Netherlands

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Introduction to Netherlands

The Dutch aren't bogged in their clichés, even though bikes, dykes, windmills and blazing flower fields are pretty much the norm outside the major cities. Do as the locals do - grab a bike and explore. It's a very big small country, and full of salutary surprises.

One of the chief pleasures of the place is its lively contrast between pragmatic liberalism and the buttoned-up just-so primness of a culture founded on Calvinist principles. In Dutch society, ostentation is anathema and fuss of any kind is regarded as undignified.

For travellers, the integration of the clog and the microchip works well. The Netherlands is easy to travel in and the locals are friendly and speak excellent English, but many towns are still surrounded by canals and castle walls, the endlessly flat landscape which inspired the nation's early artists still stretches unbroken to the horizons, and the dykes still occasionally threaten to give way.

Full country name: Kingdom of the Netherlands

Area: 41,526 sq km

Population: 16.25 million

Capital City: Amsterdam

People: About 83% of the population are Dutch (Germanic and Gallo-Celtic stock); most of the rest are Indonesian, Surinamese, Moroccan, Turkish or Antillian.

Language: Dutch, Frisian

Religion: Christian (52%) (Roman Catholic and Protestant), Muslim (5.3%). Fully 40% of the Dutch say they have no religious affiliation.

Government: constitutional monarchy

Head of State: Queen Beatrix van Oranje Nassau

Head of Government: Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende

GDP: US$434 billion

GDP per capita: US$26,900

Inflation: 2%

Major Industries: Service industries, banking, electronics, digital media, horticulture, agriculture and shipping

Major Trading Partners: EU (esp Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, UK), USA

Member of EU: Yes

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Traveler Facts

Visas: Tourists from Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, USA and most of Europe only need a valid passport - no visa - for a stay of up to three months. EU nationals can enter for a stay of three months with just their national identity card or a passport expired less than five years ago. If you have a Schengen visa for one of the countries that is a member of the Schengen Agreement, it may be valid for the Netherlands also. Double-check with the embassies or consulates of the countries you're visiting though, to make sure the Schengen visa conditions still apply. Tourist visas can be extended for another three months maximum, but you'll need a good reason and the extension will only be valid for the Netherlands, not the Schengen Agreement areas. A three-month Dutch visa can take a little while to process, so don't leave it until the last moment; fees vary depending on the country in which you apply. Most types of visas also require that you show sufficient means to support yourself during your stay.

Health risks: Lyme disease (Lyme disease is transmitted by deer ticks, which are only 1-2 mm long. Most cases occur in the late spring and summer. The first symptom is usually an expanding red rash that is often pale in the centre, known as a bull's eye rash. However, in many cases, no rash is observed. Flu-like symptoms are common, including fever, headache, joint pains, body aches and malaise. When the infection is treated promptly with an appropriate antibiotic, usually doxycycline or amoxicillin, the cure rate is high. Luckily, since the tick must be attached for 36 hours or more to transmit Lyme disease, most cases can be prevented by performing a thorough tick check after you've been outdoors)

Time Zone: GMT/UTC + 1 (Central European Time)

Dialling Code: 31

Electricity: 230V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric



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Events

A cold January invites endless speculation about the nation-stopping Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities Race), a gruelling 200km (124mi) skating marathon though the countryside of Friesland. The last one was held in 1997, and it could be decades before it all freezes over again. Carnaval in February is an excuse for silly costumes and revelling celebrated mostly in the Catholic south. Koninginnedag (Queen's Day) is on April 30 and is a huge party day in Amsterdam. The whole central city becomes a huge street market/party where anyone can sell whatever they like - it's a madhouse. The Holland Festival in June is celebrated mostly in Amsterdam and The Hague. It's often highbrow and pretentious but there are many fringe events. The Hague's North Sea Jazz Festival each July is the world's biggest jazz junket.

Vying for attention as Holland's oldest city, Nijmegen attracts revellers from all over for the country's hugest walking festival. The Vierdaagse (Four Day March) over 200km (124mi) through the surrounding countryside is a major event for serious walkers and partygoers alike, starting on the third Tuesday in July. The event is ushered in and drawn to a close by the Zomerfeesten (Summer Festival), which begins on the Saturday before Vierdaagse.

Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) is the white-bearded patron saint of children who arrives 'from Spain' in mid-November. He is accompanied by a host of mischievous servants called Zwarte Pieten (Black Peters). On the evening of 5 December, people give one another anonymous and creatively wrapped gifts accompanied by poems about the recipient, written by Sinterklaas. The Dutch sensibly have two Christmas Days (on 25 and 26 December), which is handy for in-laws. Fireworks are only allowed to be sold in the days preceding New Year's Eve - there are hundreds of injuries each drunken, crackin', bangin' 31 December.

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Best time to Visit

Hordes of tourists snap their way around the Netherlands in summer, but this is still the best time of year to sit picnicking by the canals. Spring is a good time to visit for daffodils and tulips. In winter the museums are quiet, and if everything freezes over, there's great ice skating on the canals and flood plains.



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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Euro

Meals

Budget: €5-10

Mid-range: €10-20

High: €20-60

Deluxe: €60+

Lodging

Budget: €15-50

Mid-range: €50-120

High: €120-200

Deluxe: €200+

Although Amsterdam casualties will tell you it's possible to scrape by on only one stolen bike a day, the Netherlands is not really a budget buy. If you're happy eating chips, sleeping in hostels and walking around, it's possible to hang in Holland for around EUR30.00 a day. There are a lot of free activities to stretch your budget, especially in Amsterdam in summer. Those who prefer a couple of solid meals a day, a comfortable bed with private facilities and travelling by public transport are looking at EUR70.00 as a starting point. Money-saving ideas include getting hold of a museum pass if you're an avid museum-goer, and getting hold of a bicycle so you can travel for only the price of body fuel.

Tipping is not compulsory in the Netherlands, but rounding up the bill is always appreciated in taxis, restaurants and pubs with table or pavement service. If you're eating out in a group, it is common to split the bill, but don't suggest 'going Dutch' as the expression is unknown here.

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Attractions

Amsterdam

Amsterdam is one of the world's best hangouts, a canny blend of old and new: radical squatter art installations hang off 17th-century eaves; BMWs give way to bicycles; and triple-strength monk-made beer is drunk in gleaming, minimalist cafes.

Amsterdam has many fascinating neighbourhoods to explore, from red light sleaze to bohemian chic to stately grandeur. The landscape is riddled with graceful bridges and eccentric churches, the air laden with carillon chimes. Most attractions are within the canal belt, so sightseeing is a breeze.

Hoge Veluwe

Hoge Veluwe is the country's largest national park and home to the wonderful Kröller-Müller Museum. The park itself covers 5500 hectares (13,500 acres) and is a strange mix of forests and woods, shifting sands and heath moors that provide a sense of isolation (if not actual isolation) found nowhere else on the Dutch mainland. Red deer, wild boar and mouflon (a Mediterranean sheep) roam here. The Kröller-Müller Museum has 278 works by Van Gogh, as well as smaller collections of Picasso and Mondrian.

Hoge Veluwe is accessible by bus from Arnhem, which is an hour's train ride east of Amsterdam. White bicycles are available free of charge once you're inside the park.

Maastricht

One of the Netherland's oldest towns, Maastricht has a lively international feel. Its history stretches back to 50 BC, when the Romans set up camp there. Fortification walls still partly surround the city, and you can explore a labyrinth of tunnels on the city's western outskirts.

The Randstad

The Randstad literally translates as 'Urban Agglomeration'. It's the Netherlands' most densely populated region, spreading in a circle from Amsterdam, incorporating the Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht, and smaller towns like Haarlem, Leiden and Delft.

The area's most spectacular sight is the bulb fields near Leiden which explode into colour between March and May. Even from the window of a train they're intoxicating, but a back-roads bicycle trip is the best way to enjoy them. The Keukenhof, south of Haarlem, is the world's largest garden.

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Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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