The Dutch have found great success by being in denial, ignoring the many bad hands they have been dealt. They’ve created a prosperous country by dint of hard work, imagination, ingenuity and never accepting the status quo. Most of the country is river delta providing drainage to the European rivers that flow to the North Sea. In the 16th century as the population grew and there was never enough land for homes and agriculture, they began to build dikes and used windmills to drain the reclaimed land. Today 65% of the country is under sea level. An especially ambitious project involved a thirty kilometer road/dike where it took twelve years to pump out the sea water. There are 200 days of rain and 300 days of strong winds; even in the summer the temperatures rarely get summery. So the Dutch built miles of green houses, and grow so many fruits and vegetables, they have enough to export. Grass grows readily on the fertile soil with all that rain, and animals graze much of it, resulting in meat to eat and little to mow. The wool industry is flourishing as never before. The original locals do not like to eat mutton, but they tolerant, open minded Dutch have taken in many immigrants, some from former colonies, who love to eat lamb. Problem solved. Water often puddled on the pavement in the incessant rain, leading to many traffic accidents. A Dutchman invented a new asphalt made out of ground up tires that had tiny perforations that drained the water as it fell. This asphalt is very expensive, but is such a good product, the Dutch sell it all over Europe. Some farmers got injured harvesting fruit from the tops of their trees. So they bred new fruit trees that do not grow taller than the average man. Now those are exported as well. Trees grow too wide and hang out in the road? Need more shade on the house? Trim the side branches on your tree and attach the remaining ones to bamboo sticks so they grow flat. The Dutch also have found so much natural gas off shore, that they have more than enough for their own needs. They built so many refineries that many other oil producing countries ship theirs here to be processed. A can do people.
The country suffered greatly in World War II and many of its buildings were destroyed. This gave the Dutch an opportunity to reassess while they rebuilt. It’s the rare expressway or country lane that does not have a real bike path along side it and the Dutch ride bikes everywhere no matter the weather. In Rotterdam architecture competitions were held for every major new building. This gives the modern looking rebuilt city a varied, innovative look.
We traveled to Kinderdyjk, a UNESCO site where a group of the few remaining old style wind mills are preserved. Interested volunteers live inside them for marginal rent and keep the mills in good condition. While we were there it looked like it was going to rain any minute and the wind blew so hard it was challenging to walk along the viewing path. The parka under my raincoat felt mighty good.
Then we drove to Haar Castle, a modern fantasy recreation that was built in the late 1800‘s on the grounds of a more medieval castle originally built in 1200. The baron who owned the property married a Rothschild from the wealthy French banking family who brought him the funds to create a 200 room castle of his dreams. We could not photograph it inside and I struggle to convey its magnificence. There was so much to admire I hardly knew where to look. If it looked like gold, it was real gold. The architect who designed and built it supervised every last detail, even designing the dishes and silverware. It was intended to be a party home and reminded me of the Hearst Castle in California. At first my reaction to each room was a simple WOW!, but by the end I started to think more and more about how excessive it all was and how much good could have been done with the money spent on this egotistic temple. The castle exterior was decorated with red and white shutters and a nearby town had the same look. This was where the folks that did all the work in the castle used to live and we stopped there for a typical Dutch pancake lunch.
Our last stop was in Delft, the home of the famous blue and white pottery. In the 1600’s when the Dutch ruled the sea, they would use yellow bricks for ballast as they sailed to the East Indies for spices. This made them fabulously rich and when they got to China they would dump the bricks and buy blue and white Chinese pottery during the Ming dynasty for ballast instead. When the next set of Chinese rulers closed the country down to trade, the demand for the pottery was still there, so those ingenious Dutch used the clay from the recently drained lake beds to make similar pottery of their own. You can buy pricey hand painted versions or more affordable pieces decorated by stencils. Their cash register never stopped ringing.
Our brief visit today reminded me of how much I admire the Dutch, but the weather also reminded me of why I am happy to move on. It was equally unpleasant during our first visit to Holland in July, when it was described to us as “soft winter.” It’s no wonder than southern Europe is filled with cars carrying the NL license plates searching for warmth and sunshine.