The Dutch Way of Life

The Netherlands has traditionally been a nation of entrepreneurs, from avid seafaring explorers, traders and ambitious engineers working to waterproof the country by building canals, polders and dykes, to artists, architects and designers, and a more recent start-up culture that is an increasingly key part of propelling the economy. But it's not all work, no play – the open-minded, free-spirited Dutch value conversation, camaraderie, socialising and getting out and about, more often than not by bike.

Tolerance

The Dutch flair for engineering extends to social engineering. The nation invented verzuiling (pillarisation), a social order in which each religion and political persuasion achieved the right to do its own thing, with its own institutions. This meant not only more churches, but also separate radio stations, newspapers, unions, political parties, sport clubs and so on. The idea got a bit out of hand with pillarised bakeries, but it did promote social harmony by giving everyone a voice.

While the pillars are less distinct today, they left a legacy of tolerance – a pivotal part of the Dutch psyche that's also good for business, including tourism and trade. They also fostered the easy intimacy of gezelligheid (cosiness, conviviality). The Dutch are irrepressibly voluble. Sit alone in a pub and you'll soon have a few merry friends. Don't be taken aback if the Dutch seem stunningly blunt – the impulse comes from the desire to be direct and honest.

Dutch Lifestyle

Many Dutch live independent, busy lives, divided into strict schedules. Notice is usually required for everything, including visits to your mother, and it's not done to just 'pop round' anywhere. Rural communities tend to be more relaxed, with noabers (neighbours) playing an important role in daily life. 'Noaberschap', particular to Twente in rural Overijssel and Drenthe in the off-the-beaten-track northeast of the country, is the generous notion of happily helping one's neighbour with anything and everything.

Most Dutch families are small, with two or three children. Social housing is prevalent: some 31% of Dutch households live in rented accommodation, but few rent from private landlords. Rent for private rental-market properties is high and demand outstrips supply, so junior might live with his or her family well into their 20s, or share an apartment. Rental prices are naturally highest in Amsterdam where a 65-sq-m flat costs around €1500 a month to rent – equivalent to €22.79 per sq metre, compared to €19.42 in Rotterdam, €15.82 in Den Haag and just under €9 in Friesland.

Dutch citizens earn an average monthly wage of €2816 (or €36,500 per annum) – more per capita than Germany. Consumer spending is healthy, especially for travel to warm climates.

By the Numbers

The Dutch have a great love of detail. Statistics on the most trivial subjects make the news (the number of pigeons on the Dam each year; the incidence of rubbish being put out early), and somewhere down the line this feeds mountains of bureaucracy.

Sex & Drugs

On sex and drugs, the ever-practical Dutch argue that vice is not going to go away, so you might as well control it. Sex is discussed openly but promiscuity is the last thing on Dutch minds. Only about 5% of customers frequenting Amsterdam's Red Light District are Dutch.

By the same token, marijuana and hashish remain tolerated, yet only a fraction of the population partakes: studies show that only 8% of Dutch people had used any form of marijuana in the previous year, less than the average for France (11.1%), the USA (16.3%) and Australia (10.2%), where enforcement is much stricter. Harder drugs such as heroin, LSD, cocaine and ecstasy are outlawed, and dealers are prosecuted.

Gay & Lesbian Rights

Gay and lesbian locals, expats and visitors enjoy considerable freedom and respect among people of all ages. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is not only illegal, but morally unacceptable. The police advertise in the gay media for applicants and the armed forces have an equal-footing policy.

In 1987, with the unveiling of Amsterdam's Homomonument, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to honour homosexuals killed and persecuted during WWII, and in 2001 it became the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage. Same-sex adoption is permitted and lesbians have the same access to IVF treatment as heterosexual couples.

Population

The need to love thy neighbour is especially strong in the Netherlands, where the population density is the highest in Europe (507 per sq km). Nearly half of the country's 17 million residents live in the western hoop around Amsterdam, Den Haag and Rotterdam; the provinces of Drenthe, Overijssel and Zeeland in the southwest are sparsely settled, in Dutch terms at least.

Nearly 80% of the population is of Dutch stock; the rest is mainly made up of people from the former colonies of Indonesia, Surinam and the former Netherlands Antilles, plus more recent arrivals from Turkey, Morocco and countries throughout Africa.

Religion

For centuries, religious preference was split between the two heavyweights of Western society, Catholicism and Protestantism, and if you were Dutch you were one or the other. Today, 67% of the population over the age of 18 claims to have no religious affiliation, and the number of former churches that house offices, art galleries and shops is evidence of today's attitudes.

And faith is falling: 12% of the population follows Catholicism and 8% Protestantism, figures that decrease yearly. Vestiges exist of a religious border between Protestants and Catholics; the area north of a line running roughly from the province of Zeeland in the southwest to the province of Drenthe is home to the majority of Protestants, while anywhere to the south is predominantly Catholic.

The church has little or no influence on societal matters such as same-sex marriage, euthanasia and prescription of cannabis for medical purposes, all of which are legal in the Netherlands.

The latest religion to have any great impact on Dutch society is Islam. Today, 6% of the population classes itself as Muslim and the number is steadily increasing, especially in multicultural Rotterdam.

Multiculturalism

The Netherlands has a long history of tolerance towards immigration and a reputation for welcoming immigrants with open arms. The largest wave of immigration occurred in the 1960s, when the government recruited migrant workers from Turkey and Morocco to bridge a labour gap. In the mid-1970s, the granting of independence to the Dutch colony of Surinam in South America saw an influx of Surinamese.

In the past few years, however, the country's loose immigration policy has been called into question. Politically, there has been a significant swing to the right and consequently a move towards shutting the door on immigration. The assassinations of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh caused tensions to rise between the Dutch and Muslim immigrants, which also gave rise to far-right anti-Islam politicians such as Geert Wilders. However, when the former queen, Beatrix, wore a head scarf on a visit to a mosque in Oman and Wilders tried to make an issue out of it, she received overwhelming support from the population.

Still there is concern about immigrants not becoming 'Dutch'. Strongly urging people to take classes in the Dutch language and culture, where concepts such as tolerance are emphasised, is official government policy. How the paradoxical concept of forcing people to learn to be tolerant will play out remains to be seen.

Sport

The Netherlands is one active country. Some 65% of all Dutch engage in some form of sporty activity, and the average person now spends 20 minutes longer getting sweaty each week than in the 1970s. Sport is organised to a fault: about five million people belong to nearly 30,000 clubs and associations in the Netherlands.

Football (soccer), cycling and skating are the favourites.

Football (Soccer)

Football is the Dutch national game and passion for the game runs high. 'Local' teams such as Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV enjoy international renown and the country has produced some world-class players (Ruud Gullit, Dennis Bergkamp and the legendary Johan Cruyff). The unique Dutch approach to the game – known as Total Football (in which spatial tactics are analysed and carried out with meticulous precision) – fascinated viewers at its peak in the 1970s.

Despite a previous excellent track record – losing to Spain in the 2010 World Cup final and beating host country Brazil in 2014 to finish third – the national team did not qualify for the 2018 World Cup, much to the disappointment of fans everywhere. (Die-hard football fans sought solace in the fact that five of the players on Morocco's team, which qualified for the first time in 20 years, were actually born and raised in the Netherlands.) The World-Cup blow followed hot on the heels of the Dutch side's failure to make it into the UEFA European Championships in 2016, confirming fears that Dutch football had hit an all-time low on the international stage.

On home ground, the national football association counts a million members, and weekends see professional and amateur teams hit pitches across the country. Many pro clubs play in modern, high-tech stadiums, such as Amsterdam's ArenA, assisted by a modern, high-tech police force to counteract hooligans.

Cycling

It takes spending all of five minutes in the Netherlands to realise that locals cycle everywhere. Literally everywhere. They bike to the dentist, to work, to the opera and to brunch; they bike in snow, rain, sunshine and fog. Dressing up to bike to dinner and a show, or to drinks and a club, is a typical Dutch activity. Pedal away: no matter what you wear or where you're going, you'll blend in (and have fun). Unsurprisingly, 84% of Dutch people own one or more bikes – equivalent to a world-record-breaking 22.5 million or 1.3 per capita in total.

The undisputed star of the 2016 Summer Olympics was road cyclist Annemiek van Vleuten who crashed spectacularly out of the games, fracturing three vertebrae in the process, during the women's road race. Teammate Anna van der Breggen went on to win gold, with another Dutch cyclist, 'the Cannibal' Marianne Vos – road-race gold medallist at the 2012 games – finishing ninth.

Past Dutch cycling greats include Leontien van Moorsel (b 1970) who won scores of cycling championships in the 1990s, and, at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, a combined total of four golds, one silver and one bronze. In the 1980 Tour de France, Joop Zoetemelk (b 1946) pedalled to victory after finishing second a record six times.

Skating

Thousands of Dutch people take to the ice when the country's lakes and ditches freeze over. When the lakes aren't frozen, the Netherlands has dozens of ice rinks with Olympic-sized tracks and areas for hockey and figure skating. The most famous amateur event is Friesland's 200km-long Elfstedentocht.

The Dutch perform exceptionally well in speed skating. At the 2018 Winter Olympics, the Dutch team scooped the gold, silver and bronze medals in the women’s 3000m speed-skating event, becoming the first country during those games to achieve a podium sweep. The final tally on the medal scoreboard saw the Netherlands return home with 20 medals – all in skating and including gold in every single speed-skating event bar one. Dutch star of the games was 22-year-old Esmee Visser (b 1996), who won the women's 5000m just months after doubting she would even qualify.

