Ten things to love about Dutch Towns


#07 – City Borders
#08 – Bridges
#09 – Skylines and Cityscapes
#10 – Coffee


There’s a thing about Dutch towns. Well, not just one, actually, but quite a few. After a  short discussion, we came up with a list of ten to share with you.

Ten Things to Love about Dutch Towns

We see it, feel it and try to photograph it when we’re out and about with our cameras. New York is special, so is Barcelona or Edinburgh, and so are the Dutch towns. Whichever angle you to try to look at them or analyze them, they set themselves apart from towns in other countries. Is it their Dutchness? If so, what is it that makes them so distinctly Dutch?

Before we start, we want to mention an obvious omission: people. Nope, it’s not number 9. Try number 2? Nope again. It’s not on the list. There is a simple explanation for this. People surpass this list. Describing a town or its characteristics without people is talking about towns without a soul. Ghost towns. As far as we know, there are no ghost towns in the Netherlands – our country is far too small to leave any piece of land unoccupied for too long. So, rest assured, yes we will mention people, the people who shape towns, its history and who live in them, make them. Our list will have people and photographs in abundance and we will be dishing up these 10 things to love about Dutch Towns in the weeks to come. Stay tuned!

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07# – City Borders

#08 – Bridges
#09 – Cityscapes and Skylines
#10 – Coffee

Aerial view of Naarden

Aerial view of Naarden (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All cities have borders. Really. Some borders are ancient city walls surviving in part, sometimes neglected and crumbling, sometimes restored breathtakingly. Others are invisible, stone remnants beneath the surface.

Some borders are the result modern techniques, like the London congestion charge. Many large towns and cities in Europe and beyond have large motorways closing around the suburbs. These, too, are a kind of modern city borders.

Most city borders in the Netherlands, especially in the North and West have one main characteristic: water. These borders are a visible defense system of canals. A beautiful example of this is the fortified town of Naarden.

The congestion charge used to apply to drivers...

The congestion charge used to apply to drivers within the London Inner Ring Road. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the west of Holland the land is lower than the sea, so making good use of water has ever been the ideal defense system. During the Eighty Year’s war, the Dutch rebels made the most of this fact. In 1574, the town of Leiden had been under siege by for more than a year. Townsfolk were starving and only the city’s strong defense walls kept the Spanish forces out. The Dutch rebel forces purposefully damaged the dikes and the favourable winds pushed the sea water inland, flooding the lands around the city and forcing the Spanish to flee. The Dutch army sailed up to Leiden and liberated its inhabitants.

The Relief of Leiden. Dutch School Printings from the 1940s, drawn by Isings. Part of a large collection on images of Dutch history.

The Relief of Leiden. Dutch School Printings from the 1940s, drawn by Isings. Part of a large collection on images of Dutch history.

Nowadays, many of these defense water ways are hidden within a town, only visible if one follows the course of the water and recognizing its pointed shapes. A map of Leiden will show you this, or take a look at Utrecht on Google maps and try to make out the shapes of the canals.

In these cities, too, modern borders are emerging: parking zones. These zones form an invisible, erratic line around the city. Inside, you have to pay a hefty amount to park your car for just one hour. Outside, parking is free – but chances are you’ll have trouble finding a decent parking spot and you’ll have to walk half an hour to get to the shops in the city centre.

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#08 – Bridges

#09 – Cityscapes and Skylines
#10 – Coffee
Welcome to the Netherlands, the delta of the rivers Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt. Following very negative figures in recent international climate reports, the Dutch government has recently corrected them with more optimistic numbers: 26% of the Netherlands lies below sea level. Only 59% of the Netherlands is susceptible to flooding by sea or rivers (source: Planbureau voor de leefomgeving). Let’s not beat around the numeral bush and be very clear about the Low countries: without dunes, sea barrier and river dikes we would all be living in house boats.

