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Europe~The Netherlands: Amsterdam and The Hague by Michael Sayles
Submitted By: Pat Date: January 16, 2010, 1:55 PM Views: 1022

The Netherlands:
Amsterdam and The Hague

by Michael Sayles

The name 'The Netherlands' comes from the Dutch Nederlands, which literally means 'Low Countries'. The reason for this name stems from the fact that around half of the country is less than 1 metre above sea level; a large portion of the Netherlands is actually below sea level, with the land protected from the sea by a series of 'dikes' and dunes. One such dike, the Afsluitdijk is over 32km long. The area of the Netherlands known as Polders is, in fact, land that was reclaimed from the sea. This reclamation of land has resulted in the popular phrase among the Dutch: God might have created the World, but the Dutch created the Netherlands.

The term 'Holland' is a popular synonym for The Netherlands, although it is strictly inaccurate, as it refers to only 2 of the 12 provinces that make up the country. There is also confusion among many people regarding the capital city of the Netherlands, with a lot of people incorrectly thinking that it is The Hague. However, Amsterdam is the capital city, as defined by the Dutch constitution.

Amsterdam was founded over 700 years ago, at which time it was nothing more than a small fishing village on the banks of the River Amstel (from which it takes its name). Since then, Amsterdam has grown to be the largest city in the Netherlands, which a population of around 750,000 people. The city centre is one of the largest historic city centres in Europe, set around a series of canals in the shape of a horseshoe that were created in the 17th century. Alongside these canals are the distinctive houses and warehouses which typify Amsterdam: tall, narrow, brick buildings with distinctive gables - many of which are leaning at gravity-defying angles!

Buildings alongside the Herengracht

The reasons for the style of buildings are quite simple: the buildings are tall and narrow because the tax applied to buildings was based on the width of their facade. As a consequence of their narrowness, the buildings had tight staircases, which made it impossible to carry larger items of furniture to the upper floors. Therefore, many of the buildings have strong, distinctive gables that supported joists, from which furniture could be raised, by way of ropes and pulleys, to the upper floors. And the reason many of the buildings are leaning is that they were built upon wooden piles, because the low-lying land is marshy and was unsuitable for straightforward development. Over the decades, these wooden piles have become rotten in the damp subsoil, and the weight of the buildings they support is slowly crushing them. It appears as though some of these houses are only staying upright due to the fact they are packed tightly between neighbouring buildings!

Amsterdam Houses

At the time the canals were dug and the buildings constructed in the 17th Century, Amsterdam was one of the richest cities in the world, and was the leading financial city on the planet. Ships sailed from Amsterdam to all corners of the globe; New Zealand was named after the Dutch province Zeeland by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, who also named Australia New Holland and gave his own name to the Australian island-state of Tasmania. The Dutch had influence across the Atlantic too: New York was once New Amsterdam, and the areas of Brooklyn and Harlem were both separate towns founded by the Dutch and named after Dutch cities (Breukelen and Haarlem, respectively).

Bikes on a bridge over the Herengracht ('Gentlemen's Canal')

Today, Amsterdam is a vibrant city which is famous the world over for its liberalism and tolerance. Prostitution is legal in the city, although supposedly restricted to specific places. The red-light district in Amsterdam is situated around the Oude Kerk (Old Church) and is clearly marked on maps. It is no place for the easily-offended, and, in the heart of the red-light district it is impossible to avoid seeing prostitutes in their underwear, touting for business behind large, brightly-lit windows directly beside the pavement. There are also many 'adult' shops and cinemas in the red-light district, many of which have graphic, uncensored posters in their windows etc. These sights are not restricted to the night - the prostitution is a 24-hour business, so do not assume that a lunch-time visit will spare your blushes. It is definitely an eye-opening experience to wander these streets, but it is no place for children or those of a prudish disposition!

