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.
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