If you’re reading this because you are interested in visiting the Netherlands and its beautiful places, I’d advise you to pack your bags right now and get on the next plane as fast as you can. Do it if you’re happy. Do it if you’re sad. Do it if you’re anxious to see the unknown, and do it if you want to find a place to feel like home. Do it if you’re in love with someone or something, and do it even if you’re not: I doubt that lovely little country will fail to steal your heart before you even know it.
I know you’re probably thinking about some cliché things you’ve heard from the Netherlands (or Holland, whichever you prefer): legalised marijuana everywhere, the historically known red district in Amsterdam, canals, parties on boats and ladies wearing giant wooden shoes. It is my mission to let you know that the country is much more than just that; yes, of course you can still party on rental boats with your friends (don’t forget to take the beer!), but the thing about the Netherlands is that you actually can’t have a single idea of what you’ll find there until your plane lands. And I’m not talking amazing chocolate and fresh cheese (alright, maybe also that).
Firstly, let’s talk about Dutch people. They’re not just kind; they’re actually happy they can be useful to you. I’ll change my own name if someone ever comes to me and says a Dutch person was rude to them, because that simply doesn’t happen. Trust the Netherland to bear one of the politest, happiest, loveliest people you will ever meet in your life. And what beautiful smiles they have! So don’t be shy to stop someone in the middle of the street and ask for some information, for they will be more than happy to tell you (even in English) which way to your hotel or to that restaurant you read about on Yelp. Get ready to go out, explore and get lost, and be sure you’ll always have some Dutch help!
Also, the food. The. Food. If you love cheese and chocolate, Holland is simply a must, with its chocolate fabrics and cheese farms (they also produce chocolate there, don’t worry). And if you like food as it is, Holland is a must as well. No need to be a foodie or the owner of a food themed account on Instagram to enjoy the gastronomic pleasures the country has to offer. Picture this: a smoked salmon sandwich with fresh tomatoes and pickles and a glass of white wine to go with it, and all of that while you’re sitting by the sea enjoying the breeze and the sound of strange yet amicable words around it. Do you see what I mean?
And if you’re a cheese lover, do take a whole day to visit the cheese producing farms near Amsterdam. The most famous ones (and the best, in my opinion) are Henri Willig and Catharina Hoeve and, surprise! They make chocolate as well! So if you’re traveling with someone who’s not a fan of cheese (improbable, but it happens), no worries, for they can spend a lot of time tasting all the most delicious chocolate you can find in Holland, and all in the same place!
If you’re not impressed by Dutch people’s kindness and chocolate and cheese so far, now let’s talk about the best part in the whole trip: two wonderful small towns about 30 kilometres far from Amsterdam called Marken and Volendam. Yes, they are two different towns a few miles apart, with little more than a thousand inhabitants and a few goats, but trust me, these little lovelies will surprise you when you get there.
Marken is famous for its simplicity and for its beautiful Dutch-styled houses by the canals, which cross the whole town. There you can talk with real Dutch people, local people who make their lives of fishing and sailing, making the most amazing cheese and poffertjes you will ever taste. Oh, and do not, absolutely do not, leave the town without tasting said poffertjes: a traditional Dutch batter treat, they resemble small, round and fluffy pancakes with powdered sugar on top, which most people like to eat with Nutella, bananas, strawberries or blueberries, your choice. The lady I bought them from was one of the most adorable, kind (and probably the blondest) woman I’ve ever met on my life: she eagerly wanted to know where I was from, if I was enjoying my trip and what I thought of her country so far, all while she baked the poffertjes I had ordered in front of me with extreme mastery. I told her, watching as she poured chocolate and blueberries over the dessert, that I had never, ever dreamed that any place in the world could feel so wonderful, strange and homely at the same time. She smiled at those words, and told me the Netherlands had always been famous for feeling homely to people who were missing home, or who were after their own. Those were simply some of the wisest words I’ve ever heard on my life, so also wise up for #Dutchwisdom.
If you’re looking for some gifts to take back home, Marken is the place for it! Cheaper than Amsterdam, and with a great diversity of souvenirs, it’s very likely that you’ll find whatever you want there, from heavy coats made with sheep wool that you can wear during the cold European winter to snow globes showing small colourful houses covered in fake snow. And cheese cutters, obviously.
Now, you may fall in love with Marken after staying a good three hours there (that’s more than it takes to see the whole town), but you’ll never be prepared to what you’ll find in Volendam, just like I wasn’t. An old town tracked back to the 1400s, Volendam was entirely built by the sea, so you’ll be surrounded by the salty breeze, old fishing boats and seafood vendors wherever you go. Trust me and walk the city until you reach the harbour, and if you’re lucky enough to find yourself there during lunch time, I’d advise you to have a delicious, light meal by the sea outside a restaurant called De Lunch (remember the smoked salmon sandwich I mentioned?). They have the best service and very good prices, and after lunch, if you don’t find yourself entirely satisfied, you can always have another round of poffertjes (wink wink). After eating I’d advise you to take a stroll around the city as you feel you’re inside a Dutch movie and visit the stores that sell basically everything Van Gogh-styled, from high knee socks to handkerchiefs.
So this is it, everyone: forget Amsterdam, because Marken and Volendam (and its undeniable charms, of course) are the new sexy. Yes, of course, you can always have that bike stroll by the canals in the city if you want a good picture to post on Instagram, but trust me when I say those two small towns will stay with you forever, and you’ll eventually find yourself longing to return even before you leave them.
BONUS: yeah, yeah, we all know we're buying this at some point: