Strange Geographies: Quick Facts About the Netherlands

Ransom Riggs

I just got back from a week in the Netherlands (and Belgium and Luxembourg) and my head's still spinning -- from the jet-lag, heavy beers, and dizzying awesomeness of that part of the world. I'm just starting to go through the intimidating mountain of images and videos I took while there, but just to kick off what will be probably several weeks of occasional posts about the region, I wanted to do a quick overview of Holland, which as it turns out has a lot more to offer than tulips and wooden shoes (though it's got those, too).

The first thing you notice about Amsterdam are its canals. The second is all the bikes. It's got more of both than anywhere else -- more canals than Venice, and more bikes than people, some 1,000,000 unsexy-but-practical granny bikes for a population of just 700,000. Decades ago, the city had a lot more cars speeding down its narrow lanes, but Amsterdammers realized that fitting any more automobiles into Amsterdam was going to require paving some of their historic canals. So they decided to encourage bike use by making the city friendly to bikes, building thousands of km of bike lanes and giant bike parking lots (one of which -- the top of a multi-storied structure -- is pictured below) and unfriendly to cars. It's very expensive to own a car, buy gas for a car, park a car, or even get a license to drive a car in Holland -- the test costs more than 500 euros, and if you fail, which is easy to do, you've got to pay it all over again on subsequent attempts. Little wonder then that so many people ride bikes. It's the fastest way to get around -- and fun, too!

Everyone rides -- little kids, old people, businesspeople, couples on dates (one does the pedaling while the other rides on the luggage carrier). It's not uncommon to see extremely well-dressed people riding bikes, either. This may be part of the reason that people in Holland don't seem to take themselves too seriously. Vespas and Smartcars are popular, too, though lately in Amsterdam there's been a problem with rowdy gangs of kids picking up the Smarts and tossing them into canals. So, yeah.

One of the reasons that everyone can bike is that the whole country is flat as a pancake. Some parts -- the airport, for instance -- are actually several meters below sea level. (Lucky for them, it's not a tsunami-prone part of the world.) Much of the province of Flevoland was underwater just 30 years ago; the city of Almere, with a population in the hundreds of thousands, was sea bed before a series of massive dike projects turned back the water. The Dutch have been doing this sort of thing for centuries, of course, and as a result of their expertise, the US government turned to them for advice about the best way to repair the levees after Hurricane Katrina. For helping Egypt save countless treasures during a flood in the 80s, the country gave them a museum wing full of priceless antiquities.

Yes, some drugs are legal there, though sold in shops with misleading names -- you'll find various kinds of pot on offer at "coffeeshops" and some varieties of mushrooms and hash at "smart shops" (one is pictured above). The red light district, which wraps around one of the largest and most beautiful old churches in the city, is where hookers strut their stuff in windows (or chat on cell phones, or do their nails). But it's not as if the Dutch are sex-and-drug-crazed maniacs; in fact, the majority of people who visit these places are tourists, and the city of Amsterdam has been clamping down on the spread of both coffeeshops and red light-establishments of late, considering them an unsightly but somewhat necessary nuisance.

Speaking of unsightly nuisances, the more touristy sections of the city are crammed with the same gaudy shops you can find in any city -- but in a touch that seems distinctly Amsterdam, you'll find all sorts of surprises in the nooks and crannies. See the church in the picture above? It's one of the narrowest in the world, built in secret during the Reformation, around 1700, when Catholics were forced underground in many parts of Europe. (The obviously-churchy facade dates from sometime later.) It was closed when I visited, or I totally would've gone in. It's known as the Parrot Church, I assume because of this exterior detail:

75% of the world's flower bulbs come from the Netherlands. It's tough to take a trip anywhere in the country and not pass fields and fields of tulips growing, as I did on a quick jaunt down to Leiden. This is a tiny part of what I saw out the window -- psychedelic stripes of blooming color -- so common a sight, I suppose, that almost no one else in the car with me even bothered to look.

Here's an interesting little fact -- there's almost no abandoned stuff to explore in the Netherlands. Part of the reason I went was to meet up with a Dutch explorer friend and find some abandoned chateaus to photograph the insides of, but to do that we had to drive down to Belgium, where they're plentiful. The Dutch, it seems, don't waste anything, including land or old buildings; as soon as something becomes abandoned, it's knocked down or re-purposed. This probably has something to do with A) the Netherlands being the most densely populated nation in Europe and B) the Dutch being an extraordinarily tidy and practical people. There's also the old cliche that they're penny-pinching cheapskates. While I'm not ready to weigh in on that just yet, I can tell you that they do get as much as they can out of their real estate -- every bathroom in Holland, for instance, contains JUST enough square footage for a sink, a toilet, a shower, and your body. Given that, it's not surprising that haunted-looking ruins like this don't exist there:

That'll have to wait for another post. (Cue spooky laughter.)

All photos © Ransom Riggs