Scenes from Amsterdam's red light district

It is worth noting that, although most prostitutes are 'on show' in the red-light district, do not be surprised to find the occasional scantily-clad prostitute in large street-side windows elsewhere in the city. Therefore you should keep your eyes peeled if you are wandering the city's streets with children - you may need to make a sudden detour!

Wherever you go, DO NOT attempt to take photos of the prostitutes - they don't appreciate it! I've heard stories of rather naïve snap-happy tourists being chased and even attacked by women in underwear. Whilst this may sound like heaven to some men, it could get particularly nasty, so don't take the risk!

Most customers aren't there for the coffee!

Amsterdam also has a very tolerant attitude to drug use. There are many 'Coffeeshops' selling cannabis, which, though not strictly legal, is tolerated, provided only small quantities are involved. Most of the 'coffeeshops' selling cannabis have obvious names that hint at what is really on the menu, although some do not. Therefore, if all you want is a cup of coffee (and nothing else), choose your 'coffee shop' with care!

Cyclist in Amsterdam

The main method of transport among the inhabitants of Amsterdam is bicycle, and there are literally thousands of bikes in all shapes and sizes, either whizzing around the streets or chained to anything that is fixed to the ground (every year around 20,000 bikes are stolen in Amsterdam - that's over 50 a day!). Cyclists seem to have priority over everything; cars, buses, pedestrians and trams all appear to give way to cyclists.

A boat trip around the canals of Amsterdam is highly recommended. Most of the pleasure boats depart from a marina alongside Damrak, just opposite the Central Station, and tickets cost between 5-10 Euros for a trip lasting 40-60 minutes. Seeing the city from the canals is very relaxing, and offers a unique opportunity to see things you just can't see from the streets. The routes also take in many of the most interesting places in the city and afford a close-up view of the many houseboats to be found on the canals (a consequence of Amsterdam's chronic housing shortage).

Amsterdam Church

Amsterdam is served by Schiphol Airport, a large airport a few miles outside the city centre. Getting from the airport to Amsterdam's Central Station is very easy. Trains run directly from the airport several times an hour. The journey takes around 20 minutes, and a ticket costs less than 4 Euros.

Amsterdam has a reputation for being a distraction-thief and pick-pocket's paradise. I've never experienced any problems myself and it appears to me to be no worse than any city or large town in that respect. But, as with all busy cities, you should take care of your possessions, and keep your wits about you.

Main tourist attractions

Amsterdam has many outstanding museums, including the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk Museum, the Rembrandt House Museum, and the Van Gogh Museum (containing the largest collection of Van Gogh artwork in the world). The Anne Frank Huis is also a very popular destination, with hundreds of tourists visiting every day to tour the house in which the young diarist Anne Frank hid from the Nazis for so long. If you want to go inside the house get there early - long queues develop by mid-morning, and you'll have a long wait.

Anne Frank memorial, Amsterdam

The bloemenmarkt ('flower market') is also worth a visit - the only floating flower market in the world, with stalls full of bulbs and blooms, all of which are on 'houseboats' on the Singel canal. Not too far from the bloemenmarkt there is a Heineken Brewery, around which you can take a tour that includes free beer!

The Jordaan area, just to the north west of the old city centre is also worth a visit. It is a quaint, quiet area, with cosy cafes and small shops, and a stroll around its canals and streets is very peaceful.

A quiet street in the Jordaan district of Amsterdam.
The joists for lifting furniture to the upper floors can be seen projecting
from the gables of many of the wonky buildings

The Hague

Although Amsterdam is the official capital city of the Netherlands, The Hague is the seat of Government, and the home of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. A train journey from Amsterdam to The Hague takes about 50 minutes and costs less than 10 Euros (standard class).

The Hague (or Den Haag) is quite different in appearance to Amsterdam. Although founded in the 13th Century, much of the city is relatively modern, due largely to the fact that parts of the city sustained heavy damage during the Second World War (after the war, The Hague was, at one point, the largest building site in Europe). It also has very few canals, as most of them were drained and filled at the end of the 19th Century.