At the 2014 Winter Olympics, the Netherlands became the first country to achieve four podium sweeps at a single Winter Olympics.

Dutch Design

The Dutch aren't just whizzes at engineering and sport; they also have a keen eye for aesthetics. Contemporary Dutch design has a reputation for minimalist, creative approaches to everyday furniture and homewares products, mixed with vintage twists and tongue-in-cheek humour to keep it fresh. Since the 1990s, what started out as a few innovators has accelerated to become a movement that has put the Netherlands at the forefront of the industry. Dutch fashion is also reaching far beyond the country's borders, with designs that are vibrant and imaginative, yet practical too.

Contemporary Dutch design has its roots in a handful of designers. Providing a key platform was Amsterdam-based Droog (www.droog.com), a design collective established in 1993 with its own concept store, cafe and even hotel in the city today. With signature surreal wit, it works with a community of designers to help them produce their works and sell them to the world, with partners to make it happen and the connections to facilitate collaborations with big brands.

Among the contemporary pioneers was design legend Marcel Wanders (b 1963), who first drew international acclaim for his iconic Knotted Chair, produced by Droog in 1996. Made from a knotted aramid and carbon-fibre thread and resin, Wanders' air-drying technique meant it was ultimately shaped by gravity. It's now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 2001, in Breda, Wanders founded world-leading design label Moooi (www.moooi.com) with design entrepreneur Casper Vissers: the eclectic brand's name was a play on the Dutch word for 'beautiful', with an additional 'o' symbolising extra beauty and uniqueness.

Wanders (www.marcelwanders.com) continues to design projects infused with his signature romantic, more humanistic touch at his studio in a former arts school in Amsterdam's artsy Jordaan 'hood. Vissers meanwhile went on to launch the new Rotterdam-based lighting and furniture brand, Revised, in 2018. Turning to the past for inspiration, its products by young Dutch designer Sjoerd Vroonland are named after English villages and feature traditional materials such as glass, wood, steel, marble and stone.

Maarten Baas (b 1978; http://maartenbaas.com) graduated from Eindhoven Design Academy in 2002 and won instant acclaim for his Smoke collection, a stash of secondhand furniture singed with a blowtorch to create a burnt effect. Risk-taking and a youthful flamboyancy are the trademarks of this young designer, typical of a generation of designers forever innovating.

Other revolutionary designers include Jurgen Bey (b 1965), who has strong architectural links, working with interior and public-space design; industrial designer Hella Jongerius (b 1963; www.jongeriuslab.com), whose designs include porcelain plates and tiles using new printing techniques; and Piet Hein Eek (b 1967; https://pietheineek.nl), who works with reclaimed wood. In Rotterdam, Lex Pott (b 1985; www.lexpott.nl) is a young designer working with wood, stone and metal in their most raw forms.

Scholten & Baijings (Stefan Scholten and Carole Baijings) produce colourful textiles and kitchenware. Ineke Hans (b 1966; www.inekehans.com) is best known for her celebrated recyclable plastic Ahrend 380 chair, which incorporates a table. Then there's furniture-, product- and interior designer Richard Hutten (www.richardhutten.com), famed for his 'no sign of design' humorous, functional furniture. His works are exhibited worldwide and held in the permanent collections of many museums, including Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum.

Eindhoven is an incubator of Dutch design. The Dutch Design Academy is in the ex-Philips lamp factory (along with a family friendly, interactive museum showcasing the many products Philips has come up with over the years). Dutch Design Week (www.ddw.nl), climaxing with the annual Dutch Design Awards (www.dutchdesignawards.nl), is held in October at the former Philips industrial complex Strijp-S.

The Future of Fashion

While the Netherlands' traditional fashion-design powerhouse Viktor & Rolf – aka duo Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren – celebrate 25 years in the biz with a dazzling all-white collection called Immaculate, millennial fashion designers are pioneering 3D-printed haute couture. Key protagonist is Iris van Herpen (b 1984; www.irisvanherpen.com) who launched her first 3D-printed dress during Paris Fashion Week in 2010 and has gone on to dress everyone from Björk to Lady Gaga. Eye-popping wearable sculptures rather than functional fashion, van Herpen's pieces are designed very much for the catwalk – it's impossible to sit down in some of her dresses, crafted in transparent resin perhaps or laser-cut mylar.

Feature: Head & Shoulders Above the Rest

The Dutch are the world's tallest people, averaging 1.83m for men and 1.71m for women. Copious intake of milk proteins, smaller families and superior prenatal care are cited as likely causes, but researchers also suspect there is some magic fertiliser in the Dutch gene pool. Whatever the reason, the Dutch keep growing, as do their doorways. Today, the minimum required height for doors in new homes and businesses is 2.315m (7ft 6in).

Feature: Double Dutch

For better or for worse, the Dutch have maintained close ties with the English for centuries, and this intimate relationship has led to a menagerie of 'Dutch' catchphrases in the English language. Here are some of the more well known.

  • Double Dutch – nonsense or complete gibberish; a jump-rope game using two skipping ropes. 'Going double Dutch' refers to using two types of contraceptive at the same time.
  • Dutch courage – strength or confidence gained from drinking alcohol.
  • Dutch oven – large, thick-walled cooking pot with a tight-fitting lid; the act of breaking wind in bed, then trapping your partner – and the stench – under the covers.
  • Dutch uncle – a person who sternly gives (often benevolent) advice.
  • Dutch wife – pillow or frame used for resting the legs on in bed; a sex worker or sex doll.
  • Going Dutch – splitting the bill at a restaurant. Also known as Dutch date or Dutch treat.
  • Pass the dutchie – not a phrase as such, but the title of a top-10 hit by Musical Youth in 1982. 'Dutchie' refers to an aluminium cooking pot supposedly manufactured in the Netherlands and used throughout the West Indies.

Feature: Orange Fever

If you've ever attended a sporting event where the Dutch are playing, you'll already be familiar with oranjegekte (orange craze), also known as oranjekoorts (orange fever). The custom of wearing the traditional colour of the Dutch royal family, the House of Orange-Nassau, was originally limited to celebration days for the monarchy, such as Queen's Day (Koninginnedag), now King's Day (Koningsdag). But particularly since the 1974 football World Cup, when tens of thousands of orange-clad football supporters cheered on every game, the ritual of wearing outlandish orange get-ups – clothes, scarves, wigs, fake-fur top hats, face paint, feather boas, you name it – has become a Dutch phenomenon. To really celebrate like a local, you know what colour to wear.

Sidebar: Uitslagdag

Many Dutch houses have a flagpole in their front garden to fly the Dutch flag on national holidays and other celebratory days. On Uitslagdag in mid-June school bags are amusingly added to the flagpole to celebrate high-school students passing their exams and graduating.

Sidebar: Flessenlikker

Perhaps no household item represents Dutch thrift better than the popular flessenlikker (bottle-scraper). This miracle tool has a disk on the business end and can scrape the last elusive smears from a mayonnaise jar or salad-dressing bottle.

Sidebar: Toilets

Traditional Dutch toilets come with a shelf where deposited goods sit until swept away by a flush of water. The reason is tied to health and the supposed benefit of carefully studying what comes out. Not, as some wags say, because the Dutch can't bear to see anything underwater.

Sidebar: Uitwaaien

The wonderful Dutch verb uitwaaien (pronounced out-vwy-ehn) has no direct English translation, but essentially means 'to clear one's head by taking a walk outside in the windy fresh air'.

Sidebar: Golden Age

Golden Age canal houses are typically tall and slender because property used to be taxed on frontage. So the narrower the facade, the less tax was incurred. This also gave rise to the houses' precariously steep, ladder-like trap (stairs) that are less than a footstep wide.

Sidebar: Euthanasia

An increasing number of Dutch deaths each year result from euthanasia (some 7000 deaths in 2017, compared to 4829 deaths in 2014). The practice is tightly controlled and is administered by doctors at the request of patients.

Sidebar: Amstel Gold Race

The biggest Dutch cycling race is the Amstel Gold Race around hilly Limburg in mid-April. It's about 260km in length and features dozens of steep hills. It is considered one of the most demanding races on the professional circuit.

Sidebar: Dutch Design Online

  • Dezeen (www.dezeen.com/tag/netherlands) Dutch architecture, interiors and design.
  • Het Nieuwe Instituut (http://hetnieuweinstituut.nl) Architecture, design, fashion and e-culture.
  • Fashion Council NL (http://fashioncouncilnl.com) Design and fashion events Netherlands-wide.

Sidebar: Cycling Read

Learn about Amsterdam's evolution into the world’s most bike-friendly city in the highly readable In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist (Pete Jordan; 2013).

Sidebar: Reading List

Why the Dutch are Different: A Journey into the Hidden Heart of the Netherlands (Ben Coates; 2015), and brilliantly titled The UnDutchables (Colin White & Laurie Boucke; 1989) are indispensable, at times humorous reads on what makes the Dutch really tick.

Dutch Art

They don't call them the Dutch Masters for nothing. Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Jan Vermeer – these iconic artists are some of world’s most revered and celebrated painters. And then, of course, there’s Vincent van Gogh, the rock star of Impressionism who toiled in ignominy while supported by his loving brother, Theo, and 20th-century artists including De Stijl proponent Piet Mondrian, and graphic genius MC Escher. Understanding these quintessential Dutch painters requires a journey into history.

15th & 16th Century

Flemish School

Prior to the late 16th century, when Belgium was still part of the Low Countries, art focused on the Flemish cities of Ghent, Bruges and Antwerp. Paintings of the Flemish School featured biblical and allegorical subject matter popular with the Church, the court and to a lesser extent the nobility, who, after all, paid the bills and called the shots.

