When foreigners speak of Holland, they often mention only those aspects for which the country has been traditionally famous, such as land reclaimed from the Zuiderzee, or Lake IJssel as it is called today, shiny sparkling lakes, windmills, clogs, sleek cattle in rich pastures, beautiful multi-coloured fields of bulbs, and friendly towns with many canals and churches.
They also remember women in national costumes who are forever cleaning their houses; men wearing wide fisherman's trousers and smoking clay "Gouda" pipes; young boys saving "Holland" by plugging holes in the dikes with their hands. Whil not entirely untrue, the reality is somewhat different.
It should be realised that "Holland" is not synonymous with "The Netherlands". The name "Holland" properly refers to only a small part of the 12 provinces into which the country is divided. The name "The Netherlands" dates from 1830, and designates the clearly defined realm of His Majesty King Willem Alexander. The name "Holland", often used by foreigners, but also Dutchmen, indicates a province of the present nation, which after a period of rebellion against the Spaniards, became independent in the late 17th century.
The Netherlands' constitutional monarchy was proclaimed in 1815. Later, in 1848, the country was given a new constitution, which established a parliamentary system of government.
Under this system all power derives from the nation. Voting in the Netherlands is a civil right for all Dutch nationals 18 and over. European Union subjects have full voting rights in the Netherlands at the local level. Non-European subjects will have active voting rights at the local level after having had residence in the Netherlands for a period of at least five years. The main legislative power is the Second Chamber (House of representatives) and the First Chamber (Senate). Nine political parties are represented in the Second Chamber, several with only one delegate. The main political parties are: Labour Party (PvdA), Christian Democrats (CDA), and Liberal Party (VVD).
The Netherlands is divided into 12 provinces, each of which enjoys a limited autonomy. The executive authority is the Provincial Council, of which the King's Commissioner is the Chairman (in the province of Limburg he is called the Governor). The 12 provinces are North-Holland, South-Holland, Utrecht, Groningen, Friesland, Drenthe, Overijssel, Gelderland, Zeeland, North-Brabant, Limburg and Flevoland.
Each province consists of several municipalities governed by elected municipal councils and with an appointed head known as a Burgomaster (Burgemeester). Burgomasters are appointed by and responsible to the Minister of Interior.
The Netherlands is a very densely populated country with more than 15.8 million inhabitants in an area of 41,532 square kilometres with 7,643 square kilometres being water. On average there are 477 people per square kilometre. The densest area of population is the region known as "Randstad Holland" in the west of the country, which comprises Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht, with an average of 1,000 people per square kilometer.
Approximately half of the country lies below sea level. The importance of water control systems becomes evident when one considers that 60 percent of the population lives in the low-lying parts of the Netherlands.
The Netherlands is one of the few nations whose territory has increased and still is increasing through peaceful means. To date some 550,000 acres of land (polders) have been reclaimed from the sea, giving the Netherlands 451 kilometres of coastline. The lowest point in the Netherlands is Prins Alexanderpolder at minus 7 meters. Here in the province of South-Limburg, the highest point is Vaalserberg at 321 metres above sea level.
With the exception of its gigantic natural gas reserves in the province of Groningen and in gas fields on the North Sea continental shelf, the Netherlands has a lack of natural resources and raw materials. The Dutch economy is therefore based on international trade and refinement of imported products. For this reason the Dutch economy is extremely open to and dependent on world trade. Much of the flow of goods into its ports is intended for transhipment to other countries, mainly other members of the European Union (EU). Rotterdam is therefore still the world's largest port. The dredging industry has become one of the most successful examples of Dutch economy. The Netherlands is, with its 70 percent share of the world market, leader in this type of industry. But other examples of Dutch trade are the dairy industry, offshore industry, electronic industry and flower export.
January 1 1999, the Euro was introduced as the common currency of the European Union (EU) member states and is now the official currency of the following Eurozone 17 countries: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain. The Euro currency is also used in Montenegro, Andorra, Monaco, San Marino, Kosovo and the Vatican. In 2002 the Euro replaced the Dutch Guilder. From that moment onward the Dutch Guilder was history after 675 years of existence.
Dutch is the only official language of the Netherlands, although several dialects are spoken. The Limburg dialect, spoken in the southeastern part, has a marked resemblance to German, whereas the dialect of Maastricht has a strong French flavor. English, German and French are widely understood by the majority of the Netherlands population.
The climate is characterised by its variability. Good and bad weather occurs in all seasons. At any time of the year, large changes in temperature can occur within a few hours. The weather is largely governed by the series of depressions that move from the Atlantic Ocean across northwestern Europe in an easterly or northeasterly direction so that the area experiences frequent southwesterly winds.
The average temperature varies from 1.2°C (34F) in January to 17°C (63F) in July and August; however, snow in the winter and extreme heat in the summer sometimes occur. Statistics show that Limburg has 130 hours more sunshine compared to the rest of the Netherlands. Also, annual rainfall is less.