Ergo, most Dutch towns somehow have to deal with water. To cross water, you’ll need a bridge. And yes, this is highlight #8 in Ten Things to Love about Dutch Towns. Holland has regular bridges you’ll find everywhere, but some have distinctive features. Most typical is the draw bridge like the one we got on camera in Vollenhove, a former port of the Zuiderzee (now IJsselmeer)

Dutch Draw Bridge

Or the characteristic Korenmarktbrug (Grain market bridge) in Leiden:

A more modern bridge in Haarlem:

Watch out for even more really famous bridges when we reach Arnhem and Maastricht!

Some bridges even have poems. This is the most famous one about the Martinus Nijhoff bridge near Zaltbommel. The current bridge is named after the author of this poem:

(The Missis (Typical Dutch expression)

Ik ging naar Bommel om de brug te zien. I went to Bommel to see the bridge.
Ik zag de nieuwe brug. Twee overzijden I saw the new bridge. Two opposite sides
die elkaar vroeger schenen te vermijden that seemingly used to avoid each other
worden weer buren. Een minuut of tien become neighbours again. About ten minutes
dat ik daar lag, in ‘t gras, mijn thee gedronken as I lay there in the grass, had my tea
mijn hoofd vol van het landschap wijd en zijd- my head full of the countryside wide and far
laat mij daar midden uit de oneindigheid in the midst of eternity I hear
een stem vernemen dat mijn oren klonken. a voice resounding in my ears.

Het was een vrouw. Het schip dat zij bevoer kwam It was a woman. The ship she sailed
langzaamaan stroom af door de brug gevaren. came slowly downstream through the bridge.
Zij was alleen aan dek, zij stond bij ‘t roer, She was alone on dek, she was at the helm.

en wat zij zong hoorde ik dat psalmen waren. and I heard her singing psalms.
O, dacht ik, o dat daar mijn moeder voer. O, I thought, o if that were my mother sailing.
Prijs God zong zij, Zijn hand zal u bewaren. Praise the Lord, she sang, His Hand shall keep you.

Martinus Nijhoff
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#09 – Skylines and Cityscapes

#10 – Coffee
What is the difference between a skyline and a cityscape? According to Merriam Webster:

Cityscape – a city viewed as a scene, or, an artistic representation of a city

Skyline – an outline (as of buildings or a mountain range) against the background of the sky

Dutch masters have always painted beautiful cityscapes of Dutch towns. Johannes Vermeer with his Gezicht op Delft in late 17th century. Isaac Israels made several paintings of Scheveningen (The Hague) in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Today’s graphic designers make wonderful images of Dutch city skylines. Google the skyline of several Dutch towns, especially The Hague and Haarlem, and you will find wonderful images of skylines. We will not reproduce them here as many are under strict copyright rules. Better yet, we would rather show you our own photos of cityscapes and skylines. This is very much an exercise in progress for us. We will be focusing more on cityscapes and skylines in the towns we visit in the (near) future.

Unsurprisingly, you will notice that Dutch towns cityscapes and skylines are often if not mostly dominated by churches and church spires. However, in case of The Hague, for example, you see more and more modern elements like skyscrapers entering the skyline as you can see in our post The Hague City Walk). No more talking now, just enjoy some photos in this category so far:

View on Rapenburg, Leiden

Reflections on Haarlem

Peace Palace, The HagueUtrecht University Hall

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#10 – Coffee

Cappuccino at Kaldi’s, Haagsche Bluf, The Hague

Oh yes, we hear you thinking already. What’s so Dutch about coffee? And why is this relevant to a photo blog about Dutch towns?

Well, look at that cappuccino image, and get yourself in the mood. Take a sip of strong, flavoursome coffee in the company of good people. The quality of the coffee is important to the Dutch drinking coffee. Now, that’s why we like it. In the Netherlands, we socialize over good coffee. You want to get to know a Dutch person better? Simply invite us over for a cup of coffee!

What to consider after you’ve invited a Dutch guest over for coffee to your place? First of all, keep in mind coffee is traditionally consumed late morning and after diner. When serving regular coffee, make sure you have evaporated milk on the side. Regular milk in regular coffee is a faux pas, unless you offer your Dutch guest a koffie verkeerd (wrong coffee). That’s 2 parts heated milk for 1 part coffee.  Also, there must be cookies. Stroopwafels (caramel waffles) or speculaas (spiced cookies) will do fine. Put them in a cookie tin (Dutch equivalent of the cookie jar) and place the closed tin on the table, there should only be one cookie for each round of coffee.