Among the most famous names of the era are Jan van Eyck (1390–1441), the founder of the Flemish School, who was the first to perfect the technique of oil painting; Rogier van der Weyden (1400–64), whose religious portraits showed the personalities of his subjects; and Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525–69), who used Flemish landscapes and peasant life in his allegorical scenes.

Born Jheronimus van Aken, Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516), a namesake of Den Bosch, created works for the ages with his macabre allegorical paintings full of religious topics. The Prodigal Son, which hangs in Rotterdam's Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, is a study in motion and wit.

Dutch School

In the northern Low Countries, artists began to develop a style of their own. Although the artists of the day never achieved the level of recognition of their Flemish counterparts, the Dutch School, as it came to be called, was known for favouring realism over allegory. Haarlem was the centre of this movement, with artists such as Jan Mostaert (1475–1555), Lucas van Leyden (1494–1533) and Jan van Scorel (1495–1562). Painters in the city of Utrecht were famous for using chiaroscuro (deep contrast of light and shade), a technique associated with the Italian master Caravaggio.

17th Century (Golden Age)

When the Spanish were expelled from the Low Countries, the character of the art market changed. There was no longer the Church to buy artworks – most of its art had been burned by rampaging Calvinists in 1566 during the Beeldenstorm ('statue storm') – and no court to speak of, so art became a business. Fortunately the wealth pouring into the Dutch economy meant artists could survive in a free market. In place of Church and court emerged a new, bourgeois society of merchants, artisans and shopkeepers who didn’t mind spending money to brighten up their houses and workplaces. The key: they had to produce pictures the buyers could relate to.

Painters became entrepreneurs in their own right, churning out banal works, copies and masterpieces in factory-like studios. Paintings were mass-produced and sold at markets alongside furniture and chickens. Soon the wealthiest households were covered in paintings from top to bottom. Foreign visitors commented that even bakeries and butcher shops seemed to have a painting or two on the wall. Most painters specialised in one of the main genres of the day.

Rembrandt van Rijn

The 17th century’s greatest artist, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69), grew up a miller’s son in Leiden, but had become an accomplished painter by his early 20s.

In 1631 he came to Amsterdam to run the painting studio of wealthy art-dealer Hendrick van Uylenburgh. Portraits were the studio’s cash cow, and Rembrandt and his staff (or ‘pupils’) churned out scores of them, including group portraits such as The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp. In 1634 he married Van Uylenburgh’s niece Saskia, who had travelled to Amsterdam with the Mennonite painters Govert Flinck and Jacob Backer, and often modelled for him.

Rembrandt fell out with his boss, but his wife’s capital helped him buy the sumptuous house next door to Van Uylenburgh’s studio (the current Museum het Rembrandthuis). There Rembrandt set up his own studio, with staff who worked in a warehouse in the Jordaan. These were happy years: his paintings were a success and his studio became the largest in the country, though his gruff manner and open agnosticism didn’t win him dinner-party invitations from the elite.

Rembrandt became one of the city’s biggest art collectors. He was a master manipulator not only of images; the painter was also known to have his own pictures' prices inflated at auctions by bidders he planted there. He often sketched and painted for himself, urging his staff to do likewise. Residents of the surrounding Jewish quarter provided perfect material for his dramatic biblical scenes.

Night Watch

After losing three children in their infancy, in 1642, Rembrandt and Saskia's son Titus was born. A year later, Saskia died and business went downhill. Rembrandt’s majestic group portrait Night Watch (1642) was hailed by art critics (it’s now a prize exhibit at Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum; life-size bronze sculptures recreating the painting grace the Southern Canal Ring Square, Rembrandtplein). However, some of the influential people Rembrandt depicted were not pleased. Each subject had paid 100 guilders, and some were unhappy at being shoved in the background. In response, Rembrandt told them where they could shove their complaints. Suddenly he received far fewer orders.

Rembrandt began an affair with his son’s governess, Geertje Dircx, but kicked her out a few years later when he fell for the new maid, Hendrickje Stoffels, who bore him a daughter, Cornelia. The public didn’t take kindly to the man’s lifestyle and his spiralling debts, and in 1656 he applied for cessio bonorum (a respectable form of insolvency). His house and rich art collection were sold and he moved to the Rozengracht in the Jordaan.

Etchings

No longer the darling of the wealthy after his insolvency in 1656, Rembrandt continued to paint, draw and etch – his etchings on display in the Museum het Rembrandthuis are some of the finest ever produced. He also received the occasional commission, including the monumental Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis (1661) for Amsterdam's city hall (after Govert Flinck, who had originally been commissioned, died before beginning to paint). The authorities disliked Rembrandt's work and had it removed. In 1662 he completed the Staalmeesters (the ‘Syndics’) for the drapers’ guild and ensured that everybody remained clearly visible (unlike in Night Watch), though it ended up being his last group portrait. It's now in Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum.

Later Works

The works of his later period show that Rembrandt had lost none of his touch. No longer constrained by the wishes of clients, he enjoyed new-found freedom; his works became more unconventional yet showed an ever-stronger empathy with their subject matter, as in The Jewish Bride (c 1666), now in the Rijksmuseum. The many portraits of his son Titus and lover Hendrickje, and his ever-gloomier self portraits, are among the most stirring in the history of art.

A plague epidemic between 1663 and 1666 killed one in seven Amsterdammers, including Hendrickje in 1663. Titus died in 1668, aged 27 and just married, leaving behind a baby daughter, Titia, who was born six months after his death; Rembrandt died a year later, a broken man.

Frans Hals

A great painter of this period, Frans Hals (1583–1666) was born in Antwerp but lived in Haarlem. He devoted most of his career to portraits, dabbling in occasional genre scenes with dramatic chiaroscuro. His ability to capture his subjects’ expressions was equal to Rembrandt’s, though he didn’t explore their characters as much. Both masters used the same expressive, unpolished brush strokes and their styles went from bright exuberance in their early careers to dark and solemn later on. The 19th-century Impressionists also admired Hals’ work. In fact, his The Merry Drinker (1628) in the Rijksmuseum collection, with its bold brush strokes, could almost have been painted by an Impressionist.

Vermeer

The grand trio of 17th-century masters is completed by Johannes (also known as Jan) Vermeer (1632–75) of Delft. He produced only 34 (possibly 35) meticulously crafted paintings in his career that are attributed to him (although some estimates are as high as 66 works). Vermeer died poor with 11 children (four more had died in infancy); his baker accepted two paintings from his wife as payment for a debt of more than 600 guilders. Yet Vermeer mastered genre painting like no other artist. His paintings include historical and biblical scenes from his earlier career, his famous View of Delft (c 1660–61) in the Mauritshuis in Den Haag, and some tender portraits of unknown women, such as the stunningly beautiful Girl with a Pearl Earring (c 1665–67), also hanging in the Mauritshuis.

Famous Works

Vermeer’s work is known for serene light pouring through tall windows. The calm, spiritual effect is enhanced by dark blues, deep reds, warm yellows and supremely balanced composition. Good examples include the Rijksmuseum’s Kitchen Maid (also known as The Milkmaid, c 1660) and Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (c 1663), and, for his use of perspective, The Love Letter (c 1669–70).

The Little Street (c 1658), also known as View of Houses in Delft, in the Rijksmuseum’s collection is Vermeer’s only known street scene.

Other Golden Age Painters

Around the middle of the 17th century, the focus on mood and subtle play of light began to make way for the splendour of the baroque. Jacob van Ruysdael (c 1628–82) went for dramatic skies while Albert Cuyp (1620–91) painted Italianate landscapes. Van Ruysdael’s pupil Meindert Hobbema (1638–1709) preferred less heroic, more playful scenes full of pretty bucolic detail. Note that Cuyp, Ruysdael and Hobbema all have main streets named after them in Amsterdam's Old South and De Pijp neighbourhoods, and many other streets here are named after other Dutch artists, including Frans Hals, Govert Flinck, Ferdinand Bol, Cornelis Troost and Jan Steen.

The genre paintings of Jan Steen (c 1625–79) show the almost frivolous aspect of baroque. Steen was also a tavern keeper, and his depictions of domestic chaos led to the Dutch expression ‘a Jan Steen household’. A good example is the animated revelry of The Merry Family (1668) in the Rijksmuseum; it shows adults having a good time around the dinner table, oblivious to the children in the foreground pouring themselves a drink.

18th Century

The Golden Age of Dutch painting ended almost as suddenly as it began when the French invaded the Low Countries in 1672. The economy collapsed and the market for paintings went south with it. Painters who stayed in business concentrated on ‘safe’ works that repeated earlier successes. In the 18th century they copied French styles, pandering to the fashion for anything French.

The results were competent but not ground-breaking. Cornelis Troost (1696–1750) was one of the best genre painters, and is sometimes compared to the British artist William Hogarth (1697–1764) for his satirical as well as sensitive portraits of ordinary people; Troost, too, introduced scenes of domestic revelry into his pastels.

Gerard de Lairesse (1641–1711) and Jacob de Wit (1695–1754) specialised in decorating the walls and ceilings of buildings – de Wit’s trompe l’œil decorations (painted illusions that look real; French 'deceive the eye') in the Bijbels Museum are worth seeing.

19th Century

The late 18th century and most of the 19th century produced little of note, save for the landscapes and seascapes of Johan Barthold Jongkind (1819–91) and the gritty, almost photographic Amsterdam scenes of George Hendrik Breitner (1857–1923). They appear to have inspired French Impressionists, many of whom visited Amsterdam.

