The Netherland's oldest city, Maastricht sits at the bottom end of the thin finger of land which juts down between Belgium and Germany. Its history stretches back to 50 BC when the Romans set up camp on the bank of the River Meuse. Fortification walls still partly surround the city and you can explore a 10km labyrinth of tunnels on the city's western outskirts. Today this lively city has a reputation even in its own country of being a little foreign. You can pay for a beer in Belgian francs or German marks; you can sample the distinct tastes of neighboring cuisines; and in February you can party with the rest of the travelers in the Netherlands' largest carnival festival.


The country's five northern isles in the shallow Waddenzee stretch in an arc from Texel to Schiermonnikoog. They are important bird-breeding grounds and provide an escape for stressed southerners who want to touch roots with nature. Texel is the largest and most populated island - it has 24km of beaches and hosts the world's largest catamaran race in June. Texel is the only Dutch-speaking island; Frisian is the language of the other four. Terschelling is known as a good-time isle, while Vlieland has more of a family atmosphere. Ameland has quaint villages but explodes with tourists during summer. Ferries from Den Helder, Harlingen, Holwerd and Lauwersoog connect the islands to the mainland and there are hostels on all except Vlieland.

The Netherland's aptly named province of Zeeland (Sea Land) makes up most of the Delta region. Spreading out over the south-west corner of the country, it was a solitary place until recent decades, where isolated islands and medieval towns were battered by howling winds and white-capped seas. After the tragic 1953 flood (see Environment), Zeeland was defended from the sea by the monumental Delta Project, but it's still a bit of a wild place. The Delta Expo sits steadfastly on top of the remarkable 3.2km storm surge barrier near the quaint town of Middelburg.

The Netherlands' sensible social outlook extends to prostitution which is ostensibly well-regulated. Amsterdam's red light area is (infamous, but all the cities have their own crawls. Prostitutes display themselves in windowed booths and when there is custom, the curtain is drawn across for the duration. The mainly self-employed prostitutes are taxed on their earnings, undergo mandatory health checks and have a vocal union. For every happy hooker, however, there's an unhappy one, perhaps a young Eastern European without the right papers, sucked into a vicious circle of high hopes, drug addiction and extortion.

Hordes of tourists snap their way around the Netherlands in summer, but there's no denying that this is the best time of year to sit by the canals for a sip and a toke. Spring is a good time to visit as the bulbs are in bloom - April for daffodils, tulips in May. If you can be in Amsterdam for Koninginnedag (April 30), do it! Rain is spread pretty evenly over the year, so there's not much point trying to avoid Dutch drizzle. Always bring your umbrella! Winter can get bitingly cold, but the museums are quiet and if everything freezes over, there's great ice skating on the canals and flood plains.

A cold January invites endless speculation about the nation-stopping Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities Journey), a grueling skating marathon though the countryside of Friesland. The last one was held in 1997, but it could be decades before it all freezes over again. Carnival in February is an excuse for silly costumes and reveling 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.

Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) is the white-bearded patron saint of children who arrives 'from Spain' mid-November. He is accompanied by a host of mischievous servants called Zwarte Pieten (Black Peters) - there are lots of PC Blue and Green Peters these days. 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 step-families. Fireworks are only allowed to be sold in the days preceding New Year's Eve - there are hundreds of injuries each drunken, crackin 'n' bangin December 31.

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