On a day I was traveling through the Netherlands by train, I saw thousands of farmers blocking a major road into The Hague with their tractors. Later I learned their caravan was sixty miles long. Many of the farmers waved red, white, and blue Dutch flags, as they protested a government livestock policy.
A sign read No Farmers, No Food.
The Netherlands exports more food than any other country in the world except the United States, making Dutch farmers a powerful lobby.
Land managment in the Netherlands is historically esteemed. Approximately one-fourth of the country lies below sea level. Thus, the name: nether means low-lying.
To improve their lot, the enterprising Dutch engineered complicated drainage systems, involving dikes, canals, and pumps driven by windmills. They claimed their country by reclaiming it from the sea.
Remarkably, the Netherlands, with all of its farmland, is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Its seventeen million citizens live in an area the size of Maryland.
I spent most of my time in Holland, which is a region within the Netherlands. (Holland and the Netherlands are not two names for the same country.)
The Netherlands regularly ranks high in per-capita income, quality of life, and happiness. Proud locals boast, “If it ain’t Dutch, it ain’t much.”
Helene and Vincent
From the village of Otterlo, I caught a shuttle bus into the middle of Hoge Veluwe National Park. The fourteen-thousand-acre park was once the country estate of art collector Helene Kröller-Müller and her husband.
Two thousand white bicycles, all single-speed with coaster brakes, stand ready to ride for free while exploring the park’s twenty-five miles of forested trails.
In the early 1900s, the Kröller-Müllers built a fanciful mansion in the middle of their estate. The lodge has two wings, inspired by the antlers of a deer, with a watchtower in the middle.
Helene became interested in art and began collecting with a passion. Eventually, she amassed one of the largest private collections of the century, some eleven thousand works. She and her husband planned a museum on their property to house the paintings.
In 1908, when Helene began buying art, Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh had been dead for eighteen years. His work was largely unknown. Helene was among the first to recognize his neglected genius and, over time, collected more than ninety of his paintings and 180 of his drawings.
In 1935, financial difficulties forced the Kröller-Müllers to convert their estate into a national park. Their massive art collection, including Van Goghs, as well as Picassos, Braques, and Monets, was donated to the Netherlands.
The shuttle deposited me in front of the Kröller-Müller Museum, a quiet and spacious sanctuary in the woods.
Inside, I was soon immersed in Van Gogh’s vivid colors and dramatic brush strokes. The paintings are arranged by theme—landscapes, portraits, and still lifes. Approximately forty are on display, including Café Terrace at Night, Four Withered Sunflowers, and Road with Cypress and Star.
Only the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam owns more Van Gogh paintings.
Jo and Vincent
For many, Van Gogh is the stereotypical “tortured artist.” Despite his monumental talent, he died haunted and penniless at the age of thirty-seven. He created around 860 paintings during his short career, but sold only one.
Following Vincent’s suicide, his life’s work fell to his beloved brother Theo, an art dealer. Theo died just a year later and Vincent’s art transferred to Theo’s wife, Jo van Gogh-Bonger.
Jo went to work. To raise awareness of Vincent’s brilliance, she staged exhibitions of his paintings. She published hundreds of his letters, most of which were written to Theo. Her promotional efforts eventually paid off.
The unsold paintings from Jo’s collection are now the nucleus of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
The museum typically displays around two hundred of Van Gogh’s paintings, arranged mostly chronologically.
Highlights include The Bedroom, Sunflowers, The Yellow House, Almond Blossom, Wheat Field with Crows, and many self-portraits.
His well-known designs have spawned an industry.
In the museum shop and online, his starry nights, sunflowers, and almond blossoms are available as scarves, calendars, dinner plates, watches, umbrellas, totes, aprons, placemats, puzzles, fridge magnets, luggage, wallpaper, and skateboards.
Van Gogh lived his life in poverty. His paintings are among the most expensive ever auctioned.
Study in orange and blue
Between cities in the Netherlands, green fields are sliced into sections by canals, creating islands upon which sheep and Highland cattle graze.
The train passed flower farms with fall varieties still in bloom and the occasional old-fashioned windmill, an iconic symbol of Dutch culture, perhaps operating now as a tourist attraction. The Dutch seem to have switched to wind farming.
In Delft, the markt was packed on a Thursday.
Stalls sold fruit, veggies, cheese, and baked goods. Fried-fish lunches were popular. The vast expanse of the square is a clue to the prosperous history of the city.