Jongkind and Breitner reinvented 17th-century realism and influenced the Hague School of the last decades of the 19th century. Painters such as Hendrik Mesdag (1831–1915), Jozef Israëls (1824–1911) and the three Maris brothers, Jacob (1837–99), Matthijs (1839–1917) and Willem (1844–1910) created landscapes, seascapes and genre works, including Mesdag's impressive Panorama Mesdag (1881), a gigantic 14m-high, 120m-wide 360-degree cylindrical painting of the seaside town of Scheveningen viewed from a dune.

Without a doubt, the greatest 19th-century Dutch painter was Vincent van Gogh (1853–90), whose convulsive patterns and furious colours were in a world of their own and still defy comfortable categorisation. (A post-Impressionist? A forerunner of expressionism?)

Vincent Van Gogh

While the Dutch Masters were known for their dark, brooding paintings, it was Van Gogh who created an identity of suffering as an art form, with a morbid style all his own. Even today, he epitomises the epic struggle of the artist: the wrenching poverty; the lack of public acclaim; the reliance upon a patron – in this case his faithful brother, Theo; the mental instability; the untimely death by suicide. And of course, one of the most iconic images of an artist's self-destruction, the severed ear.

The Artist's Legend

Vincent van Gogh may have been poor – he sold only one painting in his lifetime – but he wasn’t old. It’s easy to forget from his self portraits, in which he appears much older (partly the effects of his poverty), that he was only 37 when he died. But his short life continues to influence art to this day.

Born in Zundert in 1853, the Dutch painter lived in Paris with his younger brother Theo, an art dealer, who financially supported him from his modest income. In Paris he became acquainted with seminal artists including Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Gauguin.

Van Gogh moved south to Arles, Provence, in 1888. Revelling in its intense light and bright colours, he painted sunflowers, irises and other vivid subjects with a burning fervour. He sent paintings to Theo in Paris to sell, and dreamed of founding an artists’ colony in Provence, but only Gauguin followed up his invitation. Their differing artistic approaches – Gauguin believed in painting from imagination; Van Gogh painting what he saw – and their artistic temperaments, fuelled by absinthe, came to a head with the argument that led to Van Gogh lopping his ear (which he gave to a sex-worker acquaintance) and his subsequent committal in Arles.

In May 1889, Van Gogh voluntarily entered an asylum in St-Rémy de Provence, where he painted prolifically during his one-year, one-week and one-day confinement, including masterpieces such as Irises and Starry Night. While there, Theo sent him a positive French newspaper critique of his work. The following month, Anna Boch, sister of his friend Eugène Boch, bought The Red Vines (or The Red Vineyard; 1888) for 400 francs (less than €100 today). It now hangs in Moscow’s Pushkin Museum.

Legacy of a Tortured Genius

On 16 May 1890 Van Gogh moved to Auverssur-Oise, just outside Paris, to be closer to Theo, but on 27 July that year he shot himself, possibly to avoid further financial burden on his brother, whose wife had just had a baby son, named Vincent, and who was also supporting their ailing mother. Van Gogh died two days later with Theo at his side. Theo subsequently had a breakdown, was also committed, and succumbed to physical illness. He died, aged 33, just six months after Van Gogh.

It would be less than a decade before Van Gogh’s talent would start to achieve wide recognition and by the early 1950s, he had become a household name. In 1990 he broke the record for a single painting (A Portrait of Doctor Gachet) at Christie's, which fetched US$82.5 million. Accounting for inflation, it's still the highest price paid at a public auction for art to this day.

20th Century

De Stijl

De Stijl (The Style), also known as neoplasticism, was a Dutch design movement that aimed to harmonise all the arts by bringing artistic expressions back to their essence. Its advocate was the magazine of the same name, first published in 1917 by Theo van Doesburg (1883–1931). Van Doesburg produced similar rectangular patterns to Piet Mondrian's, though he dispensed with the thick, black lines and later tilted his rectangles at 45 degrees, departures serious enough for Mondrian to call off the friendship.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, De Stijl attracted sculptors, poets, architects and designers. One of these was Gerrit Rietveld (1888–1964), designer of the Van Gogh Museum and several other buildings, but best known internationally for his furniture, such as the Red Blue Chair (1918) and his range of uncomfortable zigzag seats, which, viewed side-on, formed a 'z' with a backrest.

Mondrian

A major proponent of De Stijl was Piet Mondrian (originally Mondriaan, 1872–1944), who initially painted in the Hague School tradition. After flirting with Cubism, he began working with bold rectangular patterns, using only the three primary colours (yellow, blue and red) set against the three neutrals (white, grey and black). He named this style neoplasticism and viewed it as an undistorted expression of reality in pure form and pure colour. His 1920 composition in red, black, blue, yellow and grey (Composition No II), in Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum, is an elaborate example.

Mondrian's later works were more stark (or 'pure') and became dynamic again when he moved to New York in 1940. The world's largest collection of his paintings resides in the Gemeentemuseum (Municipal Museum) in his native Den Haag.

MC Escher

One of the most remarkable graphic artists of the 20th century was Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898–1972). His drawings, lithos and woodcuts of blatantly impossible images continue to fascinate mathematicians: a waterfall feeds itself; people go up and down a staircase that ends where it starts; a pair of hands draw each other. You can see his work at Escher in Het Paleis in Den Haag. Admire Escher-inspired street art on paths and squares in Groningen, where he was born.

CoBrA

After WWII, artists rebelled against artistic conventions and vented their rage in abstract expressionism. In Amsterdam, Karel Appel (1921–2006) and Constant (Constant Nieuwenhuys; 1920–2005) drew on styles pioneered by Paul Klee and Joan Miró, and exploited bright colours and 'uncorrupted' children's art to produce lively works that leaped off the canvas. In Paris in 1945 they met up with the Danish Asger Jorn (1914–73) and the Belgian Corneille (Cornelis van Beverloo; 1922–2010), and together with several other artists and writers formed a group known as CoBrA (Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam). It's been called the last great avant-garde movement.

Their first major exhibition, in the Stedelijk Museum in 1949, aroused a storm of protest (with comments such as 'my child paints like that too'). Still, the CoBrA artists exerted a strong influence in their respective countries, even after they disbanded in 1951. The CoBrA Museum in Amstelveen displays a good range of their works, including colourful ceramics.

Contemporary Artists

Modern Dutch artists are usually well represented at international events and are known for mixing mediums.

Artist duo Liet Heringa (b 1966) and Maarten Van Kalsbeek (b 1962) are known for their moody, free-form sculptures, a couple of which can be admired in Otterlo's Kröller-Müller Museum. Harma Heikens (b 1963; www.harmaheikens.nl) is another boundary-pushing sculptor, known for her bitter-sweet 'pop culture' figures loaded with innuendo and comment on controversial subjects such as violence, sexual abuse, war, religion and society.

Amsterdam-born Michael Raedecker (b 1963) creates dreamy, radiant still lifes at his UK-based studio, often incorporating embroidery in his textured paintings. In 2000 he was nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize.

Levi van Veluw (b 1985; https://levivanveluw.com) is a disciplinary Amsterdam artist who has been known to use his own body as a canvas – Landscapes (2004) sees him reinterpret traditional landscape painting as a series of four different landscapes, including a mossy heath specked with grazing white goats, wrapped around the 3D contours of his own face.

Anouk Kruithof (b 1981) works with photography to create social projects such as Happy Birthday To You (2011), a book featuring the birthday wishes – to smoke a birthday joint in Utrecht, to throw a big party with a live band and herring on toast for the guests – of 10 patients in a psychiatric hospital.

On the streets of Amsterdam, keep a beady lookout for the stunning tape art of urban street artist Max Zorn (b 1982; www.maxzorn.com), who, using nothing more than packing tape and a razor blade, works with shades of brown to create the most astonishing sepia-hued portraits of famous people, landscapes et al. Otherwise, hop-foot it to Amsterdam Noord to possibly the single-most fertile spot for street art in the entire country: the former shipyards-turned-alternative art collective NDSM-werf, appropriately adorned with a dazzling, 24m-high portrait of Anne Frank by world-class Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra on part of its gargantuan facade.

Feature: 10 Great Old Dutch Paintings (and Where to See Them)

Amsterdam (Rijksmuseum)

  • Night Watch, Rembrandt
  • Self Portrait, Rembrandt
  • The Merry Drinker, Frans Hals
  • The Merry Family, Jan Steen
  • Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, Vermeer

Den Haag (Mauritshuis)

  • Girl with a Pearl Earring, Vermeer
  • The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, Rembrandt

Haarlem (Frans Hals Museum)

  • Regents & the Regentesses of the Old Men's Almshouse, Frans Hals

Rotterdam (Museum Boijmans van Beuningen)

  • Tower of Babel, Bruegel the Elder
  • The Prodigal Son, Hieronymus Bosch

Feature: Group Portraits by Hals

Frans Hals specialised in beautiful group portraits in which the participants were depicted in almost natural poses, unlike the rigid line-ups produced by lesser contemporaries – though he wasn’t as cavalier as Rembrandt in subordinating faces to the composition. A good example is the pair of paintings known collectively as the Regents & the Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse (1664) in the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem. The museum occupies a space that Hals knew well; while he never lived in the almshouse (contrary to popular belief), in the 1630s the artist and his family lived in Groot Heiligland, the street where the Old Men's Almshouse stood.

Feature: Van Gogh's Last Words

Even Van Gogh’s rumoured last words ring with the kind of excruciating, melancholic beauty that his best paintings express. With Theo at his side, two days after he shot himself in the chest after a manic fit of painting, he is said to have uttered in French ‘la tristesse durera toujours’ (the sadness will last forever).

