Tulips, islands, cows, castles…

See more of the Netherlands

Most tourists coming to the Netherlands will head to Amsterdam and there is no doubt that this is a great city to visit.

There are of course other great cities too – like The Hague, Rotterdam, Utrecht, Leiden and places with famous names like Delph, famous for its blue and white pottery and Edam and Gouda that are both cities famous for their cheeses as well as many other towns and villages too. 

While the Netherlands may be a small country, this also makes it easy to see more of the country, so on these pages we have set down some information about some of the places that you also might want to visit away from the main cities.

Certainly, Christmas time is a special time in the Netherlands with special foods, treats, marzipan and Christmas decorations in many home and shop windows, and at this time ice skating and snow in many parts of the country, make it all very special, but can be very cold too.

Most tourists on holiday will pick the summer months for their holidays, and the Netherlands has many National Park areas, sandy beaches, forests and waterways with cycling trails, walkways and natural parklands for people to get away from city life and see the countryside, beaches and fresh air. In winter snows sometimes, but not always just add to the pleasure of seeing snows on the branches of trees and the landscape, like icing on a cake!

Here on these pages we have set down some information that we hope will help you see some of the most interesting rural landscapes and villages -  

“Wolkom” (Welcome) to Friesland (Fryslân)in the North West

If you look at a map of the Netherlands you will see a line of four main small islands just off the northern mainland, almost in an arc shape, forming somewhat of a barrier between the North Sea to the west of them and the Wadden Sea to the east. This region of The Netherlands is called Friesland, most of Friesland being on the mainland, but also encompassing the five islands and Wadden Sea too.

Friesland is where the Friesland black and white dairy cows originated from, with the Holstein cows coming just to the north of Friesland in Germany.

In many countries these cows may be referred to as Friesland-Holstein, given that both breeds are very similar and there has been wide spread interbreeding. Friesland is still at the heart of The Netherlands dairy country.

In Friesland about 60% of the population speak the Frisian Language (Frysk) and to give you a feel for the language – here are the numbers one to ten –

1. ien, 2. twa, 3. Trije, 4. Fjouwer, 5. Fiif, 6. Seis, 7. Sân, 8. Acht, 9. Hjoggen, 10. Tsien

To say hello in Frysk – you might say “Hoi” or “Goedei” or “ Goeie Agoeie” , but you will also hear Dutch too and many people will  speak English or German too. As you can see there are great similarities to German, Dutch and Flemish, but many differences too.

As you might suspect, most of the world’s smaller languages like Breton, Gaelic and many others are in the threat of dying out and there has to be a conscious effort to try and preserve these languages too. They are doing this in Friesland and from a tourist perspective, this just adds to the attraction of travelling here.

The biggest city and capital of Friesland is Leeuwarden (Ljouwert) about 140 kilometres north-west of Amsterdam with a population of around 110,000 people. The city has the old city charm and canals in its centre, a pretty impressive ceramics museum and a leaning tower building that you can go to the top of, but its main claim to fame is that Gertrud Margarete Zelle, the Parisienne Princess, Mata Hari was born here in 1876. She had spent time in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) before becoming an exotic dancer and courtesan in Paris in the early 1900’s and taking on the name ‘Mata Hari’. The Netherlands remained neutral during World War One, but Mata Hari took on the role as a Spy on the Germans in Paris, working for the French, but was then accused of being a double agent, and placed in front of a French firing squad in 1917– her final farewell act being to blow a kiss to the firing squad as she fell in a hail of bullets. Heroine or traitor - here in Leeuwarden there is a statue of Mata Hari, Leeuwarden’s most famous citizen.

Other cities in Friesland are Harlingen (Harns) an old whaling, fishing and port city with ferries operating to the islands offshore and Sneek (Snits) on the Ijsselmeer Lake, a popular destination for sailing.

The four main Friesland Islands are accessible by ferry from the mainland, the most visited island being Terschelling where people come to the villages in summer to cycle, walk and see the sand dunes, waves in the Wadden Sea and North Sea that are features of the island or go bird watching. The other islands also share the same isolation and if you are looking for quiet times where nature rules with a small village feel, then coming to these islands for the scenery, fresh air, sounds of the sea and natural surrounds will entice you.

Fortresses and Castles

The Netherlands has a number of castles and palaces as well as fortresses located in different locations within the country. These are some of the most memorable ones –

