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.
Pressed between Belgium and Germany, Limburg, the Netherlands’ southernmost province, is shaped like an hourglass and is only 13km across at its narrowest. By Dutch standards, this is a geographically varied province: the north is a familiarly flat landscape of farmland and woods until the town of Roermond, where the River Maas loops and curls its way across the map; in the south, and seemingly out of nowhere, rise rolling hills studded with vineyards and châteaux. The people of Limburg are as distinct from the rest of the Netherlands as their landscape – their dialects incomprehensible to “Hollanders”, their outlook more closely forged by Belgium and Germany than the distant Randstad. Nowhere is this international flavour more apparent than in the main city of Maastricht, while South Limburg’s distinctive, and notably un-Dutch, atmosphere makes it popular with tourists from the rest of the Netherlands, who head to its many caves and scenic cycle routes, and visit its resorts such as Valkenburg. North and central Limburg are less colourful, but still have some places that are well worth visiting. Venlo, with its stunning Stadhuis, is a good starting point for heading on to the National War and Resistance Museum, and Roermond makes a good base to explore the National Park de Meinweg.
What started as a small gathering over forty years ago is now in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest unbroken festival in Europe. Limburg’s Pinkpop (w pinkpop.nl), a three-day event starting on Whitsun, has its roots in Geleen but soon moved to Landgraaf, close to the German border, where it grew into a festival attracting more than 90,000 alternative pop and rock fans. It’s hosted many big names, from Elvis Costello to Lenny Kravitz and from the Counting Crows to Bruce Springsteen, and has always been a trendsetter for other festivals in the country. Traditionally Monday is the busiest day. Die-hards who don’t want to miss a thing can stay on the purpose-built campsite on the premises; if that’s not your thing, be sure to book accommodation ahead. During the festival, frequent trains connect Maastricht and Heerlen to Landgraaf station, from where a shuttle service will take you to the festival site.
On a leisurely cycle route east from Maastricht to Vaals, right on the German border, scenic villages nestle among vineyards and orchards, linked by quiet lanes dotted with shrines. Cycling is a perfect way to appreciate this rolling landscape and its un-Dutch hills. Pick up a Limburg province map from Maastricht tourist office, and allow a day for this seventy-kilometre round trip.
From Maastricht train station, follow the river south to Gronsveld, picking up signs to the eleventh-century village of St Geertruid. The road snakes over hills draped with vineyards before swooping into the villages of Mheer, Noorbeek and Slenaken – all very pretty and popular. At Slenaken, the road develops some hairpin tendencies as it climbs the valley side above. Continue through Eperheide and Epen, with sweeping views across to the rolling valleys of Belgium on the right. Between Epen and Vaals, there’s a gradual eight-kilometre climb on narrow roads, winding between woods of red oaks. From Vaals, you can do an extra six-kilometre round trip to the highest point in the Netherlands (a lofty 321m): follow the signs to the Drielandenpunt, where three flags in a graffiti-covered concrete block mark the meeting of the borders of Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. Otherwise, follow the main road out of Vaals (there’s a dedicated cycle lane), turning left to Vijlen. Surrounding you is a panoramic view over Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, beautiful on a clear day. From Mechelen and Gulpen, you’re within striking distance of Valkenburg to the north, approached through the old town. Climb the steep but brief Cauberg hill to return to Maastricht, enjoying a speedy descent between orchards and farmland with the city locked in your sights. Once on the outskirts, follow the cycle route signs to bring you back to the station.
An alternative (and shorter) return route is to continue from Gulpen to Maastricht on a straight route via Margraten and Cadier-en-Keer.
Maastricht is one of the most vibrant cities in the Netherlands. With its cobbled streets and fashionable boutiques in the old town, contemporary architecture in the Céramique district, a fantastic art fair and excellent cuisine, the city literally buzzes with excitement and its multilingual, multinational population epitomizes the most positive aspects of the European Union.