Feature: Dutch Graphic Arts

It's not all paint on canvas; modern Dutch graphic arts also win acclaim.

  • Dick Bruna (1927–2017) of Utrecht is famous for Miffy (Nijntje in Dutch), an adorable cartoon rabbit. He wrote and illustrated 124 children's books and designed thousands of book covers, as well as hundreds of other books, posters, postcards and prints. The Miffy Museum in Utrecht honours him.
  • The Dutch tradition of clear visual communications has developed since the start of the 20th century. You'll see examples every day, including on the national railway, which was an early trendsetter in graphic communication. Brilliant examples of Dutch graphic arts are displayed at the Stedelijk Museum Breda.

Sidebar: One-Artist Museums

  • Vermeer Centrum Delft (Delft)
  • Jheronimus Bosch Art Center (Den Bosch)
  • Museum het Rembrandthuis (Amsterdam)
  • Frans Hals Museum (Haarlem)
  • Mondriaanhuis (Amersfoort)
  • Escher in Het Paleis (Den Haag)

Sidebar: Ronald Brautigam

If you like Dutch classical music, start with pianist Ronald Brautigam, who has international acclaim. Violinist-violist Isabelle van Keulen has her own Tango Nuevo quartet, the Isabelle van Keulen Ensemble. The country’s leading cellist is Pieter Wispelwey, known for his challenging repertoire, while Louis Andriessen is a leading composer.

Sidebar: Great Art Museums

  • Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam)
  • Van Gogh Museum (Amsterdam)
  • Mauritshuis (Den Haag)
  • Museum Boijmans van Beuningen (Rotterdam)
  • Museum De Lakenhal (Leiden)

Sidebar: New Rembrandt

A new Rembrandt was 'discovered' in 2012 when leading expert Ernst van de Wetering verified its origin and claimed it was one of a pair from 1643. The Old Man (or The Old Rabbi) is in a private English collection and now thought to be a self portrait.

Sidebar: The Girl with a Pearl Earring

The Girl with a Pearl Earring, a dramatised account of the painting of Vermeer's famous work, is a highly readable 1999 novel by Tracy Chevalier. It was made into a film in 2003, which was nominated for three Academy Awards.

Sidebar: Vincent Van Gogh: The Letters

Vincent Van Gogh: The Letters contains all 902 letters to and from Van Gogh to his brother, friends, lovers, confidantes and fellow artists. It's a moving window into his inner life, plus a testimony to the extraordinary friendship and artistic connection he shared with his brother, Theo.

Sidebar: Van Gogh's Famous Five

  • Sunflowers (Van Gogh Museum)
  • Wheatfield with Crows (Van Gogh Museum)
  • Self Portrait with Felt Hat (Van Gogh Museum)
  • The Potato Eaters (Kröller-Müller Museum)
  • Weavers (Kröller-Müller Museum)

Sidebar: Van Gogh Films

  • Lust for Life (1956)
  • Vincent (1987)
  • Vincent and Theo (1990)
  • Loving Vincent (2017)

Sidebar: Van Gogh's Art

Van Gogh produced an astonishing output of art during his 10-year artistic career, of which 864 paintings and almost 1200 drawings and prints have survived.

Sidebar: Jazz Scene

The Dutch jazz scene has produced some mainstream artists in recent years. Among gifted young chanteuses are Fleurine, Ilse Huizinga and the Surinam-born Denise Jannah, who records for Blue Note and is recognised as the country’s best jazz singer. Jannah’s repertoire consists of American standards with elements of Surinamese music.

Sidebar: The Goldfinch

Carel Fabritius' exquisite masterpiece The Goldfinch (1654), today displayed in the Mauritshuis in Den Haag, is the focus of Donna Tartt's Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Goldfinch (2013). The titanic, 1000-plus-page book opens and closes in Amsterdam. Watch for the film adaptation in 2019, starring Ansel Elgort and Finn Wolfhard.

Architecture

The Dutch are masters of architecture and use of space, but this is nothing new. Through the ages, few countries have exerted more influence on the discipline of art and construction than the Netherlands. From the original sober cathedrals to the sleek modern structures, their ideas and designs have spread throughout Europe and beyond. You may not find any bombastic statements such as St Peter's cathedral or the Louvre, but then again, ostentation was never in keeping with the Dutch character.

Romanesque

Romanesque architecture, which took Europe by storm between 900 and 1250, is the earliest architectural style remaining in the country, if you discount the hunebedden (chamber tombs). Its main characteristics are an uncomplicated form, thick walls, small windows and round arches.

The oldest church of this style in the Netherlands is the Pieterskerk in Utrecht. Built in 1048, it's one of five churches that form a cross in the city, with the cathedral at its centre. Runner-up is Nijmegen's 16-sided Sint Nicolaaskapel, which is basically a scaled-down copy of Charlemagne's chapel in Aachen, Germany. Another classic example of Romanesque is the Onze Lieve Vrouwebasiliek in Maastricht.

The Netherlands' countryside is also privy to this style of architecture. The windy plains of the north are filled with examples of sturdy brick churches erected in the 12th and 13th centuries, such as the lonely church perched on a manmade hill in Hogebeintum, Friesland.

Gothic

By around 1250 the love affair with Romanesque was over, and the Gothic era was ushered in. Pointed arches, ribbed vaulting and dizzying heights were trademarks of this new architectural style, which was to last until 1600. Although the Dutch buildings didn't match the size of the French Gothic cathedrals, a rich style emerged in Catholic Brabant that could compete with anything abroad. Stone churches with soaring vaults and buttresses, such as St Janskathedraal in Den Bosch and Breda's Grote Kerk, were erected. Both are good examples of the Brabant Gothic style, as it was later known.

You'll notice timber vaulting and the widespread use of brick among the stone. Stone is normally a constant fixture of Gothic buildings, but in the marshy lands of the western Netherlands it was too heavy (and too scarce) to use. The basic ingredients of bricks – clay and sand – were in abundance, however. Still, bricks are not exactly light material, and weight limits forced architects to build long or wide to compensate for the lack of height. The Sint Janskerk in Gouda is the longest church in the country, with a nave of 123m, and it has the delicate, stately feel of a variant called Flamboyant Gothic. Stone Gothic structures do exist in the western stretches of Holland, though: Haarlem's Grote Kerk van St Bavo is a wonderful example.

Mannerism

From the middle of the 16th century the Renaissance style that was sweeping through Italy steadily began to filter into the Netherlands. The Dutch naturally put their own spin on this new architectural design, which came to be known as mannerism (c 1550–1650). Also known as Dutch Renaissance, this unique style falls somewhere between Renaissance and baroque; it retained the bold curving forms and rich ornamentation of baroque but merged them with classical Greek and Roman and traditional Dutch styles. Building facades were accentuated with mock columns (pilasters) and the simple spout gables were replaced with step gables that were richly decorated with sculptures, columns and obelisks. The playful interaction of red brick and horizontal bands of white or yellow sandstone was based on mathematical formulas designed to please the eye.

Hendrik de Keyser (1565–1621) was the champion of mannerism. His Zuiderkerk, Noorderkerk and Westerkerk in Amsterdam are standout examples; all three show a major break from the sober, stolid lines of brick churches located out in the sticks. Their steeples are ornate and built with a variety of contrasting materials, while the windows are framed in white stone set off by brown brick. Florid details enliven the walls and roof lines.

Golden Age

After the Netherlands became a world trading power in the 17th century, its rich merchants wanted to splash out on lavish buildings that proclaimed their status.

More than anything, the new architecture had to impress. The leading lights in the architectural field, such as Jacob van Campen (1595–1657) and the brothers Philips and Justus Vingboons, again turned to ancient Greek and Roman designs for ideas. To make buildings look taller, the step gable was replaced by a neck gable, and pilasters were built to look like imperial columns, complete with pedestals. Decorative scrolls were added as finishing flourishes, and the peak wore a triangle or globe to simulate a temple roof.

A wonderful example of this is the Koninklijk Paleis (Royal Palace) in Amsterdam, originally built as the town hall in 1648. Van Campen, the architect, drew on classical designs and dropped many of De Keyser's playful decorations, and the resulting building exuded gravity with its solid lines and shape.

This new form of architecture suited the city's businessmen, who needed to let the world know that they were successful. As red sports cars were still centuries away, canal houses became showpieces. Despite the narrow plots, each building from this time makes a statement at gable level through sculpture and myriad shapes and forms. Philips and Justus Vingboons were specialists in these swanky residences; their most famous works include the Bijbels Museum (Biblical Museum) and houses scattered throughout Amsterdam's western canal belt.

The capital is not the only city to display such grand architecture. Den Haag has 17th-century showpieces, including the Paleis Noordeinde and the Mauritshuis, and scores of other examples line the picture-perfect canals of Leiden, Delft and Maastricht, to name but a few.

French Influence

By the 18th century the wealthy classes had turned their backs on trade for more staid lives in banking or finance, which meant a lot of time at home. Around the same time, Dutch architects began deferring to all things French (which reflected French domination of the country); dainty Louis XV furnishings and florid rococo facades became all the rage. It was then a perfect time for new French building trends to sweep the country. Daniel Marot (1661–1752), together with his assistants Jean and Anthony Coulon, was the first to introduce French interior design with matching exteriors. Good examples of their work can be found along the Lange Voorhout in Den Haag.

