Zuid-Holland (South Holland) is the most densely populated province of the Netherlands, incorporating a string of towns and cities that make up the bulk of what is commonly called the Randstad (literally “Rim-Town”). By and large, careful urban planning has succeeded in stopping this from becoming an amorphous conurbation, however, and each town has preserved a pronounced identity.
A short hop from Amsterdam is Leiden, a university town par excellence, with an antique centre latticed by canals and dotted with fine old buildings. Den Haag (The Hague) was once a humdrum government town, but has jazzed itself up and is now a very likeable city with a string of good museums and an appealing bar and restaurant scene. Neighbouring Delft is a much smaller place, with just 100,000 inhabitants, but it possesses an extremely pretty centre replete with handsome seventeenth-century buildings, in stark contrast to the rough and tumble of big-city Rotterdam, the world’s largest port, where an adventurous city council has stacked up a string of first-rate attractions, from fine art through to harbour tours. It’s a short journey inland from here to Gouda, a good-looking country town historically famed for its cheese market, and to the somnambulant charms of rural Oudewater. Back on the coast, Dordrecht marks the southern edge of the Randstad and is of mild interest as an ancient port and for its location, within easy striking distance of the windmills of the Kinderdijk and the creeks and marshes of the Biesbosch. Finally, the province of Utrecht is distinguished by its capital city, Utrecht, a sprawling city with a dramatic history and a bustling, youthful centre.
The region’s coastal cities – especially Leiden and Den Haag – are only a short bus or tram ride from the wide sandy beaches of the North Sea coast, while the pancake-flat Randstad landscape is brightened by rainbow flashes of bulbfields in spring with the Keukenhof gardens, near Leiden, having the finest display. A fast and efficient rail network makes travelling around Zuid-Holland extremely easy, and where the trains fizzle out, buses take over.
Historically, Zuid-Holland is part of what was once simply Holland, the richest and most influential province in the country. Throughout the Golden Age, Holland dominated the political, social and cultural life of the Republic, overshadowing its neighbours, their economies dwarfed by its success. There are constant reminders of this pre-eminence in the province’s buildings: elaborate town halls proclaim civic importance and even the usually sombre Calvinist churches allow themselves decorative excesses – the later windows of Gouda’s Janskerk being a case in point. Many of the great Dutch painters either came from, or worked here, too – Rembrandt, Vermeer, Jan Steen – a tradition that continued into the nineteenth century with the paintings of the Hague School. All the towns offer good museums and galleries, most notably The Hague’s Mauritshuis and Rotterdam’s Boijmans van Beuningen.
Top image: Oudewater © Peter de Kievith/Shutterstock
Delft, in between Den Haag and Rotterdam, has a beguiling centre, a medley of ancient red-tiled houses set beside tree-lined canals interrupted by the cutest of bridges. With justification, it’s one of the most visited spots in the Netherlands, but most tourists come here for the day, and in the evening, even in the summer, the town can be surprisingly – and mercifully – quiet. Delft boasts a clutch of fascinating old buildings, one of them – the Prinsenhof – holding an enjoyable collection of Golden Age paintings. Nevertheless it’s the general flavour of the place that appeals rather than any specific sight. That said, the two big pulls as far as day-trippers are concerned are the Delftware factories, stuffed with the blue and white ceramics for which the town is famous, and Vermeer, the town’s best-known son.
The origins of the clunky ceramics known as delftware can be traced to the Balearic island of Mallorca, where craftsmen had earlier developed majolica, a type of porous pottery that was glazed with bright metallic oxides. During the Renaissance, these techniques were exported to Italy from where they spread north, first to Antwerp and then to the United Provinces. Initially, delft pottery designs featured Dutch and Italian landscapes, portraits and biblical scenes, but the East India Company’s profitable import of Chinese ceramics transformed the industry. Delft factories freely copied Chinese designs and by the middle of the seventeenth century they were churning out blue-and-white tiles, plates, panels, jars and vases by the boatload – even exporting to China, where they undercut Chinese producers.
From the 1760s, however, the delft factories were themselves undercut by British and German workshops, and by the time Napoleon arrived they had all but closed down. There was a modest revival of the industry in the 1870s and there are several local producers today, but it’s mostly mass-produced stuff of little originality.
