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Exploring the Netherlands

Lots of everything, jam-packed into a tiny country – that’s the Netherlands, explains Roger St. Pierre

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For a very small country, the Netherlands has had an enormous impact on world affairs. The country has spawned a bevy of the biggest multinationals – including electronics giant Philips, oil megalith Royal Dutch Shell, the Heineken brewing empire and ABN AMRO, one of the leading international banking and financial services conglomerates.

Once subjugated as a Spanish province – Schiphol International Airport, which is actually below sea level, stands on the site of the great sea battle some 450 years ago that saw the Spanish grip broken – the country went on to build a formidable empire of its own.

The nation’s international outlook is reflected in the way in which most citizens have a very solid command of one or more foreign languages and that four of the great international courts and Europol, the EU’s criminal intelligence agency, are all situated in The Hague.

That lovely old city on the North Sea is also the seat of parliament but since Amsterdam is where the main royal palace stands, that far greater metropolis is regarded as the national capital.

Just 760,000 live within the city proper but it is part of a greater conurbation, comprising the nation’s four biggest and most historic cities – Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht – set like a ring, dubbed ‘The Randstad’, at the heart of the country and housing some 10-million people, which is just over two-thirds of the nation’s entire population.

And don’t make the mistake of calling the Dutch homeland ‘Holland’ – that term only strictly applies to two of the 12 provinces.

With its famed rings of canals, fanning out like a spider’s web, Amsterdam needs little introduction, housing such unmissables as the amazing Rijksmuseum, with its works by the Dutch masters Rembrandt, Vermeer and Frans Hals; the equally important Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art; the house of Anne Frank; the lively red light district and all those infamous ‘brown cafés’ – for despite its Calvanist heritage, this is a land of tolerance and at the Amsterdam Hilton you can book the room in which John and Yoko staged their infamous ‘sleep-in’.

The city has countless venues for corporate events and for many a group a nighttime canal boat ride will provide the highlight.

The university town of Utrecht is a miniaturised version of Amsterdam. Less picturesque are Rotterdam – one of the world’s greatest ports – and Eindhoven, both of which were flattened in the war yet each boasting lots of hidden gems, among all the modern architecture, with art galleries and, in Eindhoven’s case, design and lighting museums that provide truly brilliant venues for product launches and receptions.

Keeping fit by cycling almost everywhere, even to the disco, the Dutch like to party hard and eat and drink well. The fare is generally simple and healthy, with herring a national passion, often eaten as a street food, while stamppot – which is not unlike ‘bubble and squeak – is not to be missed and an Indonesian-inspired rijstaffel (‘rice table’) is a memorable indulgence.

Some of the smaller cities and towns are worth a visit, like Delft – the home of that wonderful blue chinaware, Alkmaar, with its atmospheric cheese market and Maastricht, down in the far southeastern province of Limbourg that, unlike the rest of the country, has some formidable hills.

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