By Rick Steves
Today my Dutch friends, Hans and Marjet, are driving me to polder country — the vast fields reclaimed from the sea where cows graze and tiny canals function as fences.
On each of my visits, they show me a new slice of Holland. With each visit with Hans and Marjet, I renew my belief that the more you know about Europe, the more you’ll uncover what’s worth exploring.
Hans catches me referring to his country as “Holland” and complains that many Americans call the entire country “Holland” when Holland is actually comprised of just two of the 12 provinces that make up the Netherlands. But in defense of those confused Americans, I remind him that most of our cliche images of the Netherlands come from the region properly referred to as Holland.
The word “Netherlands” means “lowlands.” The country occupies the low-lying delta near the mouth of three of Europe’s large rivers, including the Rhine. In medieval times, inhabitants built a system of earthen dikes to protect their land from flooding caused by tides and storm surges. In 1953, severe floods breached the old dikes, killing 1,800 and requiring a major overhaul of the system.
Hans points out a quaint windmill along a dreamy canal. Old mills like this were used to pump the polders dry. After diking off large tracts of land below sea level, the Dutch harnessed wind energy to lift the water up out of the enclosed area, divert it into canals, and drain the land. They cultivated hardy plants that removed salt from the soil, slowly turning marshy estuaries into fertile farmland. The windmills later served a second purpose for farmers by turning stone wheels to grind their grain.
This area, once a merciless sea, is now dotted with tranquil towns. Many of the residents here are older than the land they live on, which was reclaimed in the 1960s. The old-time windmills, once the conquerors of the sea, are now relics, decorating the land like medallions on a war vet’s chest.
Several other Dutch icons came directly from the country’s flat, reclaimed landscape. Wooden shoes (klompen) allowed farmers to walk across soggy fields. (They’re also easy to find should they come off in high water because they float.) Tulips and other flowers grew well in the sandy soil near dunes.
We move on, driving past sprawling flower mogul mansions, then through desolate dunes. The tiny road dwindles to a trailhead. Hans parks the car, and we hike to a peaceful stretch of North Sea beach. Pointing a stick of driftwood at a huge seagoing tanker, Hans says, “That ship’s going to the big port at Rotterdam. We’re clever at trade. We have to be. We’re a small country.”
Holland welcomes the world’s business, but Holland is not designed for big-shots. Hans explains, “Being ordinary is being prudent. We say, a plant that grows above the grains gets its head cut off. Even our former queen prefers to do her own shopping.”
(C) 2014, Rick Steves. Distributed By Tribune Content Agency, Llc.