Though its claim to be the oldest town in the Netherlands is disputed by Nijmegen, Maastricht was certainly settled by the Romans, who took one look at the River Maas and dubbed the town Mosae Trajectum or “Crossing of the Maas”. An important stopoff on the trading route between Cologne and the North Sea, the town boasted a Temple of Jupiter, whose remains are now on view in a hotel basement. A millennium later, Charlemagne beefed up the city too, though his legacy is ecclesiastical, his two churches representing some of the finest extant Romanesque architecture in the whole of the country.
Maastricht has also had its hard times, hitting the economic skids in the 1970s after the last of the region’s coal mines closed, but its fortunes have been revived by a massive regeneration scheme, which has pulled in foreign investors by the busload. The town is now popular as a day-trip destination with the Dutch, the Germans and the Belgians, and it is also home to students from around the world studying at over forty international institutes, including the European Journalism Centre and the University of the United Nations. Redevelopment continues apace today with the addition of ’t Bassin, a spruced-up inland harbour north of the Markt, with a handful of restaurants, cafés and galleries. The most recent construction in the centre of town is the Mosae Forum, a shopping centre with an attractive blend of classical and modern architecture. Finally, Maastricht is especially appealing during Carnival, with colourful parades and locals and visitors alike dressed up in the most creative outfits, mostly handmade.
Maastricht is known as the culinary capital of the Netherlands, and never more so than during Preuvenemint, an annual four-day culinary event held on the last full weekend in August (w preuvenemint.nl), when Vrijthof square is filled with over thirty stands functioning as restaurants. “Preuvenemint” is a contraction of the Maastricht words “preuve” (to taste) and “evenemint” (event), and it’s a great way to explore the richness of Dutch cuisine. The main attraction, though, has to be the crowd the event attracts. Posh Maastricht comes out to show off its latest purchases, but also to contribute to a good cause, since all the proceeds go to charity.
Once a year, art and antique lovers gather at the TEFAF fair (w tefaf.com), held in the congress centre (MECC) in Maastricht. From its modest beginnings in 1975 when it specialized in old master paintings, the TEFAF now claims to be the world’s leading fine art and antiques fair, attracting visitors from all over the world. It usually takes place in March, but check the exact dates on the website. Even if you’re not an art lover it’s worth noting the dates, as finding accommodation is almost impossible when it’s on.
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.
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.
Breda, 20km west of Tilburg, is one of the prettier towns of Noord-Brabant, a pleasant, easy-going place to while away a night or two. A magnificent Gothic cathedral looms above the three-storey buildings that front its stone-paved main square, which is crammed with stallholders and shoppers on market days. There’s a range of well-priced accommodation here too, plus inexpensive restaurants and lively bars, though ultimately it’s less appealing than Den Bosch as a base for exploring central Noord-Brabant.
Breda also has an excellent carnival, which is celebrated with vim and gusto, and a top-notch, four-day annual jazz festival (w bredajazzfestival.nl), when some twenty stages are scattered around the centre; it usually starts on Ascension Day.
The main attraction on the Grote Markt is the Gothic Grote Kerk, whose stunningly beautiful bell tower reaches high into the sky. Inside, the main nave, with its richly carved capitals, leads to a high and mighty central crossing. Like the majority of Dutch churches, the Grote Kerk had its decorations either removed or obscured after the Reformation, but a few murals have been uncovered and they reveal just how colourful the church once was. The Grote Kerk’s most remarkable feature is the Mausoleum of Count Engelbrecht II, a one-time Stadholder and captain-general of the Netherlands who died in 1504 of tuberculosis – vividly apparent in the drawn features of his intensely realistic face. Four kneeling figures (Caesar, Regulus, Hannibal and Philip of Macedonia) support a canopy that carries his armour, so skilfully sculpted that their shoulders seem to sag slightly under the weight. It’s believed that the mausoleum was the work of Tomaso Vincidor of Bologna, but whoever created it imbued the mausoleum with grandeur without resorting to flamboyance; the result is both eerily realistic and oddly moving. During the French occupation the choir was used as a stable, but fortunately the sixteenth-century misericords, showing rustic scenes of everyday life, survived. A couple of the carvings are modern replacements – as you’ll see from their subject matter.