Some 20km southeast of Rotterdam, the ancient port of Dordrecht, or “Dordt” as it’s often called, sits beside one of the busiest waterway junctions in the world, where tankers and containers from the north pass the waterborne traffic of the Maas and Rijn. Eclipsed by the expansion of Rotterdam – and barely touched by World War II – Dordrecht’s old centre has survived in excellent nick, its medley of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century warehouses, townhouses and workers’ terraces strung along its innermost canals and harbours. It takes about three hours to cover all the town’s main sights, and it’s the obvious base from which to explore the sprawling marshes and tidal flats of the wilderness Nationaal Park de Biesbosch just south of town. The other main pull hereabouts is the windmills of the Kinderdijk.
Some 12km north of Dordrecht, the Kinderdijk (Child’s Dyke) sits at the end of a long drainage channel that feeds into the River Lek. Sixteenth-century legend suggests it takes its name from the time when a cradle, complete with cat and kicking baby, was found at the precise spot where the dyke had held during a particularly bad storm. Encompassing a mixture of symbols – rebirth, innocence and survival – the story encapsulates the determination with which the Dutch fought the floods for hundreds of years. Today, the Kinderdijk is famous for its picturesque, quintessentially Dutch windmills, all nineteen lining the main channel and its tributary beside the Molenkade for some 3km. Built around 1740 to drive water from the Alblasserwaard polders, the windmills are put into operation every Saturday afternoon in July and August, while one of the windmills is also open to visitors Jan–Feb; Nov-Dec daily 10am–4pm; March–Oct daily 9am–5.30pm; €7 online and €8 at ticket desk; w kinderdijk.nl.
Located on the border of the provinces of Noord-Brabant and Zuid-Holland, the Biesbosch (Reed Forest) is one of the Netherlands’ larger national parks and one of the few remaining freshwater tidal areas in Europe. The park covers around fifteen square kilometres of river, creek, marsh and reed to the south and east of Dordrecht and divides into two main sections, north and south of the Nieuwe Merwede waterway. The undeveloped heart of the park is the Brabantse Biesbosch, the chunk of land to the south, while almost all the tourist facilities have been carefully confined to the north on a strip just east of Dordrecht, along the park’s perimeter. Being a wetland habitat, the park offers a perfect breeding ground for all species of birds such as kingfishers, bluethroats and waterfowls. Best explored by boat, the park makes for a pleasant day-trip from Dordrecht.
Inundated twice daily by the tide, the Biesbosch produced a particular reed culture, its inhabitants using the plant for every item of daily life, from houses to baskets and boats, and selling excess cuttings at the local markets. It was a harsh existence that lasted well into the nineteenth century, when machine-manufactured goods largely rendered the reeds redundant. Although protected as a national park, its delicate ecosystem is threatened by the very scheme that aims to protect the province from further flooding. The dams of the Delta Project have controlled the rivers’ flow and restricted the tides’ strength, forcing the reeds to give ground to other forms of vegetation incompatible with the area’s bird and plant life. Large areas of reed have disappeared, and no one seems to know how to reconcile the nature reserve’s needs with those of the seaboard cities, but vigorous attempts are being made.
On November 18, 1421, Zuid-Holland’s sea defences gave way and the St Elizabeth Day flood formed what is now the Hollands Diep sea channel and the Biesbosch (Reed Forest). It was a disaster of major proportions, with seventy towns and villages destroyed and a death toll of around 100,000. The effect on the region’s economy was catastrophic, too, with the fracturing of links between Zuid-Holland and Flanders accelerating the shift in commercial power to the north. Those villages that did survive took generations to recover, subjected as they were to raids by the wretched refugees of the flood.
Gouda, a pretty little place some 20km northeast of Rotterdam, is everything you’d expect of a Dutch country town, with its ring of quiet canals encircling ancient buildings set amid a tangle of narrow lanes and alleys. More surprisingly, its Markt is the largest in the Netherlands, a wide and airy piazza that remains an attractive reminder of the town’s prominence as a centre of the medieval cloth trade, and later of its success in the manufacture of cheeses and that old Dutch favourite, the clay pipe. The weekly cheese market held here is mercilessly milked by tour operators who herd their crowds here – but don’t let this put you off, since Gouda’s charms lie elsewhere, especially in the splendid stained-glass windows of St Janskerk, and the winsome jumble of old canal-side buildings along Westhaven which rambles off towards the old Tolhuis (toll house) beside the Hollandsche IJssel River, on the southern edge of the town centre.