The Hague has several places of interest, including the Paleis Noordeinde, the official 'work palace' of Queen Beatrix. The Palace Gardens, to the rear of the building, are a small park open to the public. The Dutch parliament buildings are also located in The Hague.

Peace Palace, The Hague

The Hague is also home to the International Criminal Court, and the International Court of Justice, the latter of which is based in the Peace Palace (Vredespaleis). This grand building was built at the beginning of the 20th Century, although it appears older. Outside the front gates of the Peace Palace is the first ever World Peace Flame monument, installed in 2002. Around this monument is the World Peace Flame Pathway, built from the contributions of 197 countries and regions (intended to symbolically represent 100% of humanity). Officials from every country of the world procured stones signifying the cultural heritage of their nations, and each of these was laid down to form part of the pathway.

World Peace Flame outside the Peace Palace, The Hague

A couple of miles outside the city centre to the north is a superb ‘model city’ called Madurodam, which contains hundreds of accurate scale models of Dutch landmarks, complete with moving cars and a network of trains - even the aeroplanes at the mini-Schiphol Airport taxi around the runways! It is an incredible achievement, and a great place to take children, and tickets are very reasonably priced.

Model city of Madurodam in The Hague,
with a mini Schiphol airport in the background

A little further from the city centre, on the North Sea coast, is the district of Scheveningen, which has a huge, beautiful sandy beach that proves very popular with tourists and Dutch people alike. There are numerous bars and cafes built on the sand, as well as a large pier extending into the sea, on which visitors can take their chances in the casino or try bungee-jumping!

The beach and pier at Scheveningen, The Hague

The promenade also has a collection of intriguing sculptures of cartoon-like characters of all sizes - some are just a couple of inches high, one long-legged character is around 30 foot tall, and there are several others of intermediate height!

Sculptures on the promenade at Scheveningen

While walking through the streets and parks of The Hague, keep your eyes peeled for rose-ringed parakeets, as the city has quite a large population of the brightly coloured birds which can often be seen (and heard) flying between trees.

The Hague has a slightly unfair reputation as being a bit 'boring'. It certainly isn't as romantic as Amsterdam, and the relative modernity of The Hague means there aren't as many historical places of interest.

Further Afield

The Netherlands is a very attractive and friendly country. It is also quite small (approximately the size of East Anglia and south east England), which means that exploring the entire country is not too difficult. If you have time to explore the countryside of the Netherlands you will find many places of interest. Kinderdijk, near Rotterdam, is a small village with 19 windmills that were built in the middle of the 18th century. These windmills have been carefully preserved, and it is possible to take a tour of a working mill. For those relying on public transport, a bus operates between Rotterdam and Kinderdijk.
More information at

The northern part of the Netherlands is also very interesting, especially to see how the land (and the sea) has been manipulated in order to shape the country of today. It is also possible to drive across the Afsluitdijk, the 32km long dam that separates the Ijsselmeer from the North Sea. It is not uncommon to come across villagers in traditional Dutch costume in the rural areas in the north.
During the two World Wars, the Netherlands was the scene of intense fighting between the Allies and Germany, and there are many poignant reminders of these conflicts to be found all over the country. War cemeteries are dotted around the country, some small, and some large. To see row upon row of hundreds of simple white crosses, some marking the graves of unknown men, is very sobering. The towns of Nijmegen and Arnhem were the scenes of intense battles during World War II, due to their strategic position, with bridges over the Waal and Rhine rivers. Operation Market Garden was an infamous attempt by Allied troops to secure the series of bridges in this part of the Netherlands. Although the bridge at Nijmegen was secured, the bridge at Arnhem was not, and there were many Allied casualties (the failed attempt to secure the bridge at Arnhem was the subject of the film A Bridge Too Far). As a consequence of the intense fighting, there are a number of large British and Commonwealth war cemeteries in and around Arnhem. If time permits, a visit to Arnhem is recommended, if only in order to pay your respects to those young men of all nationalities who perished in the Second World War.

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