Although almost half of it was once under water, the Netherlands is one of the most urbanized – and densely populated – nations on earth, with a huge range of places to visit packed into a relatively small area. A remarkable country – no more than the size of the US state of Maryland – it’s a largely man-made affair, around half of which lies at or below sea level. Its fertile, pancake-flat landscape is gridded with drainage ditches and canals, beneath huge open skies, while the country’s towns and villages are often pristine and unchanged places of gabled townhouses, pretty canals and church spires. Despite the country’s diminutive dimensions, each town is often a profoundly separate place with its own distinct identity – indeed there’s perhaps nowhere else in the world where you can hear so many different accents, even dialects, in such a small area. In spring and summer the bulbfields provide bold splashes of colour, and in the west and north the long coastline is marked by mile upon mile of protective dune, backing onto wide stretches of perfect sandy beach.
A major colonial power, the Dutch mercantile fleet once challenged the English for world naval supremacy, and throughout its seventeenth-century Golden Age, the standard of living was second to none. There have been a few economic ups and downs since then, but today the Netherlands is one of the most developed countries in the world, with the highest population density in Europe. It’s an international, well-integrated place too: most people speak English, at least in the heavily populated west of the country; and most of the country is easy to reach on a public transport system of trains and buses, whose efficiency may make British and American visitors weep with envy.
Successive Dutch governments have steered towards political consensus – indeed, this has been the drift since the Reformation, when the competing pillars of Dutch society learnt to live with – or ignore – each other, aided by the fact that trading wealth was making most people richer. Almost by accident, Dutch society became tolerant, and, in its enthusiasm to blunt conflict, progressive. These days, many insiders opine that the motive behind liberal Dutch attitudes towards drug use and prostitution isn’t freewheeling permissiveness so much as apathy –and even that is under threat, with an official clampdown on Amsterdam’s coffeeshop culture. In addition, the country’s avowed multiculturalism has been severely tested in recent years, with the shootings of Theo van Gogh and the politician Pim Fortuyn persuading many to reassess the success of the Netherlands’ consensual politics.