The route less traveled – Discovering the Netherlands
by Matthew Beattie
From its wild North Sea coastline, to the cultural and architectural delights of its historic cities, the Netherlands – or Holland as it is often known – is a land of waterways, contrasts and surprises.
The Dutch have history to thank for tourists’ confusion about the name of their country. Officially called the Netherlands today, this low-lying kingdom in the northwest of Europe has had several monikers throughout its history – of which Holland has endured, both in the name of two of the nation’s twelve provinces, and as an unofficial national nickname. But names aside, it is a nation well worth visiting – whether for a city break or a longer vacation.
A nation of contrasts
Many visitors to the Netherlands never set foot outside the manifold charms of the nation’s capital Amsterdam. And with so many world-class museums and cultural attractions on offer there, it is not difficult to see why: Amsterdam is a city worthy of a travel guide in its own right. Yet, stray beyond the leafy canals of the Grachtengordel, which surrounds Amsterdam’s historic center, and you will discover a country filled with contrasts and variety. From the modern high-rise architecture and cosmopolitan vibe of Rotterdam to the picture postcard rural charm of Edam, the Netherlands offers something for all tastes and budgets.
The excellent Dutch public transport system puts cities such as lively Utrecht, or The Hague – with its historic palaces and buildings – within easy reach of the capital. Both are delightful and well worth exploring; however, when it comes to exemplifying the cultural variety to be found in the Netherlands, Rotterdam and Maastricht are great places to start.
The port city of Rotterdam is home to avant-garde architecture, innovative cuisine and sophisticated shops. With its skyscrapers and vibrant mix of cultures, it feels unlike any other city in the Netherlands. Many of Rotterdam’s historical buildings were destroyed in Second World War bombing raids, so the city that rose from the ashes is almost entirely modern. Indeed, it still continues to rise, as new buildings are constantly being added to the evolving skyline. This drive for innovation and modernity has made Rotterdam a hothouse for avant-garde Dutch design and architecture.
Famous horseshoe-shaped Market Hall in Rotterdam, which was opened by Queen Máxima of the Netherlands on October 1, 2014.
Divided by the Nieuwe Maas Shipping Canal, Rotterdam is very much a seafaring city. Signs of its maritime tradition are everywhere, and the extensive Maritime Museum – with its historic ships – should not be missed. Rotterdam is also a gastronome’s dream, offering the best in innovative Dutch cooking and world cuisines. From molecular gastronomy to the multicultural offerings of the city’s West Kruiskade district, the hardest aspect of any visit to Rotterdam is choosing among so many great places to eat.
Perhaps best recognized among Europeans as the city where the Treaty for European Union was signed in 1991, Maastricht is one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands. It nestles amid the rolling pastures of the Limburg province, close to the borders with Germany and Belgium. Home to Roman ruins, historic churches and handsome merchant houses, this once fortified city has been shaped by its strategically important position on the Meuse River – and an often turbulent past.
Vrijthof Square with Saint Servatius Basilica and Saint John Church in Maastricht.
Het Vrijthof has attracted visitors since medieval times, when pilgrims would flock to the grave of Saint Servatius. Nowadays, it is the pavement cafes and various cultural events that make this delightful square in the old city a must-see attraction – as well as the perfect place to linger over a coffee and take in the spectacular Romanesque Saint Servatius Basilica. Also not to be missed is a tour of the manmade caves of Saint Peter’s Mount, just outside the center of the city. Carved out of the limestone over centuries, these caverns were used to hide Rembrandt’s painting “The Night Watch” during the Second World War.
With over 33,000 kilometers of dedicated signposted cycle routes at your disposal, one of the most rewarding ways of discovering the Dutch countryside is by bicycle. The absence of steep hills makes biking a breeze, while the short distances between villages, towns and cities means that you are never far away from somewhere to stop and rest. There are even travel companies that will organize your route for you, arranging accommodation and transporting your belongings between overnight stops. Travel in a tour group or set your own pace – the choice is yours.
Bicycles parked on canal bridge in Amsterdam.
Picture postcard Holland
The IJsselmeer Tour is one of the most charming of the long-distance cycling routes in the Netherlands. Start out in Amsterdam, before embarking on an 8-day journey of discovery that will transport you 400 kilometers, through polder scenery and nature reserves. Wind along the medieval streets of traditional Zuidersee fishing villages like Volendam and Marken, or stop off for local cheese at the old town of Edam.
Family biking along windmill-lined canal path in Kinderdijk, Netherlands.
Big skies and sea views
For lovers of the sea, the Dutch Coastal Route takes in 570 kilometers of beautiful Dutch coastline. It runs from Sluis in the province of Zeeland to Nieuweschans in the north. Wind your way through the pleasant seaside resorts of the Zeeland Islands, past lighthouses, windswept dunes and onwards to the peaceful and natural landscapes of Noord-Holland and Groningen provinces. Stop for fresh seafood at a charming local restaurant, or relax with a drink at a beachside bar and watch the sun set over the sea – what better way to unwind after a day in the saddle?
Even if a full long-distance bike tour feels a little ambitious, there is no reason you still can’t enjoy the Dutch countryside on two wheels. You can always take one of the many so-called junction routes to shorten a longer
tour, or simply load your bike on the train and ride the rails.
Lighthouse on the coast of Zeeland (Zealand), the remote province in the far southwest of the Netherlands
Discover the Netherlands for yourself
To find more information about these destinations, as well as other great Dutch vacation ideas, visit www.holland.com
www.holland-cycling.com has a wealth of useful information about biking in the Netherlands, while travel companies such as www.cycletours.com offer an array of organized Dutch biking vacations to suit all levels of experience (and fitness).