The Netherlands, commonly called Holland as well, is a country like no other. Literally meaning “Low country” in Dutch (the official language), it presents a territory with half of the surface area being less than 1 metre above sea level! The highest point is just around 320m. Floods have been always a very frequent threat in the history of the Netherlands and this environmental fragility has pushed Dutch people to fight an endless war against seawater to gain fertile lands and liveable space. The current shoreline is in a state of perennial delicate equilibrium, maintained by a complex system of canals and drainage windmills. The windmills, become one of the symbols of Holland for their massive presence everywhere in the country, have been very useful allies in pumping efficiently the water out of swampy lands thanks to the power of wind.
After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the territory occupied today by the Netherlands was taken by the Franks. Following the division of the Hagsburg Empire, the region was ruled by the Spanish. Led by William I of Orange, Dutch people gained independence following the revolt of 1568 and the republic was finally established in 1579 with the Treaty of Utrecht. This process opened a period of great prosperity for Holland, which excelled in maritime trading (especially spices) and colonized much of the present-day Indonesia. That is how the Dutch East India Company was funded. It is also during this wealthy period that Holland imported tulip bulbs from Turkey and started to cultivate this popular flower all over its territory, establishing a lucrative business that still flourishes in the present days. Contract prices for some bulbs reached such high levels before collapsing dramatically that makes people referring to this phenomenon (also known as tulip mania) as the first recorded speculative bubble in our history. The Dutch Golden Age, however, did not last for very long and the war against England trimmed significantly the maritime power during the 17th century, before the Napoleonic era could bring the nation under French control. The Netherlands remained a neutral country during both WWI and WWII. However, the Nazi invaded it in 1940 leaving deep scars in the history of this country. The Dutch East Indies gained independence in 1949, rapidly followed by the other colonies. During the 1960s, the happiness of this peaceful country was finally restored, becoming a haven for the hippy culture, still clearly visible today in many cities.
Today Holland is modern developed country, where tolerance is considered an inviolable credo and it is extended to any sort of minority. The respect for the right to live one’s own life is at the basis of the liberal regulations about drugs, prostitution and euthanasia. Although the nominal capital of Holland and its most known city is Amsterdam, The Hague is officially the seat of the Dutch government. Main touristic attractions are concentrated in these two cities. However Rotterdam, Utrecht, Delft and the characteristic university towns of Nijmegen and Leiden have their own charm. Other folkloric villages are Haarlem (with its colourful tulip fields), Alkmaar (famous for its traditional cheese market), and the quiet Marken and Volendam.
Amsterdam was founded around the beginning of the 13th century, initially as a fisherman village and then expanded rapidly to become the chief trading port of northern Europe. This modern cosmopolitan capital boasts today a wide range of museums and other cultural attractions which coexist in a unique equilibrium with the seedy-looking side of the famous Red Light District. Must-sees include the Oude Kerk (Old Church), Van Gogh museum, the complex of Begijnhof, the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), the house of Anne Frank and the interactive Nemo museum. Not to be missed either is a canal tour which generally explores part of the city not readily accessible by tram. One of the most enjoyable ways to explore the city is also by bike. Amsterdam has an excellent network of designated cycle lanes and bikes could be hired at any corner. Curiously, cyclists take precedence over motorists here and by law if there is a collision it is always fault of the driver!
The nightlife in Amsterdam is impressive, with lots of clubs, cafes and bars. However, it is during the day that according to most people the city shows its best sides. The Old Centre was where the city started initially as a modest fishing village situated at the mouth of the river Amstel. When the river was dammed in 1270 and Amsterdam flourished as a dynamic trading centre. Today, the Old Centre boasts an impressive architecture, especially from the 17th century when the preferred building materials were stone and bricks. Dam Square, the place where Amsterdam takes its name from, is situated in the heart of the city and it had a central rule of its history as well: in the 13th century, after the construction of the dam, the little residential area around the square was renamed “Amstelredam” and then changed again over the last centuries to take its current name.