So much for our habits, now for our reputation. For some reason, Dutch people think they have a huge, global reputation for drinking coffee. Well, we don’t know about the huge and global, but would you know that the claim is actually true? After a little research for this post, we found that Dutch people drink more coffee than any other nationality on the planet, second only to the Scandinavians! The Royal Dutch Society for Coffee and Tea calculated that in 1970 the Dutch consumed 2.6 cups of coffee per day. In 2009, this increased to 3.3 cups per day (with a peak of 3.6 cups in the mid-nineties)! As opposed to 2.4 cups of tea per day…

Douwe Egberts, a famous coffee brand in the Netherlands. Store in Haarlem

A Short, Dutch History of Coffee

For the Dutch, the history of coffee started in 1614. Several ships of the Dutch East India Company sailed into the harbour of Al Mukha, aka Mocha, aka Mocca,  in Yemen. They sailed out again, carrying coffee plants on their onward journey to Indonesia. At the time, there was no market for coffee in Europe, but the Dutch traders knew there was one in South and East Asia and with their treasure from Yemen, they set up coffee plantations on Java. In Europe, coffee remained expensive and scarce. This changed after the 1750s. Coffee was cheaper, in the Netherlands coffee houses opened their doors and coffee quickly became national drink #1. Astonishingly, it has remained in top spot for 262 years!

Coffee house serving delicious breakfast, lunch and high tea in Haarlem called Hartig & Zoet (Savoury & Sweet)

Coffee Town

Coffee is definitely a thing to love about Dutch towns. If you’re buying, don’t go to the supermarkets, but seek out the small, cozy shops that specialize in selling coffee. Find Simon Lévelt or Kaldi, or shops like De Eenhorn in Kampen and make sure you can use it in your Nespresso or expensive Italian coffee machine at home. If you’re going out for drinks, check out Bagels & Beans, especially the one in Leiden (Maarsmansteeg) makes a mean cappuccino with a delicious thick milk foam. Then there’s Coffee Star with their retro living room style. Kaldi also serves coffee and muffins in their shops. The Dutch do not have a need for Starbucks. We like to get strong and flavoursome coffee in a few, short and clear sentences. It’s unthinkable the Dutch ordering what we consider a poor cup of coffee anyway, with theatrical monologue skills:  low-fat milk, five shots of hazelnut syrup, no cream, one shot of warm water, o yeah, and make it a double decaf.

For yours truly, a coffee shop is an essential ingredient for any town. If we can’t start our weekend of photography with a roll and coffee, well, then our weekend hasn’t really started yet. Come rain or shine, the end of the world is most definitely near when there’s no coffee-house in sight! Either we’ll take it with a drop of brandy to warm us up in winter, or we’ll drink iced coffee in the summer on the terrace. That’s another typical Dutch sighting: terrasjes. These are small or large terraces in front of coffee shops, restaurants and pubs where people will drink and eat all night long. Hmm, we feel a topic for a new post coming on…

For this post’s finale, we give you our favourites:

Bjorn’s Fav’s Ingrid’s Fav’s
1. Cappuccino 1. Regular coffee with Baileys
2. Regular, Dutch style coffee 2. Cappuccino
3. Koffie Verkeerd 3. Turkish coffee

This photo blog exists because of coffee. 

Colourful chairs for a terrace, Cafe de Oude Mol, The Hague.

A few sources used here:

http://www.vocsite.nl  – about the Dutch East India Company, in Dutch
http://www.knvkt.nl – Royal Dutch Society for Coffee and Tea
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coffee – general Wiki info
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2 thoughts on “Ten things to love about Dutch Towns

  1. I’m fascinated with urban landscapes and how they’re created and modified by people (consciously or unconsciously). Thanks for teaching us about Dutch towns and cities and for sharing your photos.

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