Tulips, Windmills, Bicycles, Dykes and Canals
"God made the world, but the Dutch made the Netherlands."
The fact that they created a considerable percentage of their country, is a
matter of unconditional national pride for the Dutch. Twenty five percent
of the Netherlands lies below sea level and sixty percent of the
population lives in this "low country." Most early land reclamation was
accomplished with the aid of windmills. The graceful sails powered pumps
that carried water up out of vast peat bogs. Classic windmills, like the
top right photograph, were perfected during the 17th century, and
contributed to Dutch industrial and mercantile ascendancy during the
"Golden Age." Sadly, only 1,000 of the 10,000 windmills that stood in the
Netherlands at the beginning of the 20th Century still survive, and only
200 of those actually function. Today, most land reclamation pumps are
motorized. The modern 2 and 3-bladed windmills ubiquitous to the Dutch
countryside are used exclusively for generating electricity.
Dutch people prefer "The Netherlands" to "Holland." As you can see from
these 1963 stamps, "Nederland" is the country's official name. The word
Holland only appears in the names of two of the nation's twelve provinces,
Noord-Holland and Zuid-Holland, which lie north and south of Amsterdam.
Amsterdam is a striking legacy of the Netherlands' Golden
Age. In 1607, the city council approved a plan for the three main canals,
the Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht. Construction was
financed by the sale of canal-front residential lots to rich and middle
At first, there was no plan for flushing the canals, and in the heat of
summer the stench of the filthy waters drove residents out of the central
city to country houses, often less than a few miles distant.
Some of the earliest modern zoning regulations defined the height, width
and depth restrictions for the grachtenhuizen that still line the broad
canals today. In times gone by, small ships sailed up the canals to dock
in front of the grachtenhuizen and winch their goods straight up into
Amsterdam's 17th century character remains remarkably intact. In an age
of global homogenization, the city's personality is unmistakable. Like its
namesake "New Amsterdam" (now better known as "New York") it cannot be
confused with any other city in the world.
Once the banking capital of the globe, the trade capital of Europe and a
perennial refuge for free thinkers, the city continues to adapt to the ebb
and flow of a changing world.
"Act normal, that's crazy enough."
The peculiarities of Dutch society are often attributed to the long
national struggle for survival against both natural elements and foreign
domination. The continual challenge posed by powerful enemies, natural or
otherwise, forced the Dutch to develop a society that valued cooperation
and collaboration in conjunction with tolerance.
The notion of sanctity of individual rights, particularly the right to
live by one's own principles, was born in the Netherlands and has survived
there for centuries. To foreign eyes, it appears to have created a society
of many contradictions. The pressure to conform, doe gewoon, (act normal)
is strong, at least on the surface, but Dutch society permits a truly
extraordinary variety of lifestyles, beliefs and personal conduct. This is
a culture founded on compromise and the tireless search for common ground.
It holds flexibility, pragmatism and moderation as high virtues. The
Netherlands doesn't offer a dazzling array of extravagant palaces, but
neither does it harbor many slums. The Dutch ability to admit all forms of
protest into the mainstream diffuses most social or political conflict.
Not surprisingly, the Dutch constitution seeks a balance between national
and local power.
The Parliament has representatives from 12 political parties. A coalition
of organizations is always needed to form the majority that governs the
There is a royal family, but it indulges in few of the tabloid-friendly
habits of the British court. Dignified and discreet, the family is almost
universally respected by Dutch citizenry.
Lacking the sandstone and granite of neighboring countries, the
Netherlands, abundant in clay, developed a beautifully simple
architectural style based upon brick construction. This gothic town
hall in Medemblik, West Friesland provides a fine example of the
characteristic high gables of Dutch 17th and 18th century buildings. A
walk around any town of this period reveals the ingenuity of craftsmen
and builders who relied on the simplest of materials. The indigenous
architecture speaks of the Dutch ability to create something individual
and compelling from such limited and humble elements.
Horticulture is the most important feature of life and landscape in the
It takes 7 years to produce a commercially marketable tulip bulb. Most
tulips grow in the vicinity of Leiden and the West Friesland district
where miles of fields burst into riotous bloom during the last week of
April. The region is a vast monoculture: blocks of yellow, red, orange,
pink and purple stretch toward the horizon. When harvested, this field
below will become part of our popular Colorblend Orange Twist.
This sea of bicycles (above right)gleams in the early morning atCentraal Station. In Amsterdam,400,000 bicycles vie for space inthe crowded streets alongside trams,automobiles and pedestrians.
Tulip plants are allowed to flower for just 7 to 10 days before mechanical
harvesters sever the flower stalks in order to preserve nutrients in the
bulb. This seemingly heartless process also encourages plants to produce
side bulbs for future crops. In early May, West Friesland's canal banks
are heaped with thousands of cut flowers, where they wait to be fed to the
cows. The cows usually eat the red tulips first.
The aptly titled "greatest flowershow on earth" has taken place at the
Keukenhof in Lisse, since 1949. And the best way to see its incredible
beauties is, as for so many of Holland's most notable sights, by bicycle.