A Driving Tour of Holland

Summer 2010 CSANews Issue 75  |  Posted date : Jul 20, 2010.Back to list

Holland is a tourism paradox. It's a compact country (only 175 by 295 kilometres in size), but it is so full of things to see and do that it seems much larger. You can drive from corner to corner in just four hours, but spend weeks sightseeing in-between. Travelling around, you'll find the latest fashions and traditional costumes, ancient monuments and modern ports.

Our Holland tour began and ended in Amsterdam. The city's concentric spider web of 165 canals divides it into islands, linked together by 1,281 bridges. The best way to explore Amsterdam is on a canal boat ride, followed by a walking tour and visits to some of its 55 theatres and concert halls, 42 museums and 140 art galleries. Diversions range from diamond-cutting demonstrations and Heineken Brewery tours to outdoor markets and 2,000 restaurants, cafés and pubs.

From its narrow-fronted, step-gabled homes to its melodious barrel organs, Amsterdam enthralled us. But Amsterdam doesn't represent Holland any more than Toronto represents Canada. On a driving tour through 12 provinces, we discovered Holland's surprising diversity.

Less than 30 minutes from Amsterdam are Volendam and Marken (a former island, now joined by a causeway to the mainland). Residents lost their fishing livelihood when the Enclosing Dam separated the Zuiderzee from the North Sea in 1932, creating the IJsselmeer, a huge salt lake. Today, tourism preserves postcard-pretty houses and traditional costumes.

Continuing through Edam, the famous cheese town with its canals, drawbridges and gabled homes, we drove north towards the IJsselmeer. The Zuiderzee Museum in Enkhuisen displays houses, shops, streets and gardens, as well as costumes, art and boats.

We followed the coast up to the Enclosing Dam. One glance at the 32-kilometre-long sea wall convinced us of the immensity of its construction, involving hundreds of people and ships. You can drive along the dam to Friesland province and continue your circuit of the IJsselmeer back to Amsterdam (a full-day's drive) or elect, as we did, to continue your North Holland tour to Alkmaar's traditional cheese market.

On Friday mornings, from April to September, you'll see thousands of round yellow balls of Edam cheese stacked in neat rows in Alkmaar's Weigh House courtyard. Buyers and sellers use a centuries-old method of hand-slapping to negotiate prices that are as binding on both parties as signed contracts. Cheese-carriers, garbed in white with colourful straw hats, pile up to 80 cheeses on shiny wooden barrows. With distinctive bobbing gaits, calculated not to spill their loads, they bring the cheeses to the Weigh House scale. Cheese has been sold this way in Alkmaar for 400 years. It's a sight that shouldn't be missed.

Neither should you miss De Zaanse Schans, in nearby Zaandam. We strolled along red-brick streets and took a boat tour of this quaint open-air museum. People still inhabit many of the 17th- and 18th-century green wooden, white-trimmed homes that were relocated here.

Holland once had 10,000 windmills, used for grinding corn, sawing wood and pumping water from low-lying polders. Today, Holland's 1,000 remaining windmills are national monuments. In one of three windmills, open to the public in De Zaanse Schans, we watched a millstone crushing peanuts to make oil.

Inside the Zaanse Schans Wooden Shoe Workshop and Museum, we watched a clog-maker shape wooden shoes from blocks of poplar and hollow them out by machine. After drying the shoes for 10 days, some were polished for farmers' shoes and others were varnished and decorated for tourists.

We crossed the North Sea Canal on our way to Haarlem. Extending for 25 kilometres from Amsterdam to IJmuiden, it passes through vast locks. Although Haarlem is worth a stop to see historic almshouses and Golden Age Dutch paintings in the Frans Hals Museum, most visitors head to the beach resort of Zandvoort.

The world's largest flower auction, in nearby Aalsmeer, sells more than 20 million flowers every weekday. We viewed the flower market from a catwalk. As each cart of carnations, mums, roses, daisies, tulips and orchids entered the auction hall, the auctioneer started the bidding at a fixed price. On the large screen at the front of the theatre-style room, a clock's hand rotated as the price quickly decreased. The first buyer submitting a bid electronically stopped the clock and purchased the flowers.

In South Holland, between March and May, Keukenhof is called "the greatest flower show on earth." The stage is a 32-hectare park. The actors are seven million bulb flowers. And the backdrop is natural woodland with blossoming fruit trees, canals and working windmills. We strolled along pathways, visited flower-filled greenhouses and admired more than 1,600 varieties of bulb flowers.

After visiting Keukenhof, we toured the bulb fields. Flowers of every imaginable hue carpet the land between Den Helder and Leiden. The Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions publishes a list of blooming dates and driving tours through bulb-growing areas.

