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Try going Dutch for a change

Amsterdam - Officially, Holland is not the same as the Netherlands. Historically, wealthy counts ruled the two western provinces, North Holland and South Holland (as they exist today) and together they formed Holland.

As it was prestigious to be from that region, people from the rest of the Netherlands started calling themselves “Hollanders”, and so gradually everyone came from “Holland”. Nowadays, both terms are used to denote the same country, though many Dutch cringe at the sound of “Holland”, as they believe it to sound boorish. For the sake of descriptive ease, “Holland” here means the same as “The Netherlands”.

Like many of its canals, Amsterdam's pace is languid.The closed storm surge barrier 'De Maaslandkering' is seen in Hoek van Holland.Bicycle park in Amsterdam. PICTURE: HENK KRUGERAn unidentified tourist smokes marijuana at a coffee shop called 'de Dampkring' or 'Atmosphere', in the centre of Amsterdam.The Dutch windmills of The Zaanse Schans in Zaandam are locked in a fixed position as a sign of mourning after the death of Prince Johan Friso.

In Holland, people speak Dutch, which people from South Africa will understand due to the historical link between the countries. To some, however, it will sound as if the Dutch are suffering from a slight speech impediment. Not to worry; some Dutch feel exactly the same way about Afrikaans. Most people in Holland, however, will speak a fair share of English, which makes travelling around the country a piece of cake.

Holland is so much more than windmills, tulips, cheese and cow-filled fields that are “zo plat als een dubbeltje” (as flat as the original coin, now worth 5 Eurocents). In fact, it is amazing how such a small country has so many great places to discover and enjoy.

Here is a rough guide to visiting Holland, featuring some of Holland’s best highlights.

One of Holland’s top sights is, of course, Amsterdam. Compared to most large cities in the world, Amsterdam is a compact, canal-filled city with a snug atmosphere. Littered with leafy trees and stray bikes, Amsterdam is a fantastic city to explore by canal boat, bike, or on foot.

From Central Station, meander along the shop-and-restaurant-stuffed Damrak to the Dam (Dam Square) to admire the World War ll monument; the palace (where King Willem-Alexander romantically kissed his Argentinian bride on the balcony not long ago); the Bijenkorf (famous department store), and a mixture of buskers and pigeons. Dip into the Kalverstraat (the most expensive shopping street on the Dutch monopoly board) and gradually make your way to other top-notch sights such as the Rijksmuseum and the Anne Frank Museum and the Leidseplein.

Have a relaxing pot of tea at Het Blauwe Theehuis (The Blue Tea House) in the middle of Het Vondelpark; the home of fresh green picnic fields, a fountain, an open-air theatre (June-August) and rollerblading fanatics.

At night, one could always take a quick look around the notorious Red Light District. Experience how its red glows illuminate secret corridors of woman-filled windows and half-hidden gentlemen’s clubs.

Wade through wafts of marijuana while hurrying past countless shops that don’t sell just coffee, and past those with endless supplies of sometimes shocking adult toys.

Having seen Amsterdam, there are hundreds of places to visit and soak up some Dutch culture. For around R500, hop on a bus and drive through the typical Dutch countryside to see Volendam and Marken, which are two traditional fisherman’s villages (try dunking a herring). Heck, the tour also throws in windmills and wooden clogs.

Alternatively, visit Alkmaar’s famous cheese market and get a feel for Dutch cheese trading. Restassured: this day tour comes with a windmill too.

Then, largely unbeknown to tourists is Het Gooi.

Wealthy merchants once called it the Garden of Amsterdam. Now it is where most of the Dutch elite (TV celebrities, doctors and lawyers, etc) spend their time playing tennis, shopping, and sipping Chardonnay. Get on a train to Hilversum, climb on a bike, and explore this stunning area in a day, for Het Gooi is speckled with unforgettable villas, woodlands, lakes and heath.

For those who would rather discover Holland on their own, and are blessed with a few rays of sunshine, take a 30-minute train ride to Zandvoort aan Zee or Castricum to spend some quality time on the North Sea coastline. True, the water isn’t crystal clear, nor is it hot, but the feel of the place is magnificent.

Good-humoured waiters happily serve you in one of the many beach tents, or out on the wooden terraces where the wind blows softly and time seems to stand still.

For some reason, Douwe Egberts coffee, Dutch apple pie, and a brisk walk in the beautiful dunes have an invigorating effect on people: “Even lekker uitwaaien,” as the Dutch would say (clear one’s mind).

Finally, what is a visit to Holland without having seen Den Haag (The Hague), one of the most beautiful and influential cities in the land? This political capital is only 50 minutes’ drive away from Amsterdam. Be mesmerised by Den Haag’s grandeur, expressed through famous locations such as the Binnenhof (Inner Court), home to the House of Representatives and the prime minister.

For years, kings and queens have announced forthcoming government’s plans from here, on a famous day called “Prinsjesdag”. Feel free to wander around de Ridderzaal (Hall of Knights), the courtyard, and the neogothic fountain.

Apart from famous buildings and dozens of museums, Den Haag is a haven for shopping, with shops ranging from big international ones to little boutique ones.

Finally, Holland caters for those travellers who believe Holland is so small, it can be viewed in one day. Close to Den Haag is Madurodam, a miniature version of Holland; many notable buildings and places have been built ankle-high to stroll past. The park is also interactive, letting people play traffic control at Schiphol airport, or participate in the flower auction.

Along with nearby Duinrell, a swimming pool-rich theme park, Madurodam is fun for all ages. As one can see, so is the rest of Holland.

The Dutch may not boast a cuisine as extensive as the Italians, but they do have a wide range of Dutch sweet treats, some of which are deeply embedded in Dutch culture.

They also have a tradition when it comes to savoury snacking. And, to survive the cold winter days, the Dutch have some soups and creative ways of turning their favourite potatoes into sturdy and scrumptious stews.

First, the sweet snacks. Poffertjes are tiny pancakes that are enjoyed as a main course (children are often excited at the prospect of Poffertjes), or as party snacks. Find Poffertjes in pancake restaurants, and eat them with powdery sugar and butter.

Then, to accompany your tea of coffee, and occasionally served on top of it so that it softens and melts, is the Stroopwafel (two thin waffles glued together with syrup).

To celebrate the birth of a child, it is customary to eat Beschuit Met Muisjes, which are crisp bakes with blue, pink or white aniseed comfits. The Dutch use these as regular bread topping too, but Muisjes (mice) are not as popular as Hagelslag; chocolate sprinkles that come in all types of chocolate.

For fans of savoury, the Hollandse Nieuwe Haring (herring) has become a popular snack to eat with chopped onion while browsing markets. Eat it while standing up, tipping the head back and lowering the herring into the mouth as a whole fish, held by the tail. For those who shudder at the thought of eating it properly, herring is served in bite-size chunks, especially when proffered at parties.

While strolling markets, also try the Kroket (croquette; a deep-fried rectangular tube of beef ragout in batter) and a Patatje Met (potato chips with mayonnaise) or a Patatje Oorlog (“war” chips served with mayonnaise, sate sauce and chopped onions).

The Dutch cuisine includes healthy and substantial food too. The most famous soup is Erwtensoep or Snert, a thick split pea soup with bits of sausage. This soup gets most Dutch people through the coldest winter months, and is also sold directly from vendors on the ice, to warm half-frozen ice-skaters.

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