At one end soars the tower of the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), the second highest in the Netherlands. I could hear its antique carillon from my B&B, a former bakery behind the church.
In 1572 the nobleman William of Orange moved to Delft. He was the leader of the Dutch War for Independence against Spain. Declared an outlaw, William was assassinated by a French hitman in 1584.
His elaborate tomb is the centerpiece of the Nieuwe Kerk. Even today, the House of Orange—the Dutch royal family—buries its dead in the church’s crypt.
Once free from Spain, the new Dutch Republic experienced explosive growth and became the leading economic power in the world. The 1600s were the Dutch Golden Age.
In Delft, trading companies flourished. Makers of glazed earthenware began manufacturing the still-collectible Delft Blue pottery. Wealthy merchants supported the arts.
And a couple of local boys made good.
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek advanced the use of the microscope and pioneered microbiology. My room at the B&B was named for him.
Painter Johannes Vermeer was known for his mastery of light. Most of his work features women in household settings. Vermeer was a slow worker. He completed only a few dozen paintings in his lifetime.
His painting Girl with a Pearl Earring has been the subject of literature, plays, and movies. Both Vermeer and Van Leeuenhoek are buried beneath the paving stones of the Oude Kerk (Old Church), built in 1246.
To visit Delft’s sights, the churches, the Vermeer Center, a Delft Blue workshop, and the de Roos windmill, I crisscrossed bridges and dodged students on bicycles. The students attend the Delft University of Technology, one of the top engineering schools in the world. With a population of one hundred thousand, old Delft is a young, vibrant college town.
Windmills, tulips, and beer
In the early 1600s the Dutch colonized what is now Manhattan in New York City, calling it New Amsterdam. A nearby outpost was named after Haarlem, a city in the Netherlands. The English eventually changed New Amsterdam to New York, but left the name Haarlem alone, except to drop an a.
During the Dutch War for Independence, Spain layed siege to the city for seven months. In 1573, after a hard winter during which the Haarlemmers resorted to eating their pets, the city surrendered. Haarlem’s determined resistance, however, inspired the rest of the Netherlands to continue to fight.
Like Delft and Amsterdam, Haarlem’s economy thrived after the revolution. The city prospered as a manufacturing center, weaving textiles, building ships, growing flowers, and brewing beer.
My friend Leslie joined me in Haarlem, the one with two a’s, for the remainder of my tour of the Netherlands. On our first day we went to church.
In a converted church, the microbrewery Jopenkerk is brewing craft beer from traditional Haarlem recipes found in the city’s archives. The oldest dates to 1407. Jopenkerk is one of a couple of Haarlem breweries working to prove there is more to Dutch beer than Heineken and Amstel.
Flower stalls are fixtures in Haarlem’s Grote Markt. Along with Delft and Amsterdam, the city was at the epicenter of “tulip mania” when it swept Europe in the 1600s. The Netherlands is still the world’s leading producer of tulips, exporting over three billion bulbs each year.
For a view of Haarlem and the River Spaarne, we climbed steep ladders through the mechanisms of the Adriaan windmill. The original was built in 1799 on the foundations of a defensive tower.
Our guide said the Netherlands once had nine thousand windmills. Today there are nine hundred, less than two hundred of which are operating. Most existed to pump water out of the lowlands.
In the 1600s wealthy Dutch businessmen, while out for a night on the town, enjoyed posing for group pictures. As smartphones were not yet available, painters were hired to capture the magic.
The groups were local militias and guilds, in existence to protect their cities from attack.
Over time, the companies of city guards devolved into fraternities. Drilling was replaced with drinking at lavish banquets. For their portraits, members dressed in regalia, waved company flags, and brandished symbolic weapons.
The resulting portraits are some of the iconic images of the Dutch Golden Age. Americans know Rembrandt’s 1662 The Sampling Officials from the packaging of Dutch Masters cigars.
Haarlem’s preferred group portraitist was Frans Hals the Elder. Leslie and I toured the Frans Hals Museum to see a collection of his paintings.
Whereas Vermeer was a master of light, Hals was a master of expression. His life-sized portraits are realistic, blemishes and all. They seem to capture the personalities of his subjects.
Hals’s approach was loose with quick, efficient brushstrokes. As a result, his subjects look relaxed, even cartoonish. His style influenced the Impressionists two centuries later.
Hals’s breakthrough painting was The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company in 1616. For the rest of his life, he painted Haarlem’s elite, a class of people he came to know well.
