Friday, August 31, 2012

Guide to a year in The Netherlands

After a whole year in The Netherlands I've learnt a lot about the Dutch culture: I've improved my Dutch usage, I've got used to have dinner at 7ish p.m., I've managed to get through the day with just a couple of bread slices with peanut butter and chocolate strands and I've enjoyed lazy weekends in the sun having a chilled drink in a terrace or doing some picnic sitting on the grass. But besides everyday customs, celebrations are also a big part of every culture and I've been lucky enough to experience many typical Dutch celebrations: from carnivals to the Queen's Day and also a visit to some cheese market, a year can be very busy when it comes to traditions and celebrations. So, here's my own list of events and celebrations worth experiencing in The Netherlands. As I've never fully kicked out the student in me (and after a three years hiatus I'm going back to school next week) I'm starting in autumn, hope you don't mind!

AUTUMN

  • Open Monumentendag: not a celebration itself, but it is a great opportunity so soak up in culture for free. Most monuments in the whole country are open their doors for free during the first or second weekend of September.
  • 11 van de 11: On 11th November the south of the country celebrates the beginning of the carnival season. I had read about it on some travel guides and thought it was just an annecdote but in Maastricht it is actually quite a big street party with typical Limburgish music, silly costumes and beer, lots of beer during that day.
  • Sinterklaas: Dutch children receive their Christmas presents on 5th December from Saint Nicholas, a Santa Claus look-a-like, who comes every year from Spain in a steam boat and is helped by several servants called Zwarte Piet (Black Pete).
  • Christmas Markets: nowadays most cities have a Christmas market, even if it is a small one, starting already in November and selling all kind of christmas decorations and treats. Valkenburg, in the south of The Netherlands has a quite renowned Christmas market, which is held in caves.


WINTER
  • Oud & Nieuw: Old and Nieuw is the Dutch name for New Year's Eve. Most families stick to tradition and bake oliebollen on this day, a traditional Dutch sort of dumpling which can have raisins or be filled with custard cream. 
  • Elfstedentocht: Every year, as temperatures drop, Dutch people begin speculating whether this traditional skating race between eleven Frissian cities will take place or not. Sadly,climate change is making it harder year after year and the last edition was in 1997, as the ice on frozen cannals is not thick enough or doesn't last enough.
  • Carnival: the south of the country celebrates carnival with passion and Maastricht names itself the carnival capital of the country. Everything is closed from Friday evening until Ash Wednesday and everyone parties in the streets all day long. And everyone means everyone: students, children, families with babies and even oldies!


SPRING
  • Tulips in bloom: bulbs of every possible colour begin blooming in spring. On of the best places to enjoy them is the Keukenhof, a huge park dedicated to tulip-growing nearby Leiden ... I still have to go there!
  • Queen's Day: or Koninginnedag, as the locals call it. The whole country dresses in orange to celebrate the Queen's Birthday (it was actually the birthday of her mother, Queen Juliana). There are street parties in almost every town of the country and Amsterdam is probably the place to be. In the night before, known as Queen's night, there are concerts and parties in many big cities.


SUMMER
  • Cheese markets: hundred of years ago cheese markets the size of a cheese market defined the importance of a Dutch city. Nowadays, some cities still hold a weekly cheese market during the summer, but they're no longer an important trade centre but a touristy spectacle. Gouda, Edam and Alkmaar are some of the most popular destinations to spot Dutch people dressed in traditional costumes carrying cheese around, throwing it up in the air and weighting it just like they did centuries ago.
  • Tilburgse Kermis: acknowledged as the biggest street fair in the whole Benelux region, this street fair in Tilburg usually takes place in mid july and the streets are full of traditional and modern rides.
  • Summer festivals: festivals have become really popular everywhere in the last decade and now many important cities hold their own festival, even if most of the acts are usually unknown. Coast towns are probably some of the best locations to enjoy them.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, as there's always a lot going on in The Netherlands and no matter when you come to this little country there will always be something to enjoy. I hope that this little guide is useful for you if you ever plan to spend your holidays here or to move to The Netherlands. 

Do you know some other interesting events or celebrations? Some special sites worth seeing? Let me know about it!

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