Neoclassicism

Architecture took a back seat during the Napoleonic Wars in the late 18th century. Buildings still needed to be built, of course, so designers dug deep into ancient Greek and Roman blueprints once more and eventually came up with neoclassicism (c 1790–1850). Known for its order, symmetry and simplicity, neoclassical design became the mainstay for houses of worship, courtyards and other official buildings. A shining example of neoclassicism is Groningen's town hall; of particular note are the classical pillars, although the use of brick walls is a purely Dutch accent. Many a church was subsidised by the government water ministry and so was named a Waterstaatkerk (state water church), such as the lonely house of worship in Schokland.

Late 19th Century

From the 1850s onwards, many of the country's large architectural projects siphoned as much as they could from the Gothic era, creating neo-Gothic. Soon afterwards, freedom of religion was declared and Catholics were allowed to build new churches in Protestant areas. Neo-Gothic suited the Catholics just fine as it recalled their own glory days, and a boom in church-building took place.

Nationwide, nostalgia for the perceived glory days of the Golden Age inspired neo-Renaissance, which drew heavily on De Keyser's earlier masterpieces. Neo-Renaissance buildings were erected throughout the country, made to look like well-polished veterans from three centuries earlier. For many observers, these stepped-gable edifices with alternating stone and brick are the epitome of classic Dutch architecture.

One of the leading architects of this period was Pierre Cuypers (1827–1921), who built several neo-Gothic churches but often merged the style with neo-Renaissance, as can be seen in Amsterdam's Centraal Station and Rijksmuseum. These are predominantly Gothic structures but have touches of Dutch Renaissance brickwork.

Berlage & the Amsterdam School

As the 20th century approached, the neo styles and their reliance on the past were strongly criticised by Hendrik Petrus Berlage (1856–1934), the father of modern Dutch architecture. He favoured spartan, practical designs over frivolous ornamentation; Amsterdam's 1902 Beurs van Berlage displays these ideals to the full. Berlage cooperated with sculptors, painters and tilers to ensure that ornamentation was integrated into the overall design in a supportive role, rather than being tacked on as an embellishment to hide the structure. The Gemeentemuseum in Den Haag, Berlage's last major work, was an even more ambitious expression of his principles.

Berlage's residential designs approached a block of buildings as a whole, not as a collection of individual houses. In this he influenced the young architects of what became known as the Amsterdam School, though they rejected his stark rationalism and preferred more creative designs. Leading exponents were Michel de Klerk (1884–1923), Piet Kramer (1881–1961) and Johan van der Mey (1878–1949); the latter ushered in the Amsterdam School (c 1916–30) with his extraordinary Scheepvaarthuis, formerly the headquarters of several shipping firms, now a hotel.

Brick was the material of choice for such architects, and housing blocks were treated as sculptures, with curved corners, oddly placed windows and ornamental, rocket-shaped towers. Their Amsterdam housing estates, such as De Klerk's 'Ship' in the west, have been described as fairy-tale fortresses rendered in a Dutch version of art deco. Their preference for form over function meant their designs were great to look at but not always fantastic to live in, with small windows and inefficient use of space.

Housing subsidies sparked a frenzy of residential building activity in the 1920s. At the time, many architects of the Amsterdam School worked for the Amsterdam city council and designed the buildings for the Oud Zuid (Old South). This large-scale expansion – mapped out by Berlage – called for good-quality housing, wide boulevards and cosy squares.

Functionalism

While Amsterdam School–type buildings were being erected all over their namesake city, a new generation of architects began to rebel against the school's impractical (not to mention expensive) structures. Influenced by the Bauhaus school in Germany, Frank Lloyd Wright in the USA and Le Corbusier in France, they formed a group called 'the 8'. It was the first stirring of functionalism (1927–70).

Architects such as B Merkelbach (1901–61) and Gerrit Rietveld (1888–1965) believed that form should follow function and sang the praises of steel, glass and concrete. Their spacious designs were practical and allowed for plenty of sunlight; Utrecht's masterpiece Rietveld-Schröderhuis is the only house built completely along functionalist De Stijl lines.

After the war, functionalism came to the fore and stamped its authority on new suburbs to the west and south of Amsterdam, as well as war-damaged cities such as Rotterdam. High-rise suburbs were built on a large scale yet weren't sufficient to keep up with the population boom and urbanisation of Dutch life. But functionalism fell from favour as the smart design aspects were watered down in low-cost housing projects for the masses.

Modernism & Beyond

Construction has been booming in the Netherlands since the 1980s, and architects have had ample opportunity to flirt with numerous 'isms' such as structuralism, neorationalism, postmodernism and neomodernism.

Evidence of these styles can be found in Rotterdam, an architectural world hub where city planners have encouraged bold designs that range from Piet Blom's startling cube-shaped Boompjestorens to Ben van Berkel's graceful Erasmusbrug. In fact the whole city is a modern architectural showcase where new 'exhibits' are erected all the time. The current tallest building in the country, the MaasToren, tops out at 165m, but is set to be dwarfed by the 215m-tall Zalmhaventoren in 2021. The planned residential tower, accompanied by two shorter towers, will function as a 'vertical city' with 492 homes and accompanying facilities.

A short distance away, a trio of transparent towers called De Rotterdam (2009) were designed – ingeniously to be viewed in motion by passing cars – by Rotterdam's very own Rem Koolhaas (b 1944). One of the world's most influential architects, his firm, OMA, is a breeding ground for a whole new generation of architects. Its current work on the construction of a new stadium at Nieuwe Maas for the city's football team, to be built partly on water, is expected to kickstart the revitalisation of the entire Feyenoord City wedge of Rotterdam riverside.

Other striking examples of bold new architecture can be admired throughout the Netherlands, often combining symbolic references with a sense of play. Near Den Bosch, the Haverleij residential complex reimagines a medieval landscape, with 10 moat-ringed communities, each with its own castle, sharing green pasturelands. In Breda, a surreal copper-plated blob forms an acoustically calibrated dome for the Mezz pop-music hall. In Zwolle, a UFO faced with reflective blue tiles appears to have landed on the rooftop of the stodgy neo-classical Museum De Fundatie, shaking up the academy as it were.

At Utrecht's TivoliVredenburg music centre, four venues (each for a different musical style) hover around and above the original symphony hall like sections in a record store. The new Forum cultural centre of Groningen, slated for completion in 2019, rises like a great pyramid off the main square. And in Amsterdam, the NEMO Science Museum recalls a resurfacing submarine.

Much of the ground for experimentation is provided by zones or structures whose functions have changed, declined or been abandoned. Throughout the country are numerous fascinating examples of urban transformation and creative building reuse – a sustainable alternative to demolition. As their devotional function goes by the wayside, churches in Zwolle and Maastricht have been reborn as bookstores and a posh hotel. In Eindhoven, the sprawling industrial park of the Philips electronics firm has been retrofitted for creative talent, with an events centre, concert hall, hostel and skateboard park, collectively known as the Strijp-S.

On Maastricht's east riverbank, a residential district designed by an all-star team of international architects has sprung up on the site of an old ceramics factory, and is now suitably dubbed Céramique. At the NDSM shipyard in North Amsterdam, the former welding hangar now houses art and film studios, old shipping containers are student housing units and the crane track (Kranspoor) became the base for an elongated office building.

The shores along Amsterdam's IJ River are a good place to see the vaunted Dutch traditions of urban design in action. Northwest of Centraal Station, there's a flurry of construction in the Houthaven ('lumber port') area, whose seven artificial islands are rising from the ashes as a new residential hub. One of the most striking sites in the area is the REM Eiland, a 22m-high former pirate-broadcasting rig now housing a restaurant and bar.

East of Amsterdam, the burgeoning IJburg neighbourhood is slowly mushrooming on a string of artificial islands some 10km from the city centre. Some 45,000 residents are predicted to inhabit these islands by 2025. The curvaceous steel Enneüs Heerma Brug, dubbed Dolly Parton Bridge by locals, links it to the mainland. And so a new city rises where once there was marsh, the story of the Netherlands.

Art or Architecture?

For some contemporary Dutch artists, the line between art and architecture is very fine indeed. At his studio in Nieuwkoop in South Holland, Daan Roosegaarde (b 1979; www.studioroosegaarde.net) pushes the boundaries between art and urban technology, fusing innovative art installations with the environment to increase environmental awareness.

With Icoon Afsluitdijk (2017) the artist transformed part of North Holland's 32km-long Afsluitdijk – a dyke built by hand, stone by stone – into a futuristic, eco-landscape. Come dark, the headlights of passing cars reflect on 60 roadside floodgates wrapped in a luminous lining to create a sci-fi-like driving experience on an energy-neutral road. Roosegaarde's Gates of Light installation is part of a mammoth government project, starting in 2018, to renovate the 1930s dyke. By 2030 it will, like all national roads, be energy-neutral.

At first glance, John Körmeling's Draaiend Huis (2008) in Tilburg appears to be just another regular house, albeit one stuck all on its own in the middle of a 1950s, suburban-highway roundabout. But look closely and you'll notice that the house actually rotates around the roundabout.

Feature: Gables

Among the great treasures along the old canals in Amsterdam, Haarlem and elsewhere are the magnificent gables – the roof-level facades that adorn elegant houses. The gable hid the roof from public view, and helped to identify the house, until 1795, when the French occupiers introduced house numbers. Gables then became more of a fashion accessory.

There are four main types of gable: the simple spout gable, with diagonal outline and semicircular windows or shutters, that was used mainly for warehouses from the 1580s to the early 1700s; the step gable, a late-Gothic design favoured by Dutch Renaissance architects; the neck gable, also known as the bottle gable, a durable design introduced in the 1640s; and the bell gable, which appeared in the 1660s and became popular in the 18th century.