Church of curiosities
Saint Bavo’s Church, also known as Grote Kerk (Great Church), is both a house of worship and, perhaps unintentionally, something of a museum of oddities.
After the original structure was destroyed by fire, Saint Bavo’s was rebuilt in 1479. Inside are models of ships, a cannonball left from the siege of 1573, the gravestone of painter Frans Hals, and a brass lectern shaped like a pelican. Along one wall is the Dogwhipper’s Chapel, dedicated to the man in charge of controlling unruly dogs in church.
On one of the church’s columns are marks indicating the unusual heights of a couple of visitors. Finnish giant Daniel Cajanus was estimated to be seven feet, eight inches. He lived during the 1700s.
A century later, Dutch little-person Simon Paap measured thirty-three inches in height. Both men earned a living by exhibiting their extreme statures. Both died young.
More conspicuous than the church’s altar is the huge organ with more than five thousand pipes. Completed in 1738, the organ is considered one of the finest in the world. In 1740 Händel played it. In 1766 ten-year-old Mozart played it. Even Albert Schweitzer played it.
In Moby Dick, Herman Melville describes the inside of a whale’s mouth: “Seeing all these colonnades of bone so methodically ranged about, would you not think you were inside of the great Haarlem organ, and gazing upon its thousand pipes?”
By the zee
A few miles west of Haarlem along the North Sea is a national park, Zuid-Kennemerland. We rented bikes to explore it. On the way out of Haarlem we passed beautiful mansions, many of them with thatched roofs.
The trail through the fifteen-square-mile park winds through forest before reaching scrub-covered sand dunes. We found a small herd of Highland cattle, but not the park’s wild Konik horses.
We cycled in light rain, which, over the course of the day, soaked us thoroughly. Halfway through, we stopped to dry ourselves at a restaurant in Bloemendaal aan Zee (Dale of Flowers by the Sea). The resort overlooks a long beach dotted with pavillions, empty on a rainy day except for some dog walkers.
Back at the bike shop in Haarlem, the owner asked about our ride. Leslie said, “Well, we got rained on.”
“So, you had the full Dutch experience,” he said.
Edam is the tiny Dutch village named after the cheese. Actually, the cheese is named after the village. With tree-lined canals, tiny drawbridges, quiet lanes, a couple of inns, and not much else, it’s an idyllic place to visit.
For centuries, Edam held a regular cheese market. Local farmers delivered balls of cheese the size of cantaloupes on canal boats, then dragged them on sledges to the marketplace to be tested, weighed, and sold.
These days, the whole process is reenacted for tourists during summer months. The cheese, however, is available in shops year-round.
On rental bikes we cycled along the top of the dike to neighboring Volendam. There, we boarded a ferry for Marken.
Over the centuries, Marken has had an on-again, off-again relationship with the mainland. Sometimes it’s an island; sometimes a peninsula. It depends upon the weather.
In the 1200s, a storm disconnected the peninsula from the mainland, isolating the tiny fishing hamlet.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Marken was studied by anthropologists who considered the island community a remnant of Holland’s past.
At its peak in the late 1800s, Marken’s fleet boasted two hundred boats. When the Zuiderzee bay was closed off with a dike in the 1900s, most of the fishermen abandoned the village.
Following the construction of a mile-long causeway in 1957, the island is once again a peninsula, hanging by a thread to the mainland. Marken’s population is less than two thousand.
With our bikes, we disembarked from the ferry to explore the time-capsule village.
The fishermen’s former cottages are painted solid black or green. Sheep graze in the meadows. Bicycles lean against picket fences.
Counterweight bridges, named after Dutch queens, Juliana, Wilhelmina, and Máxima, span the canals. In the Dutch Reformed Church ship models hang from the ceiling. A list of pastors dates to 1579.
After lunch, we biked back to the mainland along the windswept causeway and onto the path into Edam. At a pub we joined locals to watch a Champions League soccer match, Ajax Amsterdam vs. Chelsea.
A Dutch teacher at the bar claimed to have made a small temporary edit to a Wikipedia article before assigning his students the topic. He knew those that repeated the inaccuracy had not researched thoroughly. A reminder not to believe everything one reads.
The Dutch say, “Money is earned in Rotterdam, taxed in The Hague, and pissed away in Amsterdam.” Perhaps it’s only the Rotterdammers who say that.
In 1250 fishermen built a dam to protect themselves from the flooding of the Amstel River.
Their village was called Amestelledamme (Amstel-dam). Dam Square is still the center of the city.
Amsterdam eventually won the race among the booming Dutch port towns. During the 1600s, it was the wealthiest city in the western world. Its merchants traded goods and slaves worldwide and established colonies in the Americas, Asia, and Africa.
Amsterdam’s fortunes ebbed and flowed in the centuries that followed. France invaded in 1672 and Nazi Germany in 1940. More than 60,000 Amsterdam Jews were deported to concentration camps during World War II, including young Anne Frank.
Today, with a population of 2½ million, Amsterdam is both the financial and cultural capital of the Netherlands. The city’s history and arts, as well as its tolerant policies toward prostitution and marijuana, attract twenty million visitors each year, many of them day-trippers.
The most distinctive feature of Amsterdam is its canals. They spiral outward from the center of the city like the strands of a spiderweb. Sixty miles of canals divide Amsterdam into ninety islands, which are linked by more than twelve hundred bridges. Twenty-five hundred houseboats line the banks.
In the 1500s, buildings were constructed side by side along the canals on narrow, deep lots. The facades feature tiers of shutters and decorative gables with hooks for hoisting bulky items.
For a few days we followed the bends of the canals and wandered the city in circles.
Venice of the North
Westerkerk (Western Church) is a couple of doors down from the Anne Frank House. The church was built in 1631. Its tower could be seen from Anne’s hiding place in the attic. She wrote in her diary that the chiming of the clock gave her comfort.
Directly behind Westerkerk on the Keizersgracht (Emporer’s Canal) is the Homomonument. Installed in 1987, it was the first monument in the world to commemorate the gays and lesbians killed by the Nazis. Every day, we noticed fresh flowers.
The Rijksmuseum displays a who’s who of painters from the Dutch Golden Age.
The best-known work includes true-to-life portraits by Fran Hals, messy tavern settings by Jan Steen, quiet household scenes by Johannes Vermeer, and all of the above by Rembrandt.
Rembrandt van Rijn is considered the best of the Golden Agers. Whereas most painters specialized in one genre—portraits, landscapes, or still lifes—Rembrandt excelled at them all.
His most famous painting is The Night Watch. At twelve by fourteen feet, the group portrait of a company of Amsterdam’s Civic Guards fills a wall.
The Bloemenmarkt (flower market) floats on barges tied along the edge of Singel canal.
The stalls sell tulips, houseplants, and marijuana starter kits.
During our stay, I reconnected with Erik and Brigitte, a Dutch couple I met when hiking the Dingle Way in Ireland. (See “A ramble through Dingle.”) They promised a “local” dining experience.
Local in the Netherlands may mean multicultural. The menu was in French and Spanish and the waitress spoke to us in English.
“Live and let live”
Throughout history, the Netherlands has provided sanctuary to people fleeing persecution. Flemings, French Huguenots, Portuguese Jews, English Protestants (also known as the Pilgrims), Turks, Moroccans, Indonesians, Surinamese, and many more have received asylum.
With at least 180 nationalities, Amsterdam may be the world’s most multicultural city.
This diversity of cultures may be behind the country’s famous social tolerance. Marijuana use, prostitution, abortion—all are legal. The Netherlands was the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage.
Pink In Blue is a task force of Dutch police officers—most of whom are gay, lesbian, or transgender—dedicated to protecting the LGBTQ community in Amsterdam from abuse and violence. The initiative began in 1998.
Cities in the Netherlands have been subsidizing houses, called hofjes (HOAF yes), for the poor, disabled and elderly since the Middle Ages. The living quarters usually face a shared courtyard with a locking gate.
Tourists are encouraged to visit the hofjes, as Dutch cities are quite proud of this solution. Haarlem’s twenty-two hofjes are even marked on its sightseeing map.
In Amsterdam Leslie and I peaked into a couple of them. Begijnhof has been a shelter for women since 1346. The Pilgrims worshipped in the compound’s English Reformed Church before sailing away on the Mayflower. In Begijnhof‘s quiet courtyard is Amsterdam’s oldest house, dated to 1528.
We discovered two types of coffee establishments in Amsterdam. Coffeehouses sell caffeine and pastries; coffee shops sell marijuana, legally. The latter are easy to spot, as they overflow with patrons. Sour-smelling smoke drifts from their open doors.
Amsterdam has more than a hundred coffee shops, most of them in the red-light district. One afternoon we strolled through the district’s narrow alleys.
The Dutch are known for being practical. Their approach to prostitution is typical. Sex workers have the same rights, protections, and obligations as any other worker in the Netherlands. They have access to health care and pay taxes on their earnings. Some belong to unions.
Yet, despite the legalization of prostitution, human trafficking and related crimes remain a problem.
Another concern is the sheer volume of non-paying red-light district sightseers (like us).
The city’s female mayor, Femke Halsema, says “We must ensure that sex workers can work safely and independently. The women behind the windows have become a tourist attraction. They’re ridiculed, taunted, and photographed without their permission.”
Plans have been announced to ban guided tours of the district. Yet, some sex workers are fighting to keep things as they are. Signs in the area say, “Don’t save us. Save our windows!”
Watches in the cabinet
In 1940 Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands and installed its administration. Queen Wilhelmina fled the country. Her subjects were left to figure out their own strategies.
What should they do? Resist the occupation? Try to escape or go into hiding? Should they collaborate with the Nazis? Or perhaps just ignore the situation and hope for the best?
The Dutch Resistance Museum in Amsterdam tells the stories of real people who made these difficult choices. The emphasis is on the underground movement. Exhibits cover all forms of resistance—going on strike, spying, forging documents, transmitting radio reports, hiding refugees, publishing underground newspapers, even sabotaging bridges and railroad lines.
One story concerns two teenage sisters who joined the resistance. They specialized in ambushing and assassinating Nazis and Dutch collaborators. Both lived into their nineties and were decorated for their service.
Though small, the museum is considered the best historical museum in the Netherlands. We were immersed in its personal stories for hours.
In Haarlem, Leslie and I joined a small group to tour the Corrie Ten Boom House. As we were herded up steep stairs and through narrow hallways, the guide told Corrie’s story of resistance.
During World War II, the Ten Boom family ran a clock shop on a busy street corner in Haarlem.
Corrie Ten Boom, a woman in her fifties, and her sister Betsie lived upstairs. Together, with their father, they helped Jews and other refugees escape the occupying Nazis.
With the help of some sympathizers, a false wall was constructed in Corrie’s tiny bedroom, creating a hiding space less than a yard deep. A secret entry was installed behind some built-in shelves. The space could hide six adults at a time.
The Ten Boom safe house operated for nearly two years. Finally, in 1944, the Gestapo burst through the shop’s door. They did not discover the hidden refugees, but arrested the family anyway.
Corrie’s father died soon after his arrest. While in prison, Corrie received a letter, “All the watches in your cabinet are safe,” meaning the hidden refugees had been rescued by the Dutch underground.
Corrie and her sister were sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp. Eventually Betsie died, but Corrie survived.
Her memoir, The Hiding Place, tells her story. In all, the Ten Booms saved around eight hundred Jews and resistance fighters.
A young girl
In Amsterdam we toured the Anne Frank House. Most people know her story.
When Anne was ten years old, Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands. As daily life became more and more dangerous for Jews, the Frank family decided to go into hiding. They moved into the annex behind her father’s former business offices.
Access to the hidden living quarters was up a back stairway and through a revolving bookcase. The four Franks were joined by four others. They lived quietly and fearfully in the cramped space.
During her two years in hiding, Anne kept a diary about life in the annex, expressing her innermost thoughts and feelings.
In 1944 the annex was raided. All were arrested and transported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Anne’s mother gave her food to her daughters and eventually died of starvation.
A few months later, Anne and her sister were transferred to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. In early 1945 both died of typhus.
Anne’s father, Otto, was the only one of the eight to survive the war. He was quite moved by Anne’s diary, which an associate had recovered, and decided to publish it.
Thirty million copies of the diary, translated into more than seventy languages, have been sold. The secret annex is visited over a million times each year.
After touring Otto Frank’s former business offices, we silently climbed the stairway and ducked through the original revolving bookcase into the annex.
We entered the tiny, bare rooms, kept in their original condition. Anne’s movie-star photos are still glued to the walls. Anne’s and her sister Margot’s heights are marked with pencil on the wallpaper.
We moved through the rooms quietly, reverentially, as if we too were afraid of being discovered. The space, where a family lived in dread and clung to hope, feels uncomfortably intimate. I felt like I shouldn’t be there and yet I needed to be. The experience was unsettling and moving at the same time.
Back in the museum, we viewed Anne’s original diary in a display case. In it, she wrote, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
In the museum’s shop I bought a blank diary for my daughter.