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The Netherlands

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.

Prinsengracht, 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 class merchants.

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 attic storerooms.

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 nation.
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.

Gemeentehuis, Medemblik

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 Netherlands.
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.