Feature: Hoists & Houses That Tip

Many old canal houses deliberately tip forward. Given the narrowness of staircases, owners needed an easy way to move large goods and furniture to the upper floors. The solution: a hoist built into the gable, to lift objects up and in through the windows. The tilt allowed loading without bumping into the house front. Some properties even have huge hoist-wheels in the attic with a rope and hook that run through the hoist beam.

The forward lean also makes the houses seem larger, which makes it easier to admire the facade and gable – a fortunate coincidence for everyone.

Sidebar: Nederlands Architectuur Instituut

The Nederlands Architectuur Instituut (www.nai.nl) in Rotterdam is the top authority on the latest developments in Dutch buildings and design and it has good retrospective shows on the trends that have shaped the nation's architecture.

Sidebar: Early Modernism

The ultimate in early functionalism, windmills have a variety of distinctive designs and their characteristic look makes them national icons.

Sidebar: Witte Huis

Rotterdam's 12-storey Witte Huis (built 1898) was Europe's first 'skyscraper'. Today it looks almost squat compared to its neighbours; it somehow survived the destruction of Rotterdam in 1940.

Sidebar: William Dudok

Frank Lloyd Wright acolyte William Dudok's stunning and vast town hall is the one good reason to visit Hilversum, west of Amsterdam.

Sidebar: Who's Who

The website of who's who in Holland's architectural scene is www.architectenweb.nl. It also showcases newly commissioned projects and those underway.

Sidebar: Architectural Guide to the Netherlands

The Architectural Guide to the Netherlands by Paul Groenendijk and Piet Vollaard is a comprehensive look at architecture since 1900, arranged by region, with short explanations and photos. It's in two volumes: 1900–2000 and 1980–Present. The associated website, with a list of the Top 100 structures, is www.architectureguide.nl.

The Dutch Landscape

There's no arguing with the fact that the Netherlands is a product of human endeavour. Everywhere you look, from the neat rows of polders to the omnipresent dykes, everything looks planned and organised. 'God created the world, but the Dutch created the Netherlands', as the saying goes. Much of this nature tinkering has been out of necessity – it’s hard to live underwater for any length of time. But all of the reorganisation has put a strain on the Dutch environment.

A Land Created

Flanked by Belgium, Germany and the choppy waters of the North Sea, the landmass of the Netherlands is to a great degree artificial, having been reclaimed from the sea over many centuries. Maps from the Middle Ages are a curious sight today, with large chunks of land 'missing' from North Holland and Zeeland. The country now encompasses over 41,500 sq km, making it roughly half the size of Scotland or a touch bigger than the US state of Maryland.

Twelve provinces make up the Netherlands. Almost all of these are as flat as a pannenkoek; the only hills to speak of rise from its very southern tip, near Maastricht. The soil in the west and north is relatively young and consists of peat and clay formed less than 10,000 years ago. Much of this area is below sea level, or reclaimed land.

Dykes

The efforts of the Dutch to create new land are almost superhuman. Over the past century alone three vast polders have been created through ingenious engineering: Wieringermeer in North Holland; the province-island of Flevoland; and the adjoining Noordoostpolder. Much of this, just over 1700 sq km, was drained after a barrier dyke closed off the North Sea in 1932. In total, an astounding 20% of the country is reclaimed land.

It's impossible to talk about the Dutch landscape without mentioning water, which covers 20% of the entire country. Most Dutch people shudder at the thought of a leak in the dykes. If the Netherlands were to lose its 2400km of mighty dykes and dunes – some of which are 25m high – the large cities would be inundated. Modern pumping stations (the replacements for windmills) run around the clock to drain off excess water.

The danger of floods is most acute in the southwestern province of Zeeland, a sprawling estuary for the rivers Schelde, Maas, Lek and Waal. The latter two are branches of the Rijn (Rhine), the endpoint of a journey that begins in the Swiss Alps. The Maas rises in France and travels through Belgium before draining into the North Sea in the Delta region.

The floods of 1953 devastated Zeeland and the surrounding region. The resulting Delta Project to prevent future flooding became one of the world's largest public works projects.

Myriad small roads run atop the old dykes and these can make great cycling routes, from which you can appreciate just how far the land lies below the water in the canals, and see the historic windmills once used to keep the water out.

Wildlife

Human encroachment has played a huge role in the wildlife of the Netherlands. Few habitats are left intact in the country, and more than 10% of species are imported. While the Netherlands' flora and fauna will always be in constant change, one fact remains – birds love the place.

In some cases, human activity works in favour of certain species. In Gelderland, the part of the Waal river flowing through the Geldersepoort – an area of lakes, ponds, marshes and willows – has been widened to accommodate increased flow volumes and so become attractive to new types of birds such as avocets, which settle there. Similar cases of species returning include the great egret, which had inhabited the Austria-Hungary border region until 1988, showing up in Flevoland after establishment of new polders there, and the white-tailed eagle appearing in the Biesbosch National Park. In other cases, species are introduced into nature reserves, such as the European bison, highland cattle and Galloway cattle, which behave like extinct species to return the landscape to its original state.

Animals

The Netherlands is a paradise for birds and those who love to follow them around. The wetlands are a major migration stop for European birds, particularly Texel's Duinen van Texel National Park, Flevoland's Oostvaardersplassen Nature Reserve and the Delta. Just take geese: a dozen varieties, from white-fronted to pink-footed, break their V-formations to winter here.

Along urban canals you'll see plenty of mallards, coots and swans as well as the lovely grebe with its regal head plumage. The large and graceful blue heron spears frogs and tiny fish in the ditches of the polder lands, but also loiters on canal boats in and out of town. The black cormorant, an accomplished diver with a wingspan of nearly 1m, is another regal bird.

A variety of fish species dart about the canals and estuaries. One of the most interesting is the eel, which thrives in both fresh and salt water. These amazing creatures breed in the Sargasso Sea off Bermuda before making the perilous journey to the North Sea. Herds of seals can be spotted on coastal sandbanks such as those around Texel and off the Groningen coast, where a sanctuary operates to nurse ailing specimens back to health.

Plants

There are thousands of wild varieties on display, such as the marsh orchid (with a pink crown of tiny blooms) and Zeeland masterwort (with bunches of white, compact blooms). Marshy terrain favours purple loosestrife, cattails and water soldiers, a rare white-flowered lily.

Much of the undeveloped land is covered by grass, which is widely used for grazing. Temperate weather means that the grass remains green and grows for much of the year – on coastal dunes and mudflats, and around brackish lakes and river deltas. Marshes, heaths and peatlands are the next most common features. The remnants of oak, beech, ash and pine forests are carefully managed.

Holland's signature flower, the tulip, was imported from elsewhere and then commercially exploited, like much of the country's agriculturally produced flora.

National Parks

With so few corners of the Netherlands left untouched, the Dutch cherish every bit of nature that's left, and that's doubly true for their national parks (www.nationaalpark.nl). But while the first designated natural reserve was born in 1930, it wasn't until 1984 that the first publicly funded park was established.

National parks in the Netherlands tend to be small affairs: for an area to become a park, it must only be bigger than 10 sq km and be important in environmental terms. Most of the 20 national parks in the country average a mere 64 sq km and are as likely to preserve a man-made environment as a wilderness area. A total of 1200 sq km (just over 3%) of the Netherlands is protected in the form of national parks; the most northerly is the island of Schiermonnikoog in Friesland, and the most southerly is the terraced landscape of De Meinweg in central Limburg.

Some national parks are heavily visited, not only because there's plenty of nature to see but also because of their well-developed visitor centres and excellent displays of contemporary flora and fauna. Hoge Veluwe, established in 1935, is a particular favourite with its sandy hills and forests that once were prevalent in this part of the Netherlands. It is the only park that charges admission.

Of the 19 remaining national parks, Weerribben-Wieden in Overijssel is one of the most important as it preserves a landscape once heavily scarred by the peat harvest. Here the modern objective is to allow the land to return to nature, as is the case on Schiermonnikoog, which occupies a good portion of land once used by a sect of monks and which was part of Unesco's 2009 recognition of the broader Waddenzee region.

Environmental Issues

As a society, the Dutch are more aware of environmental issues than most. But then again, with high population density, widespread car ownership, heavy industrialisation, extensive farming and more than a quarter of the country below sea level, they need to be.

As early as the 1980s a succession of Dutch governments began to put in motion plans to tighten the standards for industrial and farm pollution. They also made recycling a part of everyday life, although this has become a subject of some debate. All agree on the need for recycling, but not on how it will be done or by whom. One plan for financing is to charge for waste that goes unsorted.

Drilling for natural gas in Groningen has been linked to increased earthquake activity in the area – a major quake measuring 3.4 on the Richter scale rocked towns in the northeastern Netherlands in early 2018 – prompting the Dutch government to impose severe caps on gas production in the Groningen field, with the aim to end drilling completely by 2022. Currently some 40% of the country's energy comes from gas.

Cars

While the Dutch are avid bike riders, they still like having a car at the ready. Despite good, reasonably cheap public transport, private car ownership has risen sharply over the past two decades. Use of vehicles is now about 50% above the levels of the late 1980s. Stiff parking fees, insufficient parking spaces, pedestrian spaces and outlandish fines have helped curb congestion in the inner cities.

Outside of town centres, minor roads are configured to put cyclists first, with drivers sharing single lanes. Such schemes, plus the aggressive building plan for separate cycling routes, have made some headway in slowing the growth in car use.