Gouda’s main claim to fame is its cheese market, held on the Markt every Thursday morning (10am–12.30pm) from the middle of June to late August. Traditionally, a thousand or so local farmers brought their home-produced cheeses here to be weighed, tested and graded for moisture, smell and taste. These details were marked on the cheeses and formed the basis for negotiation between buyer and seller, the exact price confirmed by an elaborate code of handclaps. Today, however, the cheese market is a shadow of its former self, comprising a few locals in traditional dress standing outside the Waag with their cheeses, all surrounded by modern, open-air stands.
Pocket-sized Oudewater, about 11km east of Gouda, deep in the countryside, is a compact and delightful town that holds a unique place in the history of Dutch witchcraft. Apart from the Heksenwaag, there’s not much else to see in Oudewater, but it is a pleasant place, whose old brick houses spread out along the River Hollandsche IJssel as it twists its way through town.
It’s estimated that over one million European women were burned or otherwise murdered in the widespread witch hunts of the sixteenth century – and not just from quasi-religious fear and superstition: anonymous accusation to the authorities was an easy way of removing a wife, at a time when there was no divorce. Underlying it all was a virulent misogyny and an accompanying desire to terrorize women into submission. There were three main methods for investigating accusations of witchcraft: in the first, trial by fire, the suspect had to walk barefoot over hot cinders or have a hot iron pressed into the back or hands. If the burns blistered, the accused was innocent, since witches were supposed to burn less easily than others; naturally, the (variable) temperature of the iron was crucial. Trial by water was still more hazardous: dropped into water, if you floated you were a witch, if you sank you were innocent – though those deemed innocent were more than likely to drown before being rescued from the water. The third method, trial by weight, presupposed that a witch would have to be unduly light to fly on a broomstick, so many Dutch towns – including Oudewater – used the Waag (town weigh house) to weigh the accused. If the weight didn’t accord with a notional figure derived from a person’s height, the woman was burned. The last Dutch woman to be burned as a witch was a certain Marrigje Ariens, a herbalist from Schoonhoven in Zuid-Holland, whose medical efforts, not atypically, inspired mistrust and subsequent persecution. She was killed in 1597.
The Emperor Charles V (1516–52) made Oudewater famous after seeing a woman accused of witchcraft in a nearby village. The weigh-master there, who’d been bribed, stated that the woman weighed only a few pounds, but Charles was dubious and ordered the woman to be weighed again in Oudewater, where the officials proved unbribable, pronouncing a normal weight and acquitting her. The probity of Oudewater’s weigh-master impressed Charles, and he granted the town the privilege of issuing certificates, valid throughout the empire, stating: “The accused’s weight is in accordance with the natural proportions of the body.” Once in possession of the certificate, a woman could never be brought to trial for witchcraft again. Not surprisingly, thousands of women came from all over Europe for this life-saving piece of paper, and, much to Oudewater’s credit, no one was ever condemned here.
First impressions of Utrecht are rarely positive: the mammoth shopping centre that encloses the city’s train station is not encouraging and neither is its tangle of busy dual carriageways. But persevere: much of Utrecht’s old centre has survived intact, with its network of canals, cobbled lanes and old gabled houses at their prettiest around the Domkerk, the city’s cathedral. Domkerk apart, it’s the general appearance and university atmosphere of the place that is its appeal rather than any specific sight – and indeed Utrecht’s two key museums, the Centraal and the Catharijne Convent, both of which have an enjoyable collection of old Dutch paintings, are out of the immediate centre to the south. Utrecht was also the long-time home of the De Stijl luminary Gerrit Rietveld, whose assorted furniture decorates the Centraal Museum, which pays further tribute to the man by organizing bus trips to the house that Rietveld built – the Rietveld Schröderhuis. Further De Stijl treasures can be seen at the Mondriaanhuis in the nearby town of Amersfoort.
As you might expect of a university town, Utrecht has a vibrant café, bar and restaurant scene and the presence of students ensures that prices are kept down. One of the best times to visit is during the Netherlands Film Festival, ten days of cinematic inspiration held every year at the end of September (w filmfestival.nl).