This is The Netherlands. A small country in western Europe which borders Belgium, Germany, UK (maritime borders) and France (through Sint-Maarten, a municipality in the Caribean). Its capital (and largest city) is Amsterdam, while the biggest economic hub (and largest port of Europe) is Rotterdam. The population is just under 17 million, and the population density 406 people per square kilometer, which makes it one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Its official language is Dutch (Frisian is also an official language, but only in the province of Friesland), which derives from Proto-Germanic, so it is closely releated to German, English, Swedish and other Germanic languages. The Afrikaans language of southern Africa is derived from the Dutch language from the 18th century. The Netherlands is a kingdom (since 1815) and Willem Alexander is the current king (since 2013). To make it all a little unclear, The Netherlands is a constituent country within the kingdom of The Netherlands (along with Aruba, Curaçao and Sint-Maarten) (more on that topic here). Let’s start with the real facts.
1. Half of the land surface is below sea level
This might be a very widely known fact, but it isn’t a lie. The lowest point in The Netherlands lies in a field in the province of South Holland. It is 6,74 meters below sea level, which makes it one of the lowest points in Europe (along with Lammefjord in Denmark). This area (the Zuidplas) once was a lake which was drained (also called a “polder” in Dutch).
Essentially this means that when the dykes break, half of The Netherlands will be flooded. The most heavily populated areas of The Netherlands lie below sea level.
This is the outline of Netherlands without dykes
2. The Dutch “gedoogbeleid” (tolerance policy) makes the use of soft drugs “sort of” legal
In theory it is illegal to possess soft drugs, but you won’t be prosecuted in several cases. You have to be at least 18 to use soft drugs. Coffee shops who sell drugs to people younger than 18 can be heavily fined. You won’t get fined if you get caught with no more than 5 grams of hemp or cannabis (although it’s possible police officers will confiscate the drugs). Likewise, the coffee shops aren’t allowed to sell more than 5 grams of hemp or cannabis per transaction. Another requirement for anyone to enter a coffee shop is that he/she needs to live in The Netherlands (although this is almost never enforced, judging by the number of German tourists with blood red eyes I frequently meet in my neighbourhood :P). In the 3 southern provinces of The Netherlands (Limburg, Noord-Brabant and Zeeland), a “wietpas” (literally “weed permit”) is needed to enter all coffee shops. You can only get a wietpas if you’re Dutch. Germany, Belgium, France and a lot of other countries are trying to get a soft drugs law as flexible as the Dutch one.
3. There are 13 million bicycles in The Netherlands
With about 1 bicycle per person, the bicycle is one of the most popular means of transport in The Netherlands. 27% of the population use the bicycle on a daily basis. This is even higher in Amsterdam (38%) and the university city of Groningen possibly has the highest share of bicyclists (around 59%). Many city centres (like the one in Groningen) are mostly car free, which makes much room for bicyclists. The reason cycling is very popular is because the country is very flat (especially the north and the west). Excellent and very wide bicycle paths connect small and big towns.
A wide bicycle path in Rotterdam. Source: Emvee
4. The Netherlands was a major colonial power
The Netherlands had colonies from the 17th century until far in the 20th century. Two large companies, the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC (Dutch East India Company) and the Geoctroyeerde Westindische Compagnie, or WIC (Dutch West India Company) were some of the world’s largest employers in the second half of the 17th century, with pepper, nutmeg and slaves as some of its most important wares. The companies had colonies in North America (Nieuw Amsterdam, New York today), Indië (current day Indonesia and Malaysia), Japan, Ceylon (current day Sri Lanka), India, South Africa, Suriname and Brazil. Indonesia became independent in 1945 and Suriname in 1975. The Netherlands still has a few old colonies left: Aruba, Curaçao and Sint-Maarten (which are constituent countries within the kingdom of The Netherlands) and Bonaire, Saba and Sint-Eustasius (which are special municipalities).
5. The country isn’t called “Holland”
Many people call The Netherlands “Holland”. This isn’t the real name of the country and Dutch people might get annoyed by foreigners referring to the country as “Holland”.
Then what is “Holland”?
The country consists of 12 provinces. Two provinces are Noord-Holland and Zuid-Holland. These are the provinces that contain the three biggest cities: Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. These are also the provinces that contained the headquarters and the harbours of the Dutch East and West India Companies. So when the merchants referred to their homeland, they said they are from Holland.
A lot of languages do not have an equivalent for “The Netherlands”, but when they refer to “The Netherlands”, they use their translation of “Holland”.
- Hollandia -> Hungarian
- Ollainn -> Irish
- Hollanda -> Turkish
- Holanda -> Spanish
This is Holland. Source: Bibi Saint-Pol
Border between The Netherlands and Belgium
The European Union made free travel within Europe a lot easier. Source: Jerome