Welcome to The Netherlands
As my plane descends through the clouds toward Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, I notice something about the landscape – it is completely flat and criss-crossed with waterways. Wide rivers and canals, carrying ships of all sizes, lakes and ponds, and what looks like thousands of small ditches. The Netherlands is obviously a very watery place…and why are there no hills?
I read in my guidebook that 26% of the Netherlands lies below the level of the sea, but I hadn’t expected this to be so obvious in the flatness of the land and the network of waterways designed to carry water to the sea. From the air, I can already imagine myself wandering alongside the famous canals of Amsterdam and taking a boat ride to get a different perspective.
The Netherlands (sometimes called ‘Holland’) literally means ‘low countries.’ Its location at the point where several of Europe’s largest rivers empty into the sea means that much of the land was full of marshes and meandering rivers. People have settled here for thousands of years because the rivers create very fertile soil, but the very same rivers and high sea-tides often brought flooding with great loss of life.
For over 2,000 years the locals have been building dikes and dams to control the waters and, in the process, drained marshes to create farmland. In fact, 17% of the country is actually man-made! This is why there are no hills, at least in the western part of the country around Amsterdam. (More on this a little later in our journey.)
Like other countries in Europe, the history of the Netherlands involves changing borders and rule by foreign empires. The first inhabitants of this area were ancient tribes but the southern part came under the rule of the Roman Empire for around 500 years from 50BCE. Control then passed to various royal families until the 16th century when, during the Reformation, most Dutch cities and provinces converted to Protestantism. After a long and bloody war the Dutch achieved independence in 1648.
In the 17th century, the Netherlands was one of the richest places in the world. During this period, often called ‘The Dutch Golden Age’, the Dutch explored, traded, and settled around the world, including founding the city now called New York (did you know that its original name was ‘New Amsterdam’?)
Now that we’ve covered a bit of history, I can’t wait to take you through the Netherlands with me!