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Only in Holland

A guide to the most unique and interesting places and events in Holland

Bulb fields

Holland has been a leading producer of flower bulbs since the early 17th century. In fact, they had such a passion for tulips that in 1637 'tulip mania' caused a bizarre financial bubble, when investors poured money into tulip futures, ruining many of them when the prices crashed. Today this is a far more orderly industry, concentrated on the flat lands of the provinces of North and South Holland, particularly around Lisse, between Haarlem and Leiden, in an area known as the Bollenstreek, 'bulb region'. In spring (from the end of March to mid-May), the bulbs come into bloom in giant strips of astonishingly vivid colour. It's not just tulips: daffodils, narcissi and hyacinths are also grown, filling the air with a glorious, spring-fresh fragrance. For the most part they are not grown for cut flowers, but for the bulb market, and in such number that, for health of the bulb, the flowers are often simply scythed down and raked away. At the end of April, flower-bedecked floats and fantastic floral sculptures make a procession through the Bollenstreek in the 'Bloemencorso' (Flower Parade). For a closer look at the bulbs, go to the Keukenhof Garden, near Lisse. The name means 'kitchen garden', and this was its historic purpose; but in 1949 a group of bulb growers bought the garden to develop it as a showcase for their industry. It now covers 30 hectares (70 acres) and contains some 7 million plants, with more under 5000 sq m (54,000 sq ft) of glass. At the height of the bulb season (the last two weeks of April), the Keukenhof is a fabulous sight, attracting fabulous numbers of visitors by the coachload.

Aalsmeer flower market

The Dutch are not just leading flower-growers: they also have the world's largest flower market, at Aalsmeer, which every weekday morning deals in colossal quantities of fresh flowers from all over the world. In its modern premises, conveniently close to Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, giant lots of flowers are sold in a frenzy of highly automated bidding. Visitors can witness this astonishing and colourful sight from a viewing gallery.

Arrival of the new herring season

Every year, towards the end of May, the approach of the new herring season is greeted with eager anticipation, an event celebrated with great fanfare. The herrings are caught in the Atlantic, gutted, beheaded and de-boned, and then pickled in brine. Called 'maatjesharing', they are sold from stalls in the street; customers hold a fish up by the tail and drop them into their upturned mouths, stopping only perhaps to flavour the semi-raw fish with chopped raw onions. The young 'groene' (green) herrings have a delicious, fresh flavour, with a good balance between the oil and the flesh. The oil content has to be at least 26 per cent before the season can begin: failure to reach this level of fat delayed the start of the season in 2006 until 15 June.

Alkmaar cheese market

The town of Alkmaar, in the province of North Holland is famous for its picturesque cheese market, which takes place every Friday morning between mid-April and mid-September. Following a tradition dating back four centuries, big whole round cheeses (Gouda, Leidse, Edam) are stacked in the Waagplein ('weighing square'). As buyers test and select cheeses, pairs of porters dressed in white, with boaters in the colours of their particular warehouse, ferry the cheeses to the scales for weighing, using curved sleds suspended from their shoulders.

Windmills

An essential part of the Dutch landscape, you'll see windmills throughout much of Holland, especially where they are needed to pump the water from reclaimed land. The best clusters are at Kinderdijk and Zaanse Schans (see Top Ten Things to Do in Holland).

Clogs

A cliché, yes, but traditional wooden clogs served a very practical purpose: they were solid, hardy footwear well suited to the waterlogged landscape of low-lying Holland. Often made wet and dirty, they could be easily slipped off at the front door. They are not entirely a thing of the past: many Dutch people still have a pair of clogs - albeit now usually made of wood and leather - which they'll wear in the garden, or about town.

Elfstedentocht

The famous Elfstedentocht (Eleven-cities Tour) is a marathon skating race of nearly 200 km (124 miles). It takes place on the canals and waterways of Friesland, centring on Leeuwarden, but only when the winter ice is thick enough (thus not every year); some 15,000 skaters take part. When the race supervisors declare that the ice is sufficiently strong to hold the race, the whole of Holland is seized with a frenzy of excitement, and many people take the day off to watch (on television, if not in Friesland itself). The most recent Elfstedentocht took place in 1997.

Koninginnedag

The greatest public holiday in the Netherlands is the Koninginnedag (Queen's Day), on 30 April, the birthday of Queen Juliana (reigned 1948-80). Instituted by her daughter, Beatrix, the current Queen, it's a day of festivities throughout the land, particularly in Amsterdam and The Hague; many people choose to party on the preceding night, Koninginnenacht. The colour orange is prominent, symbolising the House of Orange, from which the Dutch royal family is descended.

Coffeeshops

Holland is famous for its tolerance, openness and practicality. Faced with the phenomenon of drug-taking in the 1960s, the authorities turned a blind-eye to small-scale dealing in 'soft' drugs, provided that it took place in regulated outlets known euphemistically as 'coffeeshops'. These are essentially small cafés which are allowed to sell small quantities of cannabis or marijuana to persons over the age of 18, for personal consumption. They are not allowed to advertise directly, but you can often work out which places they are by their style.