The Netherlands is nearly the most densely populated country on the planet, but its cities are small. Visitors are surprised to find that Amsterdam has less than 800,000 residents. The Dutch population (16.5million) is dotted across the country in hundreds of small towns and villages. Most have green space all around them, water close by, and relatively prosperous residents who can restore old houses, employ good architects and develop attractive gardens. Consequently rural Holland is one of the prettiest places on earth.
So here are my top five, in no particular order:
This tiny village is set on the Spaarne River, in the farmland and forest between Amsterdam and Haarlem. Cafe Spaarndam dates from 1571. The village is also notable for the two late 19th century forts, and a statue of the mythical boy with his finger in a mythical dyke.
Muiden is made special by having a busy lock, a mooring for tall sailing ships, and Muiderslot, a restored castle on the waterfront. At Muiden a cyclist can sit by the lock with a beer or a coffee and admire the work others have done on their expensive hobby boats.
Broek in Waterland
In the middle of the most appealling (and most popular) riding area out of Amsterdam, Broek in Waterland has little wooden houses in lush gardens, and a church tower peeping up above the lake. A close call between this village and neighbour Zuiderwoude for inclusion in the list, but Broek has better cafes.
Weesp was razed to the ground in the 16th century by troops from Gelderland. You didn’t know Gelderland had a marauding army? Neither did I, till the information board in Weesp told me. Now Gelderland is a pleasant Dutch province surrounding the town of Arnhem. Weesp recovered from the setback, and now has a couple of church towers, a row of old windmills, a fort, and of course, cafes by the water.
Thanks to a certain well-known cheese, Edam is the most visited village on my list. It booms in summer when buses churn out tourists to see Cheese Market: The Show on Wednesdays at lunch time. But any other time it’s quiet and well-supplied with preserved buildings.
NOTE: My rule for this short list – a village had to be in Holland. ‘Holland’ is commonly used to mean ‘The Netherlands’ but officially ‘Holland’ refers to two provinces containing Amsterdam (‘Noord Holland’) and The Hague (‘Zuid Holland’). I limited myself even more than that – my favourite villages had to be reachable within a hour’s bike riding from central Amsterdam, so all are in Noord (North) Holland.
There are plenty of other candidates I could have included (Marken, Durgerdam, Baambrugge, Naarden, Abcoude…). I’d like to hear your suggestions. I’m always looking for an excuse to get on the bike for an hour.