It’s difficult to imagine but today marks 12 months of going Dutch. Time’s passed quickly, but I also feel like we’ve been here for longer than a year – maybe that’s just the long winter. I didn’t know what to expect moving here, but living in The Netherlands has been an enriching experience. It’s only a small country but it punches well above its weight.
Looking back at the year made me realise how much is still to explore: Texel, Maastricht, tulip fields, the north and I’ve got to get to grips with Amsterdam. Those are the next 12 months, but these are my favourites from our first 365 days.
North Sea beaches
On my first weekend here I walked on the beach north of Scheveningen, a suburb of The Hague. On a sunny day the beauty of the beach and dunes came as a complete surprise. I walked past World War II Atlantic Wall defences on sand that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Caribbean. ‘Pop up’ summer beach bars were being built, and the beach stretched for miles. It’s a moody coastline, the weather changes in the blink of an eye, but the beach is one of the great things about living in The Hague.
Den Haag, my adopted home, is an underrated city. Rarely found in the ‘don’t miss’ section of travel guides, The Hague has a lot to recommend it. It lacks the architecture and cultural scene of Amsterdam, but this is a very liveable town. You don’t have to look far for history (the Royal Family is here), culture (music, literature and film festivals, plus a couple of world class museums), outdoor activities (the Haagse Bos is a vast urban woodland), the dunes and beach (see above) or nightlife (good restaurants and bars abound). What’s not to love?
Windmills of Kinderdijk
There are other contestants for great windmills in The Netherlands, Zaanse Schans for instance, but the beauty of the landscape and variety of windmill types at Kinderdijk can’t be rivalled. Plus the rural setting, and large path network, allow you to explore further to fully appreciate the landscape created by Kinderdijk’s windmills.
Hidden charms of Rotterdam
So often the neglected modernist twin of Amsterdam, Rotterdam is a city of surprises – generally good ones. Whether you come for the architecture, the artistic and cultural scene, the wonderful food, to drink in the panorama from the Euromast or to visit some of the historic quarters, like Delfshaven, that survived the destruction of World War II, Rotterdam doesn’t disappoint.
Less well known than other historic port towns on the inland sea that is today known as the IJsselmeer, Hoorn is a beautiful and relaxed place. Packed with historic houses, it exudes its fabulous history as a major trading centre and birthplace of the Dutch East India Company. Herring made Hoorn rich, but trade with Indonesia made it fabulously wealthy.
Quintessentially Dutch, and not just Amsterdam in miniature. Delft’s a glorious place to stroll around, almost every street reveals yet more wonderful architecture, another small canal with quaint bridges or a site of historical significance. It also has some top notch cafes, restaurants and bars.
Cycling the North Sea Coast
Cheese, tulips, windmills and cycling. Possibly the top four things the Dutch are known for globally and, while they are all true, the way The Netherlands approaches cycling is truly world beating. Amongst a multitude of cycle routes, the North Sea Coast route stands out: rolling sand dunes, vast stretches of golden beach and dramatic vistas over the sea on a route that links coastal communities large and small. Brilliant.
Deventer’s Dickensian Christmas
Deventer is an atmospheric old town worth a visit at any time of year, but at Christmas Deventer does something truly extraordinary. Extraordinary in the sense that the inhabitants of a Dutch town collectively dress up as characters from the novels of Charles Dickens, and then play out scenes from the books over an entire weekend. If you’re here near Christmas, go.
Utrecht, like almost everywhere else in The Netherlands, often gets compared unfavourably to Amsterdam. I guess it all depends upon what you’re looking for, but if you want a vibrant, bohemian city with good food, great cafe-bars, excellent museums and a compact Medieval centre without hoards of tourists, Utrecht is the place.
Naarden is not a place that readily springs to mind, but its stunning setting and long history deserve greater recognition. A smart and prosperous village, Naarden was a textile centre but suffered waves of destruction at the hands of invading armies. Eventually the town built some of the most elaborate fortifications imaginable. A beautiful 3.5km walk around the old defences earns you the right to a good lunch in one of the village restaurants.
Up the Noord to Dordrecht
You can drive or take the train to Dordrecht, but a more interesting route is the Noord river from Rotterdam, arriving at the city the way people have done for hundreds of years – by boat. Dordrecht, a place where two men once disguised a sheep as a human and walked arm-in-arm with it through the city gate to avoid a tax on animals, is definitely worth a visit.
Beers of the Lowlands
It would be unfair to make this a Dutch-only thing, many of the finest beers in The Netherlands are from Belgium. The other week in Utrecht I sampled a Belgium red beer. Matured for 12 months in oak casks, its sour flavour like nothing I’ve tasted before. It’s not just the variety of beers, beer culture is critical. Culture is probably a contentious word to use, but there is something wonderful about having beer served in the correct, and often beautiful, glass.
Here’s to the next 12 months…cheers.