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.
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.
Capital of Noord-Brabant, ’s-Hertogenbosch is a lively town, particularly on Wednesdays and Saturdays, when its Markt fills with traders from all over the province. Better known as Den Bosch (pronounced “bos”), it merits a day or two’s exploration. The town’s full name – “the Count’s Woods” – dates from the time when Henry I, Duke of Brabant, established a hunting lodge here in the twelfth century. Beneath the graceful townhouses of the old city flows the Binnendieze, its gloomy depths spanned by small wooden bridges. Staggered crossroads, winding streets and the twelfth-century town walls are vestiges of interminable warfare between the Protestants to the north and the Catholics to the south. The town’s history is written into its street and house names – “Corn Bridge”, “The Gun Barrel”, “Painters’ Street” and more – while its most famous son is the fifteenth-century artist Hieronymous Bosch. Den Bosch also makes a good base from which to visit the chilling Camp Vught, nearby.
Luctor et Emergo, reads Zeeland’s slogan: “I struggle and I emerge”, a reference to the interminable battle the province has waged with the sea. As its name suggests, the southwestern corner of the Netherlands is bound as much by water as land. Comprising three main peninsulas within the delta of the Rijn (Rhine), the Schelde and the Maas, this cluster of islands and semi-islands is linked by a complex network of dykes. This concrete web not only gives protection from flooding but also forms the main lines of communication between each sliver of land. The northernmost landmass, Goeree-Overflakkee, a little south of Rotterdam, is connected by two dams to Schouwen-Duiveland, while further south are Noord and Zuid Beveland, the western tip of which adjoins Walcheren. Furthest south of all is Zeeuws Vlaanderen, lying across the blustery waters of the Westerschelde on the Belgian mainland.
Before the Delta Project secured the area, fear of the sea’s encroachment had prevented any large towns developing and consequently Zeeland remains a condensed area of low dunes and nature reserves, popular with holidaymakers escaping the cramped conurbations nearby. The province also has more sun than anywhere else in the Netherlands: the winds blow the clouds away, with spectacular sunsets guaranteed. Getting around is easy, with bus services making up for the lack of north–south train connections, though undoubtedly the best way to see these islands is to cycle, using Middelburg as a base and venturing out into its environs.
The coast north and west of Middelburg offers some of the Netherlands’ finest beaches and excellent walking and cycling, although on midsummer weekends parts of it are mobbed with crowds of Dutch and German holidaymakers. Countless cycling options make the most of Walcheren’s handsome coastline, with plenty of refreshments en route. With limited public transport available to transport bikes, most routes are best completed as loops. As a rule of thumb, red cycleway signs indicate utility paths, often parallel to a main road, while the green signs denote more scenic alternatives.
Possible day-trips include cycling west to Domburg, picking up signs to the Domburg HI hostel and continuing through the woods to Breezand. A cycleway follows the polder to Veere, from where you can ride alongside the Walcheren canal, cutting back to Middelburg. Alternatively, pick up the same canal out of town to Vlissingen, joining the cycleway that runs between dune and woodland to Zoutelande and Westkapelle: there’s a fabulous stretch of dyke to cycle along in the direction of Domburg with spectacular sunsets out to sea and a photogenic lighthouse. A red-signposted cycle path leads directly back to Middelburg.
There’s plenty of scope for exploring the countryside and coastline around Zierikzee by bike. To put colour in your cheeks, you could follow the bike lane over the wind-tunnel-like Zeelandbrug, a graceful bridge that spans the Oosterschelde south of Zierikzee, and is one of the longest bridges in Europe, at 5022m. Refreshments are available in Colijnsplaat on the other side: prevailing winds will be against you on the way out, so you can expect the journey back to take half the time. Alternatively, Dreischor, 8km northeast, makes for a pleasant half-day bike ride from Zierikzee. Here, the fourteenth-century St Adriaanskirche is surrounded by a moat and lush green lawns, encircled by a ring of attractive houses. Complete with waddling geese and a restored travalje (livery stable), it’s an idyllic setting – although busy at weekends.
