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.