Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. The people here claim if you stand on a chair you can see all across their country. This is the Best of the Netherlands. Thanks for joining us. Traveling here, it's easy to see how the Netherlands is a lot like its people -- efficient, a good balance of old and new, hard work and fun, innovation and tradition. Even with a dense population and an ongoing battle with the sea, the Dutch are warm and even-keeled. We'll cruise through a mighty port, go for an old-fashioned sail, and visit the ultimate flower market. We'll marvel at Dutch masters, smoke some eels, pull out all the stops on an unforgettable organ, and start up a classic windmill. In the west of Europe is the Netherlands, with 12 provinces including North and South Holland. Everything we'll see is within an hour of Amsterdam. We'll sail what was the Zuiderzee, blocked off by long dams, explore characteristic towns from Delft to Rotterdam and Haarlem to Marken, with lots in between. Most Dutch travel dreams are set in the area called Holland, and that's where we'll be spending most of our time. Like many fortified old cities, Delft, welcomes you with the twin towers of its city gate, graced by an old drawbridge and a canal moat. It's delightful architecture recalls the Golden Age -- the 17th century pinnacle of Dutch trade and sea power. Quaint scenes line intimate canals. It's Thursday, and that means market day in Delft. In towns all over the Netherlands, main squares become thriving markets one day a week. It's late June, and the Herring are in season. And every market comes with a cheesemonger, almost evangelical about the tastiness of Dutch cheese. Ask a question and you're in for an education complete with samples. This is young -- how young is this? Um, about four to six weeks. So, tell me about this one. Four and a half years old, hand-made and quite strong. We have -- sometimes is, we have them even older. I like that -- give me a glass of port and this is my dessert. Towering over the square is the church, with its brick steeple rocketing skyward. And facing that, overseeing the town's commerce as it has for nearly a thousand years, is the City Hall. Much of the Netherlands is built on soggy land. The City Hall, with its heavy stone jail, was built on the most solid land in town. The leaning church, just down the canal, not so much. The town's historic canals both drained the land and provided a transportation network for barges. Today, the old barges are retired -- many are permanently moored in front of cafes and restaurants for outdoor dining. Over the centuries, these little canals shipped out countless barge loads of the town's famed earthenware. Delftware is famous all around the world. Royal Delft, the oldest surviving workshop, established back in the 1600s, welcomes visitors to drop in and see how it's made. Visitors to the factory follow the process. First, the liquid clay is poured into plaster molds. When dry, it's removed and the seams are smoothed off. Then it's baked. And then, lovingly painted by hand. A mesmerizing scene unchanged for centuries. After being glazed to fix the paint, it's baked a second time during which the paint turns blue. That's the secret of Royal Delft Blue since 1653. The finished product -- this highly valued earthenware. Rooms of historic Delftware show off this art. This table setting is laid out as if it was the home of a wealthy person here in Delft. The Netherlands is small -- smaller than West Virginia -- and the most densely populated country in