I've travelled through much of this country, although admittedly it's not very big and I should really have seen more than I have, but mostly it's the east that has escaped my attention. That said, and even taking into account the parts I've missed, there really aren't many hills here at all. There are a few humpy parts in the Veluwe, north of Arnhem, and a few more in Limburg and the odd 'wal' or two (ridge of high ground), but apart from these, the country is flatter than the proverbial washboard. Many people don't like this, and I'll admit there are times I would love to stand on a hilltop and enjoy looking out over undulating scenery, but there are advantages to these flatlands.
|Lie on your stomach and see into next week|
I can hear some of you saying already that this must be boring, but I don't find it so. As I've mentioned before, the skyscapes here are wonderful and the light is often pure magic. The sun on the side of a solitary white-painted cottage in the distance can stand out as a beacon against the gold spread of a wide cornfield and the vast expanse of the water-washed blue sky. Everything is outlined with a sharp pen, even the furrows in the fields. It can be stunning.
High hedges beside the narrow and winding lanes in England, for instance, often mean you see nothing of the beautiful scenery behind them. Hills there might be, but you can also miss half the beauty by having to concentrate on finding a safe place to pass the tractor in front of you going at half a mile an hour. With all those bends and hedges, you can hardly see more than a short distance ahead. There are rarely such problems in the Netherlands although I must admit the tractor drivers here think they are driving go-carts instead of lumbering agricultural machinery. As a result they pound along nearly as fast as anyone else on the road unless they're pulling a trailer load of hay or spuds, but that's another matter.
What's next then? Well, there's the beautiful old Dutch towns of which there are many. Some of my favourites are Dordrecht, Zierikzee (see last week's post), Deventer and Middelburg, all lovely places criss-crossed with harbours and old boats. Those that have their old centres still intact are just a picture of traditional Dutch culture. Most of these have cobbled streets, and quaint narrow gabled houses with outsize windows. Often they have flowers in boxes outside, hollyhocks growing up through the paving cracks and bicycles leaning haphazardly against walls and doorways. There is a kind of ramshackle but elegant charm about all these towns and I love them. There is also much more trust than I have ever experienced anywhere else.
Just the other day, Koos and I were walking through Leiden (which is quite a large city) and someone had put a small table outside their front door with pots of jam in a box. There was a small notice politely asking takers to put the money in the tin provided. Now in the country, I imagine that is quite common in most European countries, but in a large, cosmopolitan town? I think that's pretty rare.
|An elegant Dutch townhouse in Goes|
It's just one side of the sort of practical no-nonsense approach to life that has the Prime Minister cycling across the Hague for a meeting with the king. Why waste time, money and energy driving a fancy car when you can nip through the city on a bike?
|A country farmhouse in North Holland|
There are plenty of other things to appreciate about the Netherlands too: the inspiring way they look to the future in terms of energy production, agriculture and water management; the constant attempts to find solutions and compromise in social and political matters; the intrinsic culture of 'anything goes as long as you behave sensibly'. The obsession with health and safety is thankfully not something the Dutch have taken on board and although there are problems here just as there are everywhere else, my feeling is that compared with other countries, this is still an essentially good and wholesome place to live.
I've just finished reading Ben Coates' very good Why the Dutch Are Different, so I'll finish with a quote from the last chapter of the book as it sort of sums things up. The Dutch are "happier than Britain, more efficient than France, more tolerant than America, more worldly than Norway, more modern than Belgium and more fun than Germany." All in all, it can't be bad, can it?