I had been to Amsterdam a couple of times, but had never explored the rest of the country. There is much more to the Netherlands than just its largest city! Here's a few interesting facts.
First of all, Holland constitutes only 2 of the 12 Dutch provinces of the Netherlands. Much of the country is "artificial", having been reclaimed from the sea over the last few centuries. Almost a quarter of the country's 40,000 square km lies below sea level, and much more of the Netherlands is at or just above sea level--no worry about altitude sickness here! There are over 2400 km of dikes to keep the sea water out, some of which are more than 25m high.
Dutch history goes back 250,000 years. Evidence of cave dwellers dating back this far were found in a quarry near Maastricht. Other early settlers of the area have been traced back 2000 years ago. These ancient people built huge mounds of mud as living areas to be used during the frequent sea-driven floods of their homeland. Over 1000 of these mounds are still scattered around the flat countryside, mostly near Drenthe in the province of Friesland. The Romans invaded the Netherlands and occupied the country from 59 BC to the third century AD, followed over the next few centuries by the German Franks and the Vikings. The Netherlands flourished during the 15th century. Many merchants became wealthy selling tapestries, expensive clothing, artwork, and jewelry. The Low Countries, as they were called, became famous for their shipbuilding, salted herring, and beer.
The 17th century was a golden one for the Netherlands. Amsterdam thrived as the financial center of Europe, and the Netherlands were important both economically and culturally. The Dutch East India Company, formed in 1602, was the largest trading company of the 17th century, and the world's first multinational corporation. The Dutch West India Company was founded in 1621, and it was the center of the slave trade as its ships sailed between Africa and the Americas. Explorers from both of these companies discovered or conquered countries around the world, from New Zealand to Mauritius to the island of Manhattan.
The Netherlands ultimately became an independent kingdom, and were able to remain neutral during World War I. Unfortunately, the country could not stay neutral during World War II. Germany invaded the countryside in May 1940, and the Netherlands were not liberated until 5 years later. There are many horror stories from the war, including the leveling of Rotterdam, the starvation during the Winter of Hunger, and the plight of the Dutch Jews such as Anne Frank.
The postwar years saw the Netherlands returning to the trade industry. These decades after the war also saw the discovery of natural gas in the North Sea off the Dutch coast, and the return of productive farms. Many of the Dutch worldwide colonies gained their independence during the postwar years. Today the Netherlands are seen as extremely liberal countries, with broad social programs, personal freedoms, and high tolerance for drugs.
Now that you know a little of the history and geography of the Netherlands, let's take a look at our Dutch Journey cruise on the Viking Europe.
As we flew overnight across the Atlantic, I tried to dream of fields of tulips and slowly turning windmills.
It may be hard to believe, but the tulip caused an economic disaster in Holland in 1637 never seen before. Tulips started out simply as wildflowers in Central Asia, and were first grown in Turkey. (The word tulip is Turkish for turban.) Carolus Clusius, director of the oldest botanical garden in Europe located in Leiden, was the first to bring the bulbs into the Netherlands. He and and other horticulturists quickly found that the bulbs were well suited for the cool, damp climate and fertile delta soil.
The beautiful flowers were quickly discovered by the affluent Dutch, and they became wildly popular. In late 1636 and early 1637, a mania for the bulbs swept through the Netherlands. Speculative buying and selling drove the price up to where some tulip bulbs cost more than a house! A single bulb fetched the equivalent of 10 years' salary for the average Dutch worker. Much of the speculative trading was done in pubs, so alcohol fueled the tulipmania. The bottom fell out of the market in February 1637, with many merchants and citizens seeing their fortunes lost. Some speculators were left with unsold bulbs, or with bulbs that were on "layaway". The concept of options arose from this disaster, and the term tulipmania still is used to describe an investment frenzy.
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