Having just returned from my holiday – or more precisely, a trip to the place where I was born – I can’t help reflecting on being suspended between two countries and observing The Netherlands as a partial outsider. Usually tell people where I’m from they immediately start dropping clichés, ranging from the wild (drugs and prostitution) to the meek (windmills and tulips). Clichés exist for a reason, of course, but it’s a shame that they often obscure more interesting aspects of a country I love. For your benefit, here are five alternative explorations of The Netherlands that offer a much more authentic experience that the familiar tourist traps.
Bored of picturesque gingerbread houses? Rotterdam is your city. Much of its inner city was destroyed by bombings during World War II and as a result most of its architecture is contemporary. Rotterdam is also home to one of the world’s largest ports, which gives the city a strong cosmopolitan vibe. The place used to suffer from high unemployment and crime rates, as well a major heroin problem, but has been revived in recent years and now boosts vibrant art, design and music scenes. Must dos include a Spido trip to explore the port and a visit to the Kunsthal or Boijmans van Beuningen museum for a contemporary art fix.
Although The Netherlands are mostly as flat as a pancake, the country’s deep south does have some hills. Its highest one, the Vaalserberg, is somewhat ambitiously called a “mountain”, but only reaches 321 metres above sea level. Zuid-Limburg is great for hiking and cycling and for those not partial to claustrophobia, its now defunct mines are worth a visit. But if you’re not willing to go underground, there’s still plenty to enjoy: it’s one of the best places in the country for food. Local delicacies include white asparagus and vlaai: a type of pie filled with fruit or rice pudding, which tastes much better than it sounds.
- Den Haag
The Dutch national government is not located in its capital but in this picturesque seaside city. Here you’ll find the Eerste and Tweede Kamer (the local version of the House of Lords and House of Commons), the royal palace and most embassies. Its prosperous inner city is home to beautiful museums such as the Mauritshuis – known for Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”. But there’s another side to the city too. Make sure to catch a tram to the neighbouring town of Scheveningen for a walk along the pier or beach. Although only the Kurhaus hotel remains of the town’s history as a seaside resort for the rich, and most of the modern builds are decidedly ugly, it’s still a great place for fish and chips or a fancy meal at home of the many strandpaviljoens or beach pavilions. Be sure to visit Beelden aan Zee, a tiny but pretty sculpture museum hidden in the dunes.
There’s nowhere better than “Sealand” to see evidence of the country’s troubled relationship with water. The county is shaped by the Delta works, an impressive system of dams that protects its coastline from floods like the disastrous one that hit in 1953. Most of its islands are now connected by bridges and tunnels, which makes its many beach resorts like Domburg and Zoutelande (“Saltyland”) easy to reach. My personal favourite remains Zeeuws-Vlaanderen, however. With no land connection to the Dutch mainland, the place feels oddly Belgian, and is home to nature reserve Het Zwin.
- Kröller-Müller Museum
This place is difficult to get to, particularly if you’re using public transport, but it’s worth the trek. This small museum, founded by an art-collecting couple, is home to the largest Van Gogh collection outside Amsterdam’s perpetually crowded Van Gogh museum. It also has an amazing sculpture garden. After your visit, grab a free white bicycle to explore the Hoge Veluwe national park. Attractions include the manor built by the museum’s founders and – if you’re willing to veer beyond the park’s boundaries – Radio Kootwijk, a surreal architectural feat with a fascinating history.
Clichés, it must be said, are often rooted in reality. In case of The Netherlands, however, there’s more than meets the eye. If you’re tired of coffee shops and cheese, leave the beaten track and treat yourself to a much more genuine experience of what my moederland has to offer.
Image: Teodor Savin via Pexels