is a country partly reclaimed from the waters of the North Sea, and around half of it lies at or below sea level. Land reclamation has been the dominant motif of its history, the result a country of resonant and unique images - flat, fertile landscapes punctured by windmills and church spires; ornately gabled terraces flanking peaceful canals; and mile upon mile of grassy dunes, backing onto stretches of pristine sandy beach.
A leading colonial power, its mercantile fleets once challenged the best in the world for supremacy, and the country enjoyed a so-called "Golden Age" of prosperity in the seventeenth century. These days, the Netherlands is one of the most developed countries in the world, with the highest population density in Europe, its sixteen million or so inhabitants (most of whom speak English) concentrated into an area about the size of southern England.
Most people travel only to the uniquely atmospheric capital,
: the rest of the country, despite its accessibility, is comparatively untouched by tourism. The west of the country is the most populated and most historically interesting region - unrelentingly flat territory, much of it reclaimed, that is home to a grouping of towns known collectively as the
(literally "rim town"). It's a good idea to forsake Amsterdam for a day or two and investigate places like
with their old canal-girded centres, the gritty port city of
, stately home of the government and the Dutch royals. Outside the Randstad, life moves more slowly. The province of
, in the southwest, is the country at its most remote, its inhabitants a sturdy, distant people, busy with farming and fishing and hardly connected to the mainland. In the north,
is a busy cultural centre, lent verve by its large resident student population. To the south, around the town of
, the landscape undulates into heathy moorland, best experienced in the
national park. Further south still lies the compelling city of
, squeezed between the German and Belgian borders.
Though "Holland" is often used as a shorthand alternative name for the country, this is strictly speaking outdated; these days, although there are two Dutch provinces called North Holland and South Holland, they are separate entities. On the same note, it's common to call Belgium and the Netherlands "the Low Countries", and to use the abbreviation "Benelux" to refer to the neighbouring trio of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg