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1:58pm Thursday 29th March 2012 in Leisure
NIGEL BURNHAM finds much to admire in the provinces of Holland.
I’VE been to Holland many times over the last ten years - with and without the family - and have become very fond of this small, densely populated country brimful of amazing visitor attractions, big on conservation and an undisputed contender for cultural capital of Europe. It’s the perfect place for a holiday - whether you’re solo, with your partner or bringing the whole family.
For me, the holiday starts as soon as I get on the P&O ferry at Hull. Having got my sea legs long ago when I worked on the Arctic Cavalier, a sidewinder trawler out of Hull fishing mountainous seas off the north-west coast of Russia, the North Sea crossing is always fun, irrespective of the conditions.
P&O’s boats, Pride of Hull and Pride of Rotterdam, have everything you need to while away the time: great restaurants, a cinema, duty-free shops where you can buy discounted bottles of Chanel No 19 or Dalwhinnie for your better half, and an Irish Bar selling ice cold Murphys and Guinness – the perfect night cap.
The ferry’s ‘Continental Cafe’ is also the last place you’ll get a decent cup of tea because although the Dutch make great coffee, they drink their tea weak and without milk – and it’s nigh on impossible to buy a cuppa in Holland the way we drink it in GB.
With this in mind I packed a Kenwood Travel Kettle I’d bought for £14.99 at Sainsbury’s, along with a box of Yorkshire Tea bags so I could brew up whenever and wherever I wanted.
The ferry gets in to Rotterdam’s Europoort at around 8.30am – and within an hour I am enjoying a cup of coffee in one of Western Europe’s hidden gems: Delft.
Surprisingly undiscovered even in Holland (two of my best Dutch friends had never been there until I urged them to go) Delft is like a mini-Amsterdam, criss-crossed by a network of picturesque narrow canals and leafy side streets, and afforded historical gravitas by its Renaissance-style city hall and its ‘Oude’ and ‘Nieuw’ churches – the latter the last resting place of Holland’s kings and queens.
Home of the 17th century Dutch master Vermeer, Delft is also famous for its blue-and-white pottery, made there since the 16th century, and has more recently reinvented itself as a very cool university town with similarities to York.
But for me it’s also special for a corner shop selling ‘kibbeling’ – a popular Dutch snack consisting of fresh white fish cut into bite-size pieces, dipped in batter, and deep fried. Not quite fish nuggets or cod pieces, but something along those lines. But where are the chips? Not many kibbeling vendors in Holland also sell chips – in Delft you have to take a stroll across town to buy your ‘friet’... if you can’t do without them.
Next stop is always Het Wapen van Delft, a pancake house where we demolish Poffertjes Bill Clinton, little pancakes with strawberries, maple syrup and whipped cream, re-named to mark a 1997 visit by the former US president and his wife Hillary.
Comfortably replete...what else do you need now except a great of cup of tea? I plugged the travel kettle into the cigarette lighter and brewed up by the side of a canal...
After Delft, Holland is your oyster.
Although most people make a beeline for Amsterdam, I prefer the provinces – and if you base yourself anywhere near the centre you can get anywhere else in Holland within two hours or so.
Where I was staying, in Lage Vuursche – a little village famous for its pancake houses, south-east of Amsterdam – it was, for instance, only one hour’s drive to Haarlem on the North Sea coast and only two hours to Maastricht, the city made famous by the Treaty on European Union, signed in 1992, in the southern province of Limburg.
Indeed, as a Dutch friend pointed out, from here you could be swanning around in the Ardennes, a famously beautiful area of Belgium, or in the western provinces of Germany, in only a few hours.
But Holland has so much going for it you don’t need to head for the border.
We went to see the windmills of Kinderdijk, a little village a few miles east of Rotterdam. There are more than 1,000 windmills in Holland and 19 of the best are here. The windmills – actually 18thcentury water mills built to drain water from the nearby polders – were given Unesco World Heritage status in 1997.
The next day we visited the Kröller-Müller Museum, in a national park near Arnhem (the ‘Bridge Too Far’ where my daughter Romy and I saw Lady Gaga in last year).
The museum houses a superb collection of 19th and 20th-century paintings from the likes of Picasso, Seurat, Cezanne and Mondrian, including the most important collection of Van Goghs outside the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
If you are with your children and they are too young to appreciate Van Gogh, don’t worry: while one family group soaks up the art, another can ride through the rowan, pine and juniper of De Hoge Veluwe national park on one of the 1,700 white bicycles left outside the museum that you can ride for free.
The 13,000-acre park, one of the wildest and most beautiful places in Holland, was created by a businessman, Anton Kroller, between 1908 and 1914, when he bought huge swathes of sandy heathland northwest of Arnhem, stocked it with game, planted woods and topped it off with the magnificent Sint Hubertus Hunting Lodge.
We were sad to leave. But the holiday doesn’t end there. Leaving Rotterdam – the largest port in the world – at night is like sailing through Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in 3D. Like so much else in Holland, it has to be seen to be believed...