Until the early twentieth century, the north of the Netherlands was a remote area, a distinct region of small provincial towns far removed from the mainstream life of the Randstad. Yet, in 1932, the opening of the Afsluitdijk, a 30-kilometre-long sea wall bridging the mouth of the Zuider Zee, changed the orientation of the country once and for all: the Zuider Zee, once a corridor for great trading ships, became the freshwater IJsselmeer and the cultural gap between the north and west narrowed almost immediately.
One of the three northern provinces, Friesland, is a deservedly popular tourist stopover, with its cluster of dune-swept islands, a likeable capital in Leeuwarden, and a chain of eleven immaculate, history-steeped “cities” (villages really), each with a distinct charm: Harlingen is noted for its splendid merchant houses; Hindeloopen, with its cobbled streets and pin-neat canals, encapsulates the antique prettiness of the region;while Makkum was a centre of tile manufacture and is still known for ceramics and its role as a sailing centre. As for the islands, each is barely more than an elongated sandbank, parts of which can be reached by indulging in wadlopen, hearty walks along (or ankle-deep in) the mud flats that flank the islands to the south. In the north stretches kilometre after kilometre of hourglass-fine sandy beach and a network of cycleways. Like much of the Netherlands, the scenery of the mainland is predominantly green, bisected by canals and dotted with black-and-white cattle – Friesians, of course – and pitch-black Frisian horses. Breaking the pancake-flat monotony of the landscape, sleek wind turbines make the most of the strong westerlies, a modern counterpart to the last working windmills in the area.
East of Friesland, the province of Groningen has comparatively few attractions, but the university town of Groningen more than makes up for this with a vibrant ambience, contemporary fashions, range of affordable bars and restaurants, a growing international performance-art festival and the best nightlife in the region. It’s also home to the Groninger Museum, a striking and controversial vision of urban architecture and art, and a definite highlight of the region.
South of Groningen lies Drenthe, little more than a barren moor for much of its history. During the nineteenth century, the face of the province was changed by the founding of peat colonies, whose labourers drained the land and dug the peat to expose the subsoil below. As a result, parts of Drenthe are given over to prosperous farmland, with agriculture the dominant industry. Sparsely . and the least visited of the Dutch provinces, Drenthe is now popular with home-grown tourists, who are drawn by its quiet natural beauty, swathes of wood, wide cycling paths and abundant walking trails, although many come here to visit Drenthe’s most original feature – its hunebeds, or megalithic tombs.