A Weekend in the Netherlands

We spent the past weekend in the Hague and Delft in the Netherlands. A short weekend trip, certainly, but still quite interesting. The obvious place to go visit in the Netherlands is Amsterdam, but these other places are well worth visiting too. Here are some observations on what I found interesting.

What is striking with the Netherlands is the flatness and wetness of the place. Coming from Sweden where we have huge forest breaking the landscape and a fairly varied topology, the Netherlands certainly feel very different. I think all the canals and other waterways make for very special and  beautiful urban and natural landscapes. In particular, older cities with their integrated waterways are just wonderful. I would love to have a house sitting right on a small canal, with waterbirds and a small boat that you can take downtown to go shopping (not that many Dutch seem to make use of this possibility).

It is also striking how densely populated the country is, and I find the particularly Dutch style of housing quite interesting. Walking through residential areas, you see row upon row of attached row houses. They share some common traits, such as large windows on both front and back and an tendency towards having three floors. Even so, the architecture is very varied, and much more daring than what you tend to find in Sweden. It seems as if the Dutch really like modern architecture, and have done so for a long time, leading to each generation of buildings taking on something new and typical for its time. There is also a tendency (which I guess comes from having a fairly mild climate) to add fun angles and details to building, or to build building as bridges across waterways or with parts jutting out over the surrounding. For a Swede this looks hard to insulate, hard to heat, and terribly impractical if subjected to a cold winter – but it sure looks nice and inviting.

Food is interesting. In the restaurant scene, the Indonesian colonial heritage is ever present, and I really recommend getting a full Rijstafel if you have not already tried it. The fresh produce you get in the stores is certainly fresh, compared to the state of the Dutch vegetables that you find in Sweden (a significant proportion of our vegetables are imported from Holland, especially during the Winter). It is also much cheaper than back here. On the other hand, they have not yet had their “Äkta vara” debate about additives in food. Rather, you find a lot of heavily processed sweet goods in the stores, with no real try to minimize additives and processing. As with most places we go, we brought some food with us back home. In this case, it was “vla“, a kind of creamy yoghurt-like dairy product with flavorings such as caramel, chocolate, and vanilla. It seems to be an industrial product with no real home-made history, but it certainly tastes great. Recommended!

In terms of tips for what to see in the Netherlands, my main tip from this trip has to be Madurodam, a fantastic scale 1:25 miniatures park containing models of many of the most famous buildings in the Netherlands. Our four-year-old just loved it, especially the trains and ships that moved around.  It is not a static display, but it constantly evolves. I had been there once before, at the Euromicro Real-Time Systems Conference in 2001, and they had added and remodeled quite a bit since then.

Madurodam Oct 2009

The Hague as a city was not that impressive, but the government buildings are actually quite fascinating. Lots of high-quality architecture.

We also went to Delft, a classic tourist destination. We did not look at the porcelain factory, but we did take a canal boat tour. There were so many bikes thrown into the canals by drunk students that we almost had to abort the trip because of one that stuck to our boat, but the guide managed to shake it off.

We moved around using trams, buses, and trains, and that worked very well in the actually quite small Hague-Delft area. Apart from poor synchronization between different transport systems (leading to wait times every here and there), it was fairly efficient and simple. Apparently, the roads were totally crowded during the weekend, so public transport was clearly preferable.

On a negative note, restaurants in the Netherlands seem to have a hard time with the concept of lactose intolerance. It was surprisingly difficult in many cases to find some food which they were willing to guarantee as free from milk products (the best approximation across language barriers). In particular, Dutch bread seems to contain milk far more often than one would assume. An utterly bad experience was with the Dakota’s restaurant at Schiphol. They wanted to charge us 12 EUR for a plate of plain pasta with no sauce or anything… needless to say, we refused the offer. If you wanted the 5 EUR childrens’ menu, you had to take a flavored milk drink with it.  Period. No changes possible.

Is the Netherlands or Holland, by the way? Here is the official answer.

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