I slept well for most of the crossing but woke early with a digestive system groaning under the weight of the unexpected quantity of food that I had forced into it at the eat all you can buffet and then at six o’clock there was a collective early morning alarm call over the ship’s public address system that announced that the ferry would dock in two hours time.
The ship was approaching Europoort which is an area of the Port of Rotterdam, the second largest city in the country, conveniently situated at the mouth of the rivers Rhine and Meuse and a network of delta channels. With a hinterland consisting of the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and part of France, Europoort is by certain measures the World’s busiest port and its strategic location on the North Sea and at the heart of a massive rail, road, air and inland waterway distribution system extending throughout Europe is the reason that Rotterdam is often called the ‘Gateway to Europe’.
After an unnecessary breakfast of last night’s stolen food that was tasty but only added to the heavy burden in my stomach there was an undignified charge to be among the first to disembark and negotiate passport control and customs before emerging into a car park and a line of coaches waiting to transfer us to Rotterdam.
Now we were in Holland, or were we? because for an outsider it seems that there is some confusion about the name of the country and although we tend to call it Holland it is in fact correctly known as the Netherlands. Holland is a region in the western part of the Netherlands and although the term is frequently used to refer to the whole of the country this is accepted reluctantly by many Dutch people in the other parts of the Netherlands who resent the mistake.
To make it even more confusing for a visitor, Holland (the region, not the country) is divided into two, North and South and are actually only two of the country’s twelve provinces. Oh, and North Holland isn’t generally called North Holland anymore – just Holland!
It seems that this is a bit of a touchy issue for many people both outside and inside the historic Holland. For some people it’s just plain silly to use an unofficial name for a country, while for others it’s completely insulting.
The Netherlands is an artificially created country mainly as a consequence of its geographical position on the major European political fault line that more or less follows the Rhine and separates France from Germany. It includes the independent states of the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland which are collectively a legacy of the old independent European state of Burgundy which ultimately failed to survive because of its vulnerable position lying as it did between the states of France and Germany (although not existing as we know it today until 1871) which from the fourteenth century onwards were always grinding horribly against each other. It has been created out of several provinces with little more in common than more or less related languages.
The Netherlands has always been made up of many different native cultures, many of which proudly exist even today despite ages of repression. Several of these cultures cover areas that extend well over the national borders and many Dutch people have a lot more in common with their neighbours in Germany or Belgium than they do with their compatriots in other parts of their country.
This is a very varied country, and for many people the word Holland is an insult when used in the wrong context. I made a mental note to be careful about this but considered it interesting that the Netherlands Tourist information website is called www.holland.com.
Between the tenth and sixteenth centuries, Holland proper was a unified political region, a county ruled by the Count of Holland and by the seventeenth century had risen to become a maritime and economic power, dominating the other provinces of the Dutch Republic. The province of South Holland as it is today has its origins in the period of French rule from 1795 to 1813 at a time of bewildering changes to the Dutch system of provinces which has more or less with a few later tinkerings shaped the modern Netherlands that we know today.
The coach left the car park and leaving the rather bleak and unattractive port area entered a confusing motorway system and soon ran into heavy Wednesday morning traffic and this shouldn’t have surprised us because the Europoort area is very heavily industrialised with petrochemical refineries and storage tanks, bulk iron ore and coal handling as well as container and new motor vehicle terminals and we crawled past the stark industrial landscape and the forest of wind turbines at an agonisingly slow pace.
South Holland is one of the most densely populated and industrialised areas in the world. With a population of over three and a half million and an area of only three and a half thousand square kilometres the province has the highest population density in the Netherlands, which itself (except for tiny Malta, which seems to have an awful lot of people living on it) has the highest population density in the European Union.
As a consequence traffic congestion is common and the busiest Dutch motorway just happens to be the A16 in Rotterdam so we just had to grin and bear it as the coach made slow progress towards our destination across unremarkable landscape of low lying rain-saturated fields criss-crossed by a network of drainage dykes and a few infrequent sightings of the windmills that we incorrectly but romantically continue to associate with the country.
The coach driver ran through a well rehearsed list of do’s and don’ts peppered with little quips – my favourite being an instruction not to stand up in the on-board toilet when taking a pee as this results in a waterlogged cubicle and then he settled down for the forty-minute drive to Rotterdam. When we arrived he ran through some useful information and he had plenty of time for this because there was a huge traffic jam all along the main roads and before we got off the bus he reminded us that traffic drives on the right hand side of the road in the Netherlands and to be careful getting off or else instead of sightseeing in Rotterdam we would be in hospital instead.