Welcome to The Netherlands
This small, flat, sinking, and windy country has been our home for almost 4 years. It's home to canals, windmills, clogs, cheese and beer...oh and until recently, smoked-filled restauarants (which made very ordinary Dutch food taste even more ordinary). However, we love it here. The Dutch are friendly and easy-going, they don't really care that you can't speak their language as they are all willing to speak English (Dutch is not the easiest nor most sensual language in Europe) and they certainly know how to have a good time. Most of the population is stuck in the 80's with big hair, bad fashion and dreadful musical tastes, but the same could be said for most European countries for that matter. Oh, and generally, the weather sucks most of the year.
Tulips and windmills - what Holland is known for!
The Netherlands, or Holland as it is widely known, sits on the coast above Belgium and below Denmark. If you wanted, you could swim off the beach here directly to England, which is about 40mins flying time away. Much of the country is reclaimed land from the sea, so it is very flat and has a great deal of canals to regulate the water flow. From above in a plane, it looks as though the country is constantly flooded, which it probably is, and by all reports the land is heading back into the sea by a few inches every year. Not only is it flat, apart from the small dykes that prevent the sea or canal water coming into your backyard, but it must also be the windiest place on earth. Of course, this is based on feel more than any scientific facts, but even on the calmest of days, there is a wind blowing from some direction - or more often than not, all directions! The population stands at about 17 million and is a mix of native Dutch, other Europeans, Africans and a growing Middle East population. Not being able to recall the exact figure, but the latter demographic makes up close to 1m residents. Then of course there is us - expats. Holland has it's fair share of expats as many of the world's biggest companies are (at least in part) Dutch - Phillips, Shell, Unilever, ING - or have their headquarters based here due to very attractive corporate tax rates - Nike, Starbucks, and U2 (ok, the last is probably 'not one of the world's biggest companies'). The Netherlands is also the base for international organisations, namely the United Nations, that manages the International Crimes Tribunal. We see our fair share of 'war celebrities' in this part of the world.
...and of course we can't forget the clogs
The Dutch, like most Europeans, are passionate about football / soccer and cycling. Being so flat, the latter is a national pasttime and in this country 'the bike is king'. Bike paths surround the entire country and it would be fair to say that every Dutch household has at least one bike, but more often than not, up to five or six. On the bike paths, or fietspad, you'll see anything and everything that resembles a bicycle. This include racing bikes, mountain bikes, touring bikes, 'town bikes' (what we call those bikes for just getting around town and are normally rusted and squeaking), bikes with saddle-bags on the back, those with boxes on the front for transporting children or dogs (another Dutch passion), ones with baby seats on the front, back, handlebars, and anywhere else you can fit it, then there is those with plastic windscreens to protect rider from the wind, and finally, mopeds that come in varying shapes and sizes (these are a menace as teenagers mostly go far too quick on them).
The more people on the bike the better!
The bike is king in Holland
Anyway, that's a general overview of The Netherlands and its population. Dive into each city below to find out more about what there is to do, eat, see, and buy.
Our home and a city we've grown fond of over the past few years, believe it or not. I'm sure our British colleagues from work who have lived or visited here and are reading this will think we are crazy or have turned Dutch (although we cannot speak the language), but The Hague has a lot to experience and it's a pretty good city to live in. Unfortunately, not enough foreigners who do live or visit here take the time to explore and discover some great art galleries, stores and restaurants. For example, the Mauritshuis has to be one of the world's best small art galleries, with a very fine collection of Dutch masters and pieces, including The Girl with the Pearl Earring and The anatomy lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, both from the 1600's. Likewise, Panorama Mesdag is one single painting unlike you've ever seen before. Although painted in the late 1800's, it provides a wonderful view of the Den Haag landscape, particularly leading up to Scheveningen beach.
Scheveningen beach, 3km from The Hague city centre
Speaking of the beach, it is good to be by the coast but unfortunately Scheveningen is nothing to write home about. Although that and other coastal towns further north and south attract a large portion of (mainly) German tourists each year. It's nothing compared to those in Asia or South America, but it's a European beach, so not too bad. There's even a nudist section to the north if anyone is interested? There are a number of permanent restaurants and bars along the esplande, but they also do a great job in building temporary ones on the sand during summer. Not that you would know they are temporary as they are pretty elaborate with indoor and outdoor seating, kitchens, open fires and the very important wind protectors. There are many that are ideal for a few drinks when the weather is nice, but mostly the food is pretty crap, or to describe it another way, the food is very Dutch.
