Look at a map and you’ll see that the southern part of the Netherlands doesn’t make much geographical sense at all: in the west it’s all islands and rivers, while in the east a dangling sliver of land hooks deep into Belgium, its shape defined by centuries of dynastic wrangling. The west, which comprises the province of Zeeland, is classically Dutch, the inhabitants of its small towns and villages spending much of their history either at sea or keeping the sea away from hearth and home. Zeeland suffered its last major flood in 1953 and it was this disaster that kick-started the Delta Project, whose complex network of dykes, dams and sea walls, completed in 1986, has prevented any watery repetition. Zeeland has mile upon mile of sandy beach and wide-open landscapes, but many of its old towns and villages have been badly mauled by the developers. Two have, however, survived – Middelburg, with its splendid old centre, and Veere, every inch a nautical, seafaring port.
Inland lies Noord-Brabant, whose arc of industrial towns long bore the brunt of the string of invading armies who marched up from the south. Each of these towns has lots of history but not much else, though both Breda and ’s-Hertogenbosch have fine churches. Noord-Brabant’s largest town is Eindhoven, home to the multinational electrical company Philips, and from here it’s just a few kilometres to the region’s third province, Limburg, which was badly damaged in World War II. Limburg’s capital and principal attraction is Maastricht, a city of vitality and virtuosity, which comes complete with a lively restaurant and bar scene as well as a set of first-rate medieval buildings.