On February 1, 1953, a combination of an exceptionally high spring tide and powerful northwesterly winds drove the North Sea over the dykes to flood much of Zeeland. The results were catastrophic: 1855 people drowned, 47,000 homes and 500km of dykes were destroyed and some of the country’s most fertile agricultural land was ruined by salt water. Towns as far inland as Bergen-op-Zoom and Dordrecht were flooded and Zeeland’s road and rail network was wrecked. The government’s response was immediate and massive. After patching up the breached dykes, work was begun on the Delta Project, one of the largest engineering schemes the world has ever seen and one of phenomenal complexity and expense.
The aim was to ensure the safety of Zeeland by radically shortening and strengthening its coastline. The major estuaries and inlets would be dammed, thus preventing unusually high tides surging inland to breach the thousands of kilometres of small dykes. Where it was impractical to build a dam – such as across the Westerschelde or Nieuwe Waterweg, which would have closed the seaports of Antwerp and Rotterdam respectively – secondary dykes were to be reinforced. New roads across the top of the dams would improve communications to Zeeland and Zuid-Holland and the freshwater lakes that formed behind the dams would enable precise control of the water table of the Zeeland islands.
It took thirty years for the Delta Project to be completed. The smaller, secondary dams – the Veersegat, Haringvliet and Brouwershaven – were built first to provide protection from high tides as quickly as possible, a process that also enabled engineers to learn as they went along. In 1968, work began on the largest dam, intended to close the Oosterschelde estuary that forms the outlet of the Maas, Waal and Rijn rivers. It soon ran into intense opposition from environmental groups, who pointed out that the mud flats were an important breeding ground for birds, while the estuary itself was a nursery for plaice, sole and other North Sea fish. The inshore fishermen saw their livelihoods in danger too: if the Oosterschelde were closed the oyster, mussel and lobster beds would be destroyed, representing a huge loss to the region’s economy.
The environmental and fishing lobbies argued that strengthening the estuary dykes would provide adequate protection; the water board and agricultural groups raised the emotive spectre of the 1953 flood. In the end a compromise was reached, and in 1976 work began on the Stormvloedkering (“Storm Surge Barrier”), a gate that would stay open under normal tidal conditions, allowing water to flow in and out of the estuary, but close ahead of potentially destructive high tides.
Completed in 1986, the fascinating Delta Expo, signposted as Waterland Neeltje Jans, is on the Stormvloedkering. It’s only once you’re inside the Expo, though, that you get an idea of the scale of the project. It’s best to start with the half-hour video presentation before taking in the exhibition, which is divided into three areas: the historical background of the Netherlands’ water management problems; the technological developments that enabled the country to protect itself; the environmental consequences of applying the technologies and the solutions that followed. The Surge Barrier (and the Delta Project as a whole) has been a triumphant success: computer simulations predict most high tides, but if an unpredicted rise does occur, the sluice gates close automatically in a matter of minutes. If you cycle to the Expo on cycle route LF16, you’ll run alongside open beaches and dunes, past wind turbines and onto the storm barrier itself, with ample opportunities to peer into the sluice gates: allow for blustery winds on the way back.
One of the town’s most colourful festivals is Ringrijderij, a horseback competition where riders try to pick off rings with lances. It takes place in August at the Koepoort city gate near Molenwater, and in the central Abdijplein on one day in July; check with the tourist office for dates. Another major draw is the annual Mosselfeesten, a weekend in the second half of July devoted to celebrating the arrival of the fresh black mussels, of which Zeeland is particularly proud. The festival takes place around the Vlasmarkt, with live music and restaurants offering their own version of this regional speciality.