The Hague Parliament
However, there are no shortage of good eating and drinking places around The Hague. Most of these are based in the city or inner suburbs, as suburban areas tend to close down quite early at night. Choices including Seafood, Thai, Indian, Steaks and Pasta, with plenty of traditional Dutch restaurants too, and the quality and cost will vary, although The Hague is a very expensive city in which to dine out. Like everywhere, there are some hidden gems around. If you're looking for good coffee, you've come to the wrong city (and country for that matter). Although the Dutch love coffee, we've yet to find a place that does good cappucinos or lattes, however lungo (straight black) is not too bad, but they really just have one very bad coffee supplier (you'll find for many things there is just one supplier). The Coffee Company on Nordeinde is the closest thing to a good coffee and one of the very few places that make it with skimmed milk (although all sorts of milk are available in supermarkets, cafes tend to offer only the full-cream variety). Nordeinde is the higher-end shopping area in the city as the rest is a mix between High St and Low St. There are some beautiful furniture and homeware shops, along with loads of shoe and clothing stores. Overall, it's a very good mix and not once have we felt the need to go to Amsterdam for shopping of any kind (note: as we have been renovating a house over the past 2 years, we know the hardware stores well....very glam).
Skyline of The Hague
One of the best things about The Hague is all of the parks and woodlands. Just over the back of our house there is Haagsche Bos, which spreads out over many acres and has lakes, hundreds of trees, and some great running paths. Every now and again during winter, the lake actually freezes over so people go ice-skating on it. A fantastic site in winter or summer and we spend many a Sunday afternoon strolling around. At the far end is the Queen's residence, although it's heavily guarded so you can't see much. Not far up the road is Clingendael, another park that has more grass than trees which is fantastic for a picnic in summer, and also features an old mansion that we imagine someone use to live in years ago, but is now run by the parks ministry. With those and many more parks, The Hague is a very green city making the 5 mins we need to cycle to work that more enjoyable.
For as famous as Amsterdam is, it doesn't really have much that is very exciting. It is well know for its coffee-shops (where they are legally allowed to sell dope) and the red-light district (where they are legally allowed to sell sex). So would normal Dutch people live there for these 'attractions'? It does bring in the tourists though, particularly the British lads on a bucks night. We find Amsterdam too unwelcoming and grubby, but in saying that, we normally have to arrive at central station, so tell me a place in Europe that has its main train station located in the upmarket area?
When you know where you are going in Amsterdam, it can be great. We go up for a day and night out every so often, exploring parts of the city that we don't know. Of course, we always end up taking visitors up there so they can see what it's all about. The Van Gogh and Rijks Museums are certainly worth a look, as is Anne Frank's House. In summer, it's also nice to take a canal cruise, although it can be packed with tourists, and often you don't see much as the canals are quite low. It's a bit of a novelty to cruise around a major city like that though (its nicer around Leiden - 20mins south of Amsterdam - where you can skipper your own little hire boat and take along six friends with some wine & food). Amsterdam is great for viewing the narrow houses that were built hundreds of years ago and are mostly on a lean - either accidently to the left or right due to the foundations or deliberately forward which helped to move items from the ground outside up to the top level.
The narrowest house in Amsterdam Zuiderkerk (South Church) along the canal
There's plenty of good restaurants and pubs in Amsterdam and part of a day trip for us always includes a few beers and a good feed. If you head away from the main city area to The Jordaan, about 10mins walk to the right as you walk out of central station, there are two of our favourite restaurants right next to each other: Shahjahan Indian and Kinnaree Thai on Anjeliersdwarsstraat. Wandering around the streets, you'll come across the traditional pubs too, which is surprising (the 'traditional' part, not the fact they you'll find pubs) because The Jordaan has been taken over by young people, however there is really no upmarket bars there (or at least that we could see), but that may have to do with the artistic nature of the area. On the other side of town, there is probably the best restaurant in The Netherlands: De Kas (www.restaurantdekas.nl). Set in a glasshouse in a garden, this place offer seasonal fare, much of which is grown in it's own garden. It's not cheap, but excellent, and has to be visited in daylight savings or summer time (March - Oct), so you can appreciate the natural light. Amsterdam also has a good music scene, with loads of international acts scheduling the city on world tours. To date, we've seen U2 at the Amsterdam Arena and, more recently, Kings of Leon at the Heineken Music Hall but pretty much everyone has played there.
Two of the oldest warehouse in Amsterdam
There's not much to say about Rotterdam. Not that there isn't anything in one of Holland's largest and important cities (it's a gateway for trade into all of Europe), it's just we haven't really explored it. Probably the most we've done is ride a bike through it a few times and attend the Ahoy Arena once to watch an indoor tennis tournament (where loads of huge international acts like Metallica and Coldplay perform). From all reports, Rotterdam is a livey city with some great bars and clubs, but like many cities, you really need to know where these are. Gibbo spent a few days here back in the 90's when backpacking in Europe, as a family he was staying with lived in Rotterdam Zuid. From memory, apart from the massive port (Europort) that sees container ships coming and going to all places around the world (but most likely China!), Rotterdam tried to make the city modern after much of it was destroyed during WWII, but filed miserably. Some of the 'modern' buildings that may have been cutting-edge design back in the 50s and 60s (although its doubtful), certainly haven't aged well and now look completely out of place amongst the rest of the country. Anyway, they had a go....
Whilst living in The Netherlands, we plan to do some research and get our butts on the train to Rotterdam as it's only about 20mins away. We need to find a local....
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