Noord-Brabant, the Netherlands’ largest province, stretches from the North Sea to the German border. Woodland and heath make up most of the scenery, the gently undulating arable land in striking contrast to the watery polders of the west. While it’s unlikely to form the focus of an itinerary, the instantly likeable provincial capital of Den Bosch is well worth an overnight visit, as is Breda, whose cobbled and car-free centre enjoys a lively market that pulls in the crowds from far and wide. In contrast, Eindhoven lacks the historic interest of these towns, as hardly anything here was spared during World War II. It is, however, renowned for its modern architecture and design and has a fairly vibrant nightlife. North of Tilburg is the province’s other highlight, for kids at least – the Efteling theme park, set deep in the woods.
Originally part of the independent Duchy of Brabant, Noord-Brabant was occupied by the Spanish, and eventually split in two when its northern towns joined the revolt against Spain. This northern part was ceded to the United Provinces in 1648; the southern half formed what today are the Belgian provinces of Brabant and Antwerp. The Catholic influence is still strong here: the region takes its religious festivals seriously and if you’re here in February and March, the boozy carnivals (especially in Bergen-op-Zoom and Den Bosch) are must-sees. Towns even change their names for the occasion: Den Bosch becomes Oeteldonk, Tilburg is Kruikenstad and people in Bergen-op-Zoom live in Krabbegat during the festivities. The tradition derives from the Burgundy version of carnival, and the names refer to what the main industry of the cities used to be: Eindhoven, for example, becomes Lampegat, referring to Philips producing light bulbs.Read More
Eindhoven is not your typical Dutch city and has few historical sights of interest. This is mainly because the town – which was granted city rights in 1232 – only grew to any size in the twentieth century: in 1900 Eindhoven’s population was approximately 4700, but a century later it had passed 200,000, making it the country’s fifth largest city. What happened in between was Philips, the multinational electrical firm: the town is home to Philips’ research centre (the manufacturing plant had such trouble recruiting here, it relocated to Amsterdam), and the name of Eindhoven’s benevolent dictator is everywhere – on bus stops, parks, even the stadium of the famous local football team, PSV Eindhoven. The town even moved the main train station (in the shape of a Philips transistor radio) to make sure all the company’s employees could get to work faster.
What little there was of old Eindhoven was bombed to smithereens during World War II, but being a very modern city does have its advantages, with a leading modern design academy and many hi-tech multinationals based here. The annual internationally renowned Dutch Design Week draws almost 80,000 visitors, and all sorts of design projects can be found around town. The technical university draws in many international students making nightlife vibrant, with plenty of bars and clubs to choose from.
- ’s-Hertogenbosch (Den Bosch) and around
Bergen-op-Zoom, just 30km north of Antwerp, is an untidy town, a jumble of old and new buildings that are the consequence of being shunted between various European powers from the sixteenth century onwards. In 1576 Bergen-op-Zoom sided with the United Provinces against the Spanish and as a result was under near-continuous siege until 1622. This war-ravaged theme continued thereafter: the French bombarded the city in 1747 and took it again in 1795, though it managed to withstand a British attack in 1814. Bergen-op-Zoom’s saving grace is its famous February carnival when almost every inhabitant – as well as revellers from all over Europe – joins in the Tuesday procession. It’s a great time to be in the town, although you won’t find any accommodation – the whole place gets packed out – so just do as the locals do and party all night.
Opened in January 1943, Camp Vught was the only official SS concentration camp in the Netherlands, modelled on camps in Germany. It was divided into two sections, one for political prisoners brought here from Belgium and the Netherlands, the other for Jews, who were, for the most part, subsequently moved to Westerbork before being transported on to the death camps in the east. Predictably, many people died here in the cruellest of circumstances or were executed in the woods nearby. Although it’s a reconstruction, and only a fraction of the size it used to be, Camp Vught still makes a vivid impression. Next to the old camp are the walls of a high security prison, giving the location a rather eerie feel.