening lakes 


The Netherlands’ prehistoric roots run deepest in this sparsely-populated region that has always lived off the land. Woodlands, heath and peat bogs ooze a primeval atmosphere and the province is peppered with megaliths that mark ancient burial grounds . The largest concentration of megaliths can be found at Emmen 


This eastern province has a long and fascinating history marked by clashes in religion and dialect among its competing towns. The picturesque river port of Zwolle belonged to the Hanseatic League, which dominated trade with England and the Baltic states . It was later joined by Kampen and Deventer, both pretty towns with fortifications. Girded by ponds, lakes and tiny canals, Giethoorn is an impossibly quaint village 


Consisting solely of reclaimed land, this is the youngest Dutch province, established only in 1986. Its star turn is the Batavia, a reconstruction of a 17th-century Dutch frigate that sank on its maiden voyage to the East Indies . The former island villages of Urk and Schokland have fishermen’s cottages, churches and monuments to those lost at sea . The Oostervaardersplassen is a marshland reserve that lures bird-watchers 


This former duchy is known for its medieval buildings, castles and fortified towns. Its royal pedigree led the House of Orange to build the fabulous Paleis Het Loo, where Queen Wilhemina lived until 1962 . The rambling Nationaal Park De Hoge

Veluwe is the biggest in the country. It contains the acclaimed Kröller-Müller Museum with its major works by Van Gogh . Pummelled in a fierce battle in World War II, Arnhem has several monuments restored to their prewar splendour .


This southern province bears many hallmarks of its medi eval heydey. Towns flourished along key trading routes, including ‘s-Hertogenbosch, also called Den Bosch, a wealthy town founded by the Dukes of Brabant . The old centre is dominated by the Gothicstyle Sint Jan Cathedral, which has many religious treasures . There are plenty of castles to be admired in towns like Breda and Heeze . North Brabant is also renowned for the natural beauty of areas such as the Biesbosch National Park and the Loonse dunes, which teem with wildlife .


Perched on a spit of land with Belgium and Germany on either side, Limburg is multilingual and easy-going. The cosmopolitan town of Maastricht, which was founded in Roman times, has several fine museums,

limestone caves, a splendid basilica and some of the country’s best restaurants . Its Bonnefantenmuseum has an outstanding gallery of modern art . In contrast to the northern flatlands, the gently rolling hills of the Heuvelland are dotted with woodlands and fruit orchards. Situated in an area replete with castles, the old fortified town of Valkenburg has a 13th-century Romanesque church, catacombs and a cable car .


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