Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Eurotrip: Not Holland

From a distance the Netherlands look like, you know, a country - but actually they're separated into two fairly distinct parts. Not quite like the Dutch vs French bits of Belgium, but then comparatively few tourists make it out of Holland proper - the western part generally comprising the rough square of Amsterdam, The "Only City With Its Own Article" Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht. On the leg of my trip following Amsterdam, I was fortunate to be in the company of an outstanding host, who pointed out interesting things and explained the essense of the place as we drove across the dyke into Friesland* and Northern Netherlands - the area dominated by Groeningen, an important medieval city-state.

You'd be forgiven for not getting it, as my host pointed sideways out of the window of a Kia Pride travelling improbably quickly on admittedly very good Dutch highways, and urged me to look down the hill. Now, Estonia is a country comically famous for its flatness, but we do have hills, both in Tallinn where most of the Soviet-era housing developments have "mountain" in their name, and in South Estonia, where the national pastime of uphill skiing reigns. But northeastern Netherlands are predominantly reclaimed lands, and back when dykes were unreliable, a meter's elevation made the difference between a home and a houseboat.

While the architecture of the Netherlands is mostly generic-Germanic, the most remarkable thing is the widespread use of brick even in very old buildings. Whereas in Estonia you'd see wood, or local limestone, out there it was always convenient to use the very good local clay. Forests are conspicuous not by their absense, as in Iceland, but by their suspicious order: the landscape developers had to consciously restrain themselves from planting trees in nice, even rows. In that part of the world, whenever you find yourself driving down a shady, bucolic country lane, you can tell there's a castle nearby: the castlefolk spent generations beautifying the land. Unquestionably admirable.

While the best coffee I've ever had** was in that same little cafe in Paris on my first night, the best spare ribs, by far, were to be found in a restaurant in the main square of Nijmegen, a town at the foot of what I sarcastically referred to as the Dutch Alps (but a very pleasant place, no doubt).

And yes, I did make use of the local tolerance of light recreational substances.

* The Friese are by far the biggest nationalists in Europe. They have a myth of Friesland ruling all of Northern Europe, and they still figure that was the normal state of things; what's happening now is just a temporary setback.

** You'd think Caffe Latte, Cafe au Lait and Milchkaffe are all the same thing, but apparently not. The Italian version does actually heat the milk enough for the taste of it to change, while the authentic French version doesn't. Both are quite good, though. The Germans have not impressed me with their coffee, though.


Jens-Olaf said...

Even in my former hometown Osnabrück in Germany they have rewritten the history, cause of the Frisians. Before there were only Charles the Great who had conquered Saxony around 800 in a war lasting for 30 years. The Franks founded new Christian centers for a bishop. Like Bremen or Münster or Osnabrück. Now it seems these places who became later the first cities in the North of Germany where only paced on locations where the Frisians could do the trade with their boats. Something the Saxons did not do, they were just farmers in their majority. The Frisians did the trade under Frankish rule down to the Danuba. Early civilized people ,-)

antyx said...

Hey, don't encourage them. :P

Jens-Olaf said...

But let me further emphazise (from an abstract written by Ellmers):

'On their way west the Slavonic tribes at c AD 560 interrupted the transcontinental trading routes which led fromByzantium via the eastern parts of middle Europe to Scandinavia. From that time on the only trade connection between Scandinavia and the Mediterranean was maintained by the Frisians who, in their coastal vessels, sailed cargo from England as well as from the Merovingian empire along their shores to Scandinavia, and vice versa. This paper deals with this monopoly situation of Frisian trade.'

That's fun. Have to add that the Frisians are special also in that way that they never faced real feudal rule, an experience the Saxons, Estonians and others were doomed to live in, in such a system of dependence. Btw in Northern Germany they still use the language of Plattduetsch but where small islands of the Frisians language are still excisting. Ahem, pieces of an upcoming Frisians Commonwealth.


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