Once the conquerors of the sea, windmills still dot the...

Once the conquerors of the sea, windmills still dot the landscape of Holland's polder country. Credit: Rick Steves Europe / Cameron Hewitt

Today my longtime Dutch friends, Hans and Marjet, are driving me to polder country -- the vast fields reclaimed from the sea where cows graze, tiny canals function as fences and only church spires and windmills interrupt the horizon.

On each of my visits, they show me a new slice of Holland. Hans catches me referring to his country as "Holland" and complains that many Americans call the entire country "Holland" when Holland is actually composed of just two of the 12 provinces that make up the Netherlands. But in defense of those confused Americans, I remind him that most of our cliched images of the Netherlands come from the region properly referred to as Holland.

The word "Netherlands" means "lowlands." The country occupies the low-lying delta near the mouth of three of Europe's large rivers, including the Rhine. In medieval times, inhabitants built a system of earthen dikes to protect their land from flooding caused by tides and storm surges. The fictional story of the little Dutch boy who saved the country -- by sticking his finger in a leaking dike -- summed up the country's precarious situation. (Many Americans know this story from a popular 19th century novel, but Hans says few Dutch people have ever heard of it.) In 1953, severe floods breached the old dikes, killing 1,800 and requiring a major overhaul of the system.

Landscape with tulips

We talk about all this while we are motoring into the country. It's amazing that about 10 minutes from Amsterdam or Haarlem, you can be in the wide-open polder land. It's early summer, and the landscape is streaked with yellow and orange tulip fields.

Hans points out a quaint windmill along a dreamy canal. Old mills like this were used to pump the polders dry. After diking off large tracts of land below sea level, the Dutch harnessed wind energy to lift the water up out of the enclosed area, divert it into canals and drain the land. They cultivated hardy plants that removed salt from the soil, slowly turning marshy estuaries into fertile farmland. The windmills later served a second purpose for farmers by turning stone wheels to grind their grain.

This area, once a merciless sea, is now dotted with tranquil towns. Many of the residents here are older than the land they live on, which was reclaimed in the 1960s. The old-time windmills, once the conquerors of the sea, are now relics, decorating the land like medallions on a war veteran's chest.

Several other Dutch icons came directly from the country's flat, reclaimed landscape. Wooden shoes (klompen) allowed farmers to walk across soggy fields. (They're also easy to find should they come off in high water because they float.) Tulips and other flowers grew well in the sandy soil near dunes.

We move on, driving past sprawling flower mogul mansions, then through desolate dunes. The tiny road dwindles to a trailhead. Hans parks the car, and we hike to a peaceful stretch of North Sea beach. Pointing a stick of driftwood at a huge seagoing tanker, Hans says, "That ship's going to the big port at Rotterdam. We're clever at trade. We have to be. We're a small country."

A queen who shops

Holland welcomes the world's business, but Holland is not designed for big shots. Hans explains, "Being ordinary is being prudent. We say, a plant that grows above the grains gets its head cut off. Even our former queen prefers to do her own shopping."

While Hans and I talk, Marjet walks ahead of us, collecting shells with the wide-eyed wonder of a 10-year-old. "Cheap souvenirs," Hans teases. One cliche the Dutch don't dispute is their frugality. Hans quizzes me: "Who invented copper wire? Two Dutch boys fighting over a penny."

The frugal Dutch are, at heart, pragmatic. In this era of global warming and rising sea levels, they're developing plans to upgrade their dikes and bulk up their beaches to hold back the sea. All this technological tinkering with nature reminds me of a popular local saying: "God made the Earth, but the Dutch made Holland."

Marjet scuffs through the sand, her pockets full of seashells, her scarf flapping in the wind like a jump rope. Under big, romping white clouds, everything's so Dutch.

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