While elsewhere in the world environmentally concerned drivers are switching to hybrid vehicles, in the Netherlands the trend is toward electric bikes. Netherlanders now own 1.5 million of the battery-operated bicycles – ideal for commuting as they make it easier to cover long distances. Perhaps because of this, they're also pedalling nearly 30% more kilometres than five years previous, clocking up an average of 1018km per year.

Water

The effects of climate change are obvious in the Netherlands. Over the past century the winters have become shorter and milder. The long-distance ice-skating race known as the Elfstedentocht may die out because the waterways in the northern province of Friesland rarely freeze hard enough (the last race was in 1997). The Dutch national weather service KNMI predicts that only four to 10 races will be held this century. Although damp and cold, winter in the Netherlands today is not the ice-covered deep freeze you see in Renaissance paintings.

For a country with 26% of its land mass below sea level, a rise in sea levels could potentially constitute a disaster of epic proportions. If the sea level rises as forecast – by an estimated 20cm each century – the country could theoretically eventually sink beneath the waves, like Atlantis, or at least suffer annual flooding in centuries to come. Fortunately, water-management is of paramount importance to the innovative Dutch who, over the years, have reshaped their landscape to safeguard against flooding.

As part of the ongoing Delta Works, recognised as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers, dams and storm-surge barriers have been built as flood protection, while so-called 'water squares' in large towns and cities act as water containers during times of heavy rain if need be; Rotterdam's Benthemplein can hold a mind-boggling 1.7 million litres of water. Countrywide, green roofs, planted with water-absorbent foliage, are blooming.

Agriculture

The Dutch chicken population hovers around 100 million, one of the largest concentrations in the industrialised world (six chickens for every citizen; pigs are close to a one-to-one ratio). Such industrialised farming has been the cornerstone of Dutch agriculture since WWII and has brought much wealth to the country. But with concerns about ground-water quality, intensive farming and all the artificial fertilisers, chemicals and animal waste that come with it is under scrutiny. The province of Noord-Brabant in the south was the first to limit farm size and ban antibiotics used in feed.

More attention is being paid to sustainable development. Organic (biologische) food is gaining in popularity and the huge agriculture industry is realising that profits can be made from more sustainable practices and by going green. One approach is to make greenhouses more efficient by heating them from warm-air aquifers and having industrial outfits pump in the required carbon dioxide from the byproducts of their own operations.

Feature: Readying the Rivers

As sea levels rise and the levels of water flowing down rivers increases, more space has to be made to handle the volume. A severe storm in 1995 raised fears that Holland's rivers might overflow and thousands of people had to be evacuated, particularly from the Waal River zone by Nijmegen. This event was a catalyst for a nationwide project to widen the country's rivers and construct higher dykes at greater distances from the rivers, at a cost of €2.3 billion.

More than 30 separate cases of flood plain excavation, dyke relocation and removal of obstacles to water flows are under way along the Waal, Lek, Nederrijn and IJssel and all their tributaries. Besides widening the rivers, the project, called 'Room for the River', aims to create more space for nature and semi-natural environments. Species return not only due to the new habitat created but because the rivers are cleaner.

Feature: Windmills

Central to the story of the Dutch and their struggles with water are windmills. These national icons were an ingenious development that harnessed the nearly constant winds off the North Sea to keep the waters at bay. First used in the 13th century, windmills pumped water up and over the dykes from land below sea level. Later their uses became myriad, and examples can be spotted among the 1200 windmills still standing.

  • Standerdmolen – Oldest type of windmill in the Netherlands. The wooden housing can be rotated. Used mostly for milling grain.
  • Wipmolen – Later variation on the standerdmolen; used to pump water out of polders. The smaller mill housing rotates on a fixed pyramidal base.
  • Stellingmolen – Raised atop a high platform so it can more easily catch the wind in urban areas, with a scaffold around the base, from which operators can rotate the mill and adjust the blades to take best advantage of the wind direction. Used for the production of paper and oil. A good example is De Gooyer beside the Brouwerij ’t IJ in east Amsterdam.
  • Tjasker – Windmill blades placed at the top end of an angled shaft that operates as a pump; used by peat diggers to lower the water level to facilitate their work. Examples can be spotted in the Weerribben-Wieden National Park.
  • Rietmolen – Miniature windmill that looks like a weather vane; used by reed harvesters to keep the reeds wet.

Feature: Bird-Watching for Beginners

Seen through an amateur bird-watcher's eyes, some of the more interesting sightings might include the following:

  • Avocet – common on the Waddenzee and the Delta, with slender upturned bill, and black and white plumage.
  • Black woodpecker – drums seldom but loudly. To see it, try woodlands such as Hoge Veluwe National Park.
  • Bluethroat – song like a free-wheeling bicycle; seen in Biesbosch National Park, Flevoland and the Delta.
  • Great white egret – cranelike species common in marshlands. First bred in Flevoland in the early 1990s.
  • Marsh harrier – bird of prey; often hovers over reed beds and arable land.
  • Spoonbill – once scarce, this odd-looking fellow has proliferated on coasts in Zeeland and the Wadden Islands.
  • White stork – nearly extinct in the 1980s, numbers have since recovered. Enormous nests.

Feature: Notable National Parks & Nature Reserves

Biesbosch NP

Features

Estuarine reed marsh, woodland

Activities

Canoeing, hiking, bird-watching, cycling

Best Time to Visit

Mar–Sep

Duinen van Texel NP

Features

Dunes, heath, forest

Activities

Hiking, cycling, bird-watching, swimming

Best Time to Visit

Mar–Sep

Hoge Veluwe NP

Features

Marsh, forests, dunes

Activities

Hiking, cycling, art-viewing

Best Time to Visit

year-round

Oostvaardersplassen NR

Features

Wild reed marsh, grassland

Activities

Hiking, cycling, bird-watching, fishing

Best Time to Visit

year-round

Schiermonnikoog NP

Features

Car-free island, dunes, mudflats

Activities

Hiking, mudflat-walking, bird-watching

Best Time to Visit

Mar–Sep

Weerribben-Wieden NP

Features

Peat marsh

Activities

Kayaking, canoeing, hiking, bird-watching

Best Time to Visit

year-round

Zuid-Kennemerland NP

Features

Dunes, heath, forest

Activities

Hiking, bird-watching, cycling

Best Time to Visit

Mar–Sep

Sidebar: Cows

A third of the dairy cattle in the world are Holstein Friesian, the black-and-white variety from the north of the Netherlands that are often used as iconic cows in ads worldwide.

Sidebar: Polders

Polders (areas of drained land to facilitate agriculture) form 60% of the Netherlands' landscape – by far the highest percentage of any country in the world.

Sidebar: Crustacean Species

In the coastal waters there are 12 crustacean species including the invasive Chinese mitten crab. Further out, the stock of North Sea cod, shrimp and sole has suffered from chronic overfishing, and catches are now limited by EU quotas.

Sidebar: Fish

Freshwater species such as white bream, rudd, pike, perch, stickleback and carp enjoy the canal environment. You can admire them up close at Amsterdam's Artis Royal Zoo, in an aquarium that simulates an Amsterdam canal.

Sidebar: Animals

Larger mammals such as the fox, badger and fallow deer have retreated to the national parks and reserves. Some species such as boar, mouflon and red deer have been reintroduced into controlled habitats.

Sidebar: Conservation Organisations

  • Dutch Friends of the Earth (www.milieudefensie.nl)
  • Nature & Environment (www.natuurenmilieu.nl)

Sidebar: Highs & Lows

There's no denying the Netherlands is a low, flat country (Netherlands in Dutch means 'low land'). Its lowest point – the town of Nieuwerkerk aan den IJssel, near Rotterdam – is 6.74m below sea level, while its highest point – the Vaalserberg in Limburg – is a meagre 321m above.

Dutch Windmills

Long before they became a Dutch icon, the earliest known windmills appeared in the 13th century, simply built around a tree trunk. The next leap in technology came 100 years later, when a series of gears ensured the mill could be used for all manner of activities, the most important of which was pumping water. Hundreds of these windmills were soon built on dykes throughout Holland and the mass drainage of land began.

Technology advanced again in the 16th century with the invention of the rotating cap mill. Rather than having to turn the huge body of the mill to face the wind, the operators could rotate just the tip, which contained the hub of the sails. This made it possible for mills to be operated by just one person.

In addition to pumping water, mills were used for many other industrial purposes, such as sawing wood, making clay for pottery and, most importantly for art lovers, crushing the pigments used by painters.

By the mid-19th century there were more than 10,000 windmills operating in all parts of the Netherlands. But the invention of the steam engine soon made them obsolete. By the end of the 20th century there were only 950 operable windmills left, but this number has stabilised and there is great interest in preserving the survivors. The Dutch government runs a three-year school for prospective windmill operators, who must be licensed.

Running one of the mills on a windy day is as complex as being the skipper of a large sailing ship, and anyone who has been inside a mill and listened to the massive timbers creaking will be aware of the similarities. The greatest hazard is a runaway, when the sails begin turning so fast that they can't be slowed down. This frequently ends in catastrophe as the mill remorselessly tears itself apart.

These days you're more likely to encounter turbine-powered wind farms in the countryside than rows of windmills but there are still plenty of opportunities countrywide.

Kinderdijk, near Rotterdam, has oodles of windmills in a classic polder setting (areas surrounded by dykes where water can be artificially controlled). To see mills operating and learn how they work, head to Zaanse Schans near Amsterdam.

Just about every operable windmill in the nation is open to visitors on National Mill Day, usually on the second Saturday of May. Look for windmills flying little blue flags.