  • Bourtange Fortress – now a museum was built in 1580. It is located in the north east of the country in the village of the same name close the bigger city of Groningen. The Fort was built in a star shape, with an outer moat in the star shape, then star shaped land mass, another star shaped moat, another land strip and then the star shape of the Fortress itself. It is best to see it from the air to see all the stars that form the whole Fortress and its defences and it almost looks like the model for the Dubai Palm island design. (See UAE Dubai section of this website)
  • Muiderslot Castle – is located in Muiden, close to Amsterdam was constructed in 1280 and its towers, moat and interiors are all pretty amazing. Close by, but on Pampus Island just off-shore in the IJMeer (river harbour) is a UNESCO listed fortress complex built in the 1900’s as one of a number of forts designed to protect Amsterdam from invaders from the sea. It is a 25 minute Ferry ride from Muiden to get there, or there is a Ferry Service from Amsterdam too. It is best to pre-book a ferry, and the fort is open between 1st April and 1st of November.
  • De Haar Kasteel (Castle)  - This grand castle with its moats, massive gardens and turrets is located just 15 kilometres from the city of Utrecht. The castle dates back to the 15th century when it was owned by the Van der Haar family, but then was sold on to the Van Zuylen family and passed down through generations and greatly restored and added to in the 1890’s. Inside is grand but equally stunning are the gardens with its canals, small bridges, rose garden, Roman, French and English gardens, maze and even a deer camp.
  • Amerongen Kasteel and Huis Doorn Manor House  – If you read sections of this website – France, Belgium, Luxembourg ,Germany and UK, you will read information about World War One.  During that War, the Netherlands remained Neutral, but on the 28th November 1918, towards the end of the World War One, nearing defeat, German Emperor and King of Prussia, Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) announced his abdication. His abdication and the declaration he made signalled the end of the Hohenzollen Dynasty as rulers of Germany and Prussia and he went into exile in neutral The Netherlands. He signed the abdication in the 14th century old moated Amerongen Castle – located about 36 kilometres south east of Utrecht at Drostestraat 20 in Amerongen and lived there in exile for about a year and a half, before moving to his large 3 storey manor house, the Huis Doorn in the village of Doorn 30 kilometres from Utrecht, where he lived in exile until his death in 1941. He bought Huis Doorn in 1919 with its 35 hectares of gardens and forests.

While you may have thought that living in exile may have meant some degree of hardship, given the millions of people who died and suffered in World War One, the Kaiser managed to have 50 train carriages carry his 30,000 possessions from his Palaces in Berlin and Potsdam in Germany to his new home.

Today, both homes and their magnificent rooms and gardens are open to the public to see. Both are quite amazing.

  • Kasteel Keukenhof – is located in Lisse near Leiden and the Keukenhof Gardens are here too. These gardens are said to be the best place to view tulips in flower in the Spring when buses from Amsterdam and also Leiden descent on the Gardens bringing some 800,000 visitors to see the Tulips. For Tulip lovers – also read the section on the Amsterdam pages to view the daily Tulip Auctions in action.
  • Fort Sint Pieter – is a massive five sided fort with high sloping stone protective walls located in the city of Maastricht overlooking the Meuse (Maas) River.

The Fort was built around 1701 and saw action in 1794 when the French forces of Louis XIV attacked it and although much of the Fort is in ruins, it still stands out high above the city, the river and surrounds.

Most intriguing are the miles of underground tunnels that are under the old Fort, many of the tunnels open for people to tour. The city itself makes claim to be The Netherlands oldest city dating back to Roman days, so the museums, especially the Ceramics Museum  are excellent and the architecture, Churches, small cobbled laneways, central square (Vrijthof)and the River Meuse (Maas) with bridges crossing over it make the city very attractive. The Meuse is one of the great European Rivers, so well worth taking a cruise to see the city and surrounds from a cruise boat.

The City is on both sides of the River, but easy enough to walk or bike to see some of the main points of interest. The city is also renowned for its great restaurants.

Unlike most of the Netherlands, this part of the country has hills and valleys and just outside Maastricht is the small village of Valkenburg, where there is the Valkenburg Castle. There are also others too, some of them now operating as hotels.

Back in the days of the Romans and Julius Caesar, the Roman Road ‘ Via Belgica’ was constructed between Köln (Cologne) and Boulogne-sur-Mer and this road and the direction it took were followed later by the armies of Charlemagne and later by Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm II and then by the Nazis under Hitler. Parts of this road still exist and are used today.

Maastricht was located in a strategic position on the River Meuse and was the place where the Germans in World War Two attacked on the 10th May 1940 leading on to their invasion of Belgium and then France.

In the First World War the Dutch remained neutral, but in the Second World War, the Netherlands was invaded by the Germans and some 6700 of its armed forces died in action and some 187,300 civilians died too either directly, from internment or as a direct result of the war. 

In 1944 the Roman ‘Via Belgica’ road also saw the German troops retreating along its course too, with both the Allied (British, American, Canadian, Australian and others ) troops and Germans too suffering great losses too during this time.

Here in Margraten, just 10 kilometres from Maastricht there is the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial where the white crosses of 8301 US Soldiers are known and buried, alongside 1722 Missing in Action soldiers too, marked as “Tablets of the Missing”. The American sacrifice is well recognized by the Dutch here in Maastricht who have established a Foundation for adopting graves at the Cemetery.

Maastricht is also the city where the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992 to establish the European Union.

It is certainly a city that is both historically interesting and also vibrant too.
Hopefully these pages written here will encourage you to see more of The Netherlands outside of Amsterdam, which still remains as the most popular of all Dutch cities to visit.


Happy travels

Geoff Stuart


Happy Traveller

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