Wandering Through the Netherlands. (Or is it Holland?)

Skiffs Along Harbor Dike, Hoorn, North Holland

Many people are confused between Holland and the Netherlands.  And, okay, I will confess, before embarking on this adventure, I used the two appellations interchangeably.  My mistake. Or was it?  (More on that later…)

“The Kingdom of the Netherlands” (abbreviated NL) is the official name of this constitutional monarchy comprised of 12 provinces on the European
continent, as well as three now separate but equally participating “countries” in the Caribbean:  Aruba, Curaçao, and Sint Maarten.  (The Caribbean islands of Bonaire, Saba and Sint Eustatius have a unique standing as “special municipalities” within the kingdom.)  Formerly of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but now fully independent countries, are Suriname and a large number of islands which comprise Indonesia.

I can hear the groans from across the Atlantic.  Hang on, there is a reason for this didactic history lesson.  (I’d like to see any of you try and sum up over a thousand years of history in just one paragraph!)

Of the 12 Netherlands provinces that form the core of the country, there  are two “Hollands”:  North Holland and South Holland.  And lest anyone dare think, “So what’s the difference in such a small country?” — let me tell you that we received a stern clarification from a very proper South Holland woman just the other day.  It’s kind of like we have two Carolinas (as well as two Dakotas), and woe be to the ignoramus who decides to lump the citizenry of North and South of any of them together.  Enough said of political subdivisions within countries.

Here’s a map to give you the picture of where these 12 provinces are in relation to each other:

Netherlands Political Map


The point is, technically the country is called “the Netherlands”, not “Holland”, as there is more to the country than just the provinces with “Holland” in their names.  Notice I said “technically”.  In talking to people, I have noticed that many Dutch use both names interchangeably – which really can get confusing.  But I suspect that old habits die hard, even for the Dutch.  Either that, or a lot of people from the central area of NL snobbishly think that the heart of the Netherlands is in the combined provinces of North and South Holland and Utrecht and kind of ignore the nether regions. (Kinda like that old poster reflecting a New Yorker’s vision of the U.S. as featuring a dominant Manhattan with a lot of blank space before getting to San Francisco.)  To be fair, and in fact, the vast majority of the population, as living in the centrally-located city and province of
Utrecht, we have been visiting mostly within these three provinces.

This past weekend, however, we took the opportunity to visit two unusual towns, one each in North and South Holland.


Hoorn (pronounced “horn”) is in North Holland, NE of Amsterdam (see above map).  It is a beautiful little harbor town, founded way back in 716 C.E.   From the late 1500s to 1700s Hoorn’s claim to fame was as a major seaport for the vastly rich and powerful Dutch East India Company, also known by its Dutch initials, “VOC”.  The VOC had its own fleet to ply the seven seas, traveling to and fro primarily between Hoorn and other seaports in what was then Holland and the spice islands of the Dutch East Indies – now Indonesia.

The VOC also had its own army to guard its fleet and put down any local rebellions when the natives got annoyed at being exploited for their spices.  In fact, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, a native of Hoorn,served the VOC first as an officer then as governor of the East Indies and gained infamy for his ruthlessness in squashing native rebellions.  He also rebuilt the main city of Western Java – after destroying much of the city as he conquered it – and secured it for the VOC under the name of Batavia.  The city, later renamed Djakarta, is now the capital of Indonesia.

(And just to annoy you all with just a tad more history, the Dutch VOC also established a way station at the southern tip of southern Africa so that their ships could stop to resupply with fresh water and vegetables, livestock and catch the latest news coming west from the Spice Islands.  This way station grew into the colony of Cape Town, from which the nation of South Africa eventually emerged a few centuries later.  Going in the opposite direction, another son of Hoorn, navigating for a VOC fleet, named the southernmost tip of South America “Kaap Hoorn” in honor of his home town.  Again, I’m hyper-condensing history so as not to bore or get too side-tracked.)

So:  Hoorn has a lot of cool history.  And cool buildings.  One of the neatest by far was this tower down at the old harbor, which looks like it was sliced in half down the middle, hence the name, the Hoofdtoren:

the Hoofdtoren

The Hoofdtoren is now a small restaurant where we relaxedwith friends Matt and Caralynn Warden over a late lunch.

the Hoofdtoren from the front

Lunch was followed by a post-prandial stroll around the town, which, like virtually every Dutch city or town I’ve seen on foot or from train, is ringed and riddled with lovely canals.  At least one Hoorn resident seemed a little confused, however.  This duck definitely is looking for waves in the wrong place, one of the town’s canals:

Surf's Up! (Maybe for this duck)

Probably the most charming feature of Hoorn was its many old houses lining the old town and canals. Michael absolutely fell in love with Hoorn and was already making plans to move there.

Michael checing out the real estate again

But despite the gray weather, you can see why:

The Waag, or Weighing House, where all incoming goods were weighed and taxed

One of the Museums

And, finally, a picture of me and Michael.

I’d like to point out how bundled up we are.  This photo was taken on June 17.  Right now those of you in the DC area are sweltering in the early summer heat.  Most assuredly, we are not.  In fact, I’ve had to buy a scarf since coming here and wish I could find gloves.  Trust me, the North Sea does bring very cool temperatures – and rain – to this country even in summer.

The day was not complete without merriment.  Here first Michael, then Matt, clowned around with a silent audience:

In closing this blog, I can’t help but pass on one other fascinating fact.  At the beginning I noted Hoorn’s former fame as a major seaport.  Yes, the VOC is no more and the renowned Dutch enterprise is no longer based on the spice trade.  But that’s not why Hoorn is no longer a seaport.
It doesn’t have access to a sea any longer – not since 1932 when the
government finished off a massive sea dike between North Holland and Friesland  which cut off the Zuider Zee (and Hoorn and several other former seaports) from the North Sea.  So, technically, Hoorn is now, well, a lakeport.

Stay tuned for the next stop on Gouda.

Map showing Afsluitdijk Dyke


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