THE DUTCH PROVINCES
|The Netherlands is divided into twelve individual provinces, each one boasting its own unique history, traditions, culture and dialect or language. Each province is also rightly proud of its regional Dutch food products, such as ginger bread from Groningen, mayonnaise from Noord-Holland, smoked sausages from Gelderland, sweets from Zeeland and mustard from Limburg. But despite their differences, the twelve provinces form an extremely tight unit together.|
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HISTORY OF THE PROVINCES
|When the Republic of the Seven United Provinces was declared in 1648, the first foundations of the provinces were laid. A few regions didn’t yet have the status of province, but were still considered part of the Republic because they were governed directly by the General States. These so-called ‘Generaliteitslanden’ included Staats-Vlaanderen (today falling under the province of Zeeland), Staats-Brabant and Staats-Limburg. In 1840 the province of Holland was divided into the two that we are familiar with today, Noord-Holland and Zuid-Holland. The newest province in the Netherlands, Flevoland, was only officially formed in 1986.|
THE COUNTY COUNCIL
The provinces form an administrative layer between the government and the municipalities and can govern on matters of a regional nature. The provincial government collaborates closely with the government, municipalities, water boards, regional businesses and other organisations and has an extensive range of responsibilities, including regional planning, traffic, environment, recreation, welfare and culture. The general administrative body of the province is the Provincial Council, whose members represent the entire spectrum of political parties and are elected once every four years in hotly contested regional elections. The members of the Provincial Council in turn choose the Provincial Executive, which forms an Executive Committee for the province and also elects the members of the Senate. The Queen's Commissioner is also an integral part of provincial government, but unlike the rest, is elected by the ministers and formally appointed by the Queen. The Queen’s Commissioner represents the government in the provinces and plays a pivotal role in the appointment of the mayor.
THE WEST AND THE RANDSTAD
When the Dutch speak of the ‘West’ then they are usually referring to the three provinces of Noord-Holland, Zuid-Holland and Utrecht. These provinces form the economic heartland of the Netherlands, where the headquarters of many large Dutch companies and multinationals are based. The province of Noord-Holland is home to Amsterdam, both the capital and the largest city of the Netherlands. It is not, however, the capital of the Noord-Holland, a title which goes instead to the charming town of Haarlem. It is often claimed that the people of Haarlem speak Dutch exactly as it should be spoken, without a strong accent or even a hint of dialect. Just outside Amsterdam is Schipol, one of Europe’s largest international airport hubs. The largest port in Europe and the fourth largest in the world is found in the modern city of Rotterdam, in Zuid-Holland. It is noticeable that almost as soon as you leave these big cities of the Randstad (as they are collectively known as), you immediately recognise the typical flat landscape, dykes and iconic Dutch windmills that the Netherlands is so famous for. And if you are lucky enough to be arriving at Schipol on a beautiful spring day, you will be treated to a truly spectacular view below you, of colourful tulip fields and shimmering fields of greenhouses.
Many historic towns are lovingly preserved in the West - in the bustling centre of Utrecht, for example you can enjoy a summers day relaxing in the many pavement cafes that flank the canals or take a leisurely stroll along the cobbled streets, lined by traditional Dutch houses. Flevoland, the youngest province in the Netherlands and also included in the ‘West’, is less than thirty years old, a fact made abundantly clear by the lack of older towns and villages. Most of the residents of Flevoland live in new, modern towns such as Almere and Lelystad and commute to the big cities of the Randstad to earn their living.
THE SOUTHERN PROVINCES
|The southern provinces include the provinces of Zeeland, Noord-Brabant and Limburg. The province of Zeeland achieved international notoriety in 1953 when a massive flood devastated the region, killing over 1800 people and countless animals and livestock. This disaster was the catalyst for the Delta Project, an internationally acclaimed project which implemented innovative flood barriers in the North Sea, to prevent a repeat of the catastrophe. Agriculture is the main form of industry in the southern provinces, although until the sixties, the mining industry also played an important role in Limburg. The mines closed when they were no longer profitable, bringing high unemployment to Limburg. The government responded with a stimulus package to encourage large public companies to move to Limburg, including ABP (a pension fund for civil servants) and DSM (a chemical company that emerged from the ashes of the mines). In Noord-Brabant industry is heavily centred around pig and poultry farming, although Eindhoven once housed the former headquarters of the multinational electronics giant, Philips, before it relocated to Amsterdam.|
THE EASTERN PROVINCES
|In the east of the Netherlands are Gelderland, Overijssel and Drenthe. The province of Gelderland is particularly known for its fruit production in an area called the ‘Betuwe’, and it boasts the largest national park in the Netherlands, the picturesque Hoge Veluwe. The province of Overijssel has a rich and prosperous history, particularly evident in the Hanseatic cities of Deventer, Kampen and Zwolle. Drenthe, has an abundance of sand and peat and the soils were mined for peat extraction and sold as fuel, right up until the mid-twentieth century. The heath land that formed on the sandy soils of the region were mainly used for sheep farming, but in recent decades, these moorlands have made way to verdant forests.|
THE NORTHERN PROVINCES
The two northern most provinces of the Netherlands, include Friesland and Groningen. The province of Groningen is largely agricultural with a tradition of wealthy landowners who built magnificent stately farms. The tiny workers' houses still found in this region today, reveal the enormous gap that once existed between rich and poor. West of Groningen is the province of Friesland, which enjoys worldwide fame for the Elfstedentocht (the Eleven Towns Tour), a gruelling ice-skating competition held on natural ice once every few years. In summer, the many lakes are a draw for sailing enthusiasts whilst tourists flock to explore the remote and breathtaking islands.