Flower processions take place every spring, summer and fall. The most spectacular parade runs for 40 kilometres between Noordwijk and Haarlem on the last Saturday in April. Locals adorn floats with up to 1.5 million blossoms to correspond with annual themes. Flower garlands decorate cars and buses. Floral mosaics embellish lawns. Roadside stands sell bouquets and bulbs. We looked for souvenir bulbs with health certificates, allowing dealers to distribute them worldwide.

You, too, can get a certificate - one stating that you're not a witch, from the Witches Museum in nearby Oudewater. During the Middle Ages, many women were burned at the stake for being witches. Reputedly, witches had the supernatural ability to fly, but women weighing more than 45 kilograms were not considered to be witches because they were too heavy to ride broomsticks! Greedy weigh-masters would often add more weight to the accused, if paid enough. A Royal Commission discovered that only the Oudewater weigh-master did not accept bribes. Today, you can be weighed on the original scales and, if you're heavy enough, be certified that you are not a witch.

Famous for its cheese and buttery syrup waffle cookies, Gouda helps put on that weight. On Thursday mornings, every summer, Gouda's cheese market takes place in the market square below the 15th-century Town Hall, a gray stone building with stepped gables and red shutters. Afterwards, peer inside St. John's Cathedral. Experts consider its 70 stained-glass windows the finest outside of France's Chartres.

For Holland's finest group of windmills, drive to Kinderdijk, 97 kilometres south of Amsterdam. Dating back to 1740, the polder-draining windmills are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. On Saturday afternoons in July and August, 19 windmills revolve their majestic 28-metre sails on the horizon. It's a sight you won't forget.

Neither will you forget Rotterdam's harbour, one of the largest ports in the world. View it from the 100-metre-high Euromast Tower or, better yet, on a Spido cruise. Your boat will be dwarfed by hulking oil tankers and container ships that glide like giant whales into their berths. At night, the floating cranes, dry docks, grain silos and massive wharves glow with thousands of lights.

If Rotterdam is called the port with the city attached, then Delft must surely be the porcelain factory with the town attached. Koninklijke Porceleyne Fles (Royal Delft) was one of the 32 original 17th-century potteries. Employees still make and paint delftware by hand. Royal Delft offers tours, a museum and a shop with discounted earthenware (factory seconds). The town centre has changed little since Vermeer painted it. Stepped-gable homes line cobbled alleys and graceful bridges arch over linden-shaded canals.

Just as gracious, but on a larger scale, is The Hague, the seat of the Dutch government and official residence of Queen Beatrix. It's a cosmopolitan city filled with parks, elegant homes and antique shops. The queen officially opens Parliament annually, on the third Tuesday of September, in the lofty medieval Hall of Knights at the Binnenhof. She arrives like Cinderella, in a real golden coach drawn by high-stepping horses.

A 1:25 scale model of the golden coach and Binnenhof can be seen at Madurodam, a miniature replica of Holland. You'll feel like Gulliver in Lilliput, towering over tiny castles, homes, shops and polders, complete with cows and turning windmills. It has a busy harbour full of ships, planes that taxi in Schiphol Airport and the world's largest miniature railway. At night, 50,000 tiny lights illuminate streets and buildings. No detail is missed: tulip fields, cheese markets, organ music in the cathedral and, of course, dikes.

We saw mind-boggling dikes in Zeeland, in southwest Holland. The massive Delta Works project sealed off vast estuaries, reducing the coastline from 700 to 32 kilometres. At Delta Expo, we learned how the Delta Plan was conceived and built and how it works. Designed to prevent devastating floods, such as the one in 1953 that took 1,835 lives, the complex of dikes, dams and locks holding back the North Sea has been called the eighth wonder of the world.
Many Zeeland villages retain their unique characteristics. We visited Middelburg, which has a beautifully restored medieval abbey and Yerseke, where we enjoyed steaming bowls of freshly cooked mussels. In South Beveland, we saw women wearing traditional costumes.

From Zeeland, we drove to North Brabant. This province, located between the Maas River and the Belgium border, includes one of the strangest villages in Holland. Although Baarle-Nassau is a Dutch municipality, it encloses 22 Belgian enclaves collectively called Baarle-Hertog. The main square is Dutch, except for the pub and church, which are Belgian. Because many streets are part-Dutch and part-Belgian, the homes have distinctive numbers and flags identifying their nationalities. There's no official border crossing, which is a good thing because it would pass through the middle of someone's home!

Driving by fields of sheep and thatched-roof homes, we arrived in Limburg. Wedged between Germany and Belgium, the province has moated castles, stucco-and-timber farmhouses and fine French restaurants. Limburg's major attraction is Maastricht, the oldest city in Holland, dating from Roman times. We strolled past ancient fortifications, medieval ramparts, watch towers and houses that span small rivers. Centuries of excavation of marl, the city's building stone, left a labyrinth of more than 20,000 passages under Mount St. Peter. On a St. Pietersberg Caves tour, we saw initials carved in the walls by earlier visitors: Voltaire, Sir Walter Scott and Napoleon.

Travelling northwards, we viewed both Allied and German military vehicles at the National War and Resistance Museum of the Netherlands in Overloon. Another poignant reminder of Second World War battles is the Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery, where tombstones mark the graves of 2,338 Canadian soldiers.

Netherlands Open Air Museum in Arnhem, the capital of the eastern Holland province of Gelderland, also brought us back in history. This brick-by-brick transplant of more than 80 homes, windmills and workshops vividly recreates the daily life of early Dutch inhabitants over the last 400 years. In the paper mill, water-propelled hammers pounded linen rags into a pulp. We watched a craftsman dip a framed screen into the slurry, press out the moisture and hang the handmade paper to dry.

The daily life of royalty, in contrast, is revealed at Paleis Het Loo in Apeldoorn. The residence of the House of Orange is called the Versailles of Holland. We strolled through baroque gardens and admired coaches, carriages, sleighs and touring cars in the royal stables. The palace's ornate rooms, furniture and paintings transported us back to the 17th century.

History goes back the furthest in Drenthe province, where prehistoric people settled and built dolmens, called hunebedden (giant's beds). Fifty-three of these burial mounds, dating back to 3500 BC, are scattered across the province, mostly in the northeast. We found two hunebedden in Havelte and another circle of stones (with an enormous capstone weighing more than 18,000 kilograms) on a lonely, heather-covered moor near Emmen.

Although Groningen, Holland's most northerly province, faces the North Sea and rubs shoulders with Germany, its capital is only 161 kilometres from Amsterdam. Driving towards the coast, we observed the way in which the persevering Dutch have added thousands of fertile acres to their country, creating whole new villages.

Our first view of Friesland required a double take. It was a peaceful panorama of a prairie-flat field, green as a billiard table, with a sailboat gliding across the horizon. The boat, in fact, was in a canal, one of many canals, lakes and rivers which cover the province.

Driving south, we reached Giethoorn, in Overijssel, a province just two hours but 200 years from Amsterdam. Giethoorn is called the Venice of Holland. You can't drive here. There are no streets, just canals. Instead of gondolas, there are punts, barges that people move with long poles. The harvest is brought in by punt. Everyone goes to church by punt. Farmers even transport cows to pasture by punt. The best way to see Giethoorn is also by punt, so we parked our car and enjoyed a floating tour.

Northeast Polder, a region that laid at the bottom of the IJsselmeer until 1942, is now covered with tulip fields, wide straight roads and canals. The village of Urk, once an island, was absorbed by the polder. For 700 years, it was isolated from other communities with its own way of life, costumes and traditions. Some older men and women still wear costumes. We walked along narrow brick streets, admired the brightly painted houses with their lace curtains and profusion of flowers and chatted with the friendly villagers.

Urk is located in central Holland, in the country's newest province, Flevoland, established in 1986. We learned about the large land reclamation project (165,000 hectares) in the Nieuw Land Heritage Centre in the capital city of Lelystad, which is five metres below sea level.

Utrecht, a 40-minute drive south of Flevoland, is Holland's smallest province, but it has vast woods, fairy-tale castles and elegant manors. Waterways surround and cross the capital city of Utrecht. After climbing 465 steps to the top of the cathedral spire for a spectacular view, we visited the quaint From Musical Clock to Street Organ Museum.

Driving from Utrecht back to Amsterdam, we saw some of Holland's 400 castles. The largest medieval castle in Holland is De Haar, in Haarzuilens. Crossing a drawbridge over a moat, we entered the turreted castle walls. Inside, we found stables, a large park, a church and the castle, built from red brick and decorated with red-and-white shutters. It houses an exceptional collection of paintings, Flemish tapestries, Chinese vases and antique furniture.
Soestdijk Palace, the royal home of the late Princess Juliana and Prince Bernhard until 2004, offers guided tours. Closer to Amsterdam, the star-shaped Naarden fortress has six bastions and a double ring of moats and walls. We climbed the ramparts and enjoyed the view from the footpath on top of the inner wall. The scenery was also breathtaking from the 13th-century moated Muiden Castle on the edge of the IJsselmeer. From here, it was just 13 kilometres northwest to Amsterdam and the end of our circular tour.


Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions: www.holland.com
Holland map: http://ca.holland.com/gfx_staticcontent/netherlands.pdf
Barb & Ron Kroll publish the trip-planning website: www.krolltravel.com


Pic 1: North Holland polder mill and canal, Kinderdijk

Pic 2: Flower market, Amsterdam

Pic 3: Barrel organ on Dam Square, Amsterdam

Pic 4: Cheese carriers transport Edam cheese on barrows, Amsterdam

Pic 5: Decorated wooden shoes

Pic 6: Canadian War Cemetary (WWII), Groesbeek

Pic 7: Castle de Haar, Haarzuliens, Utrecht

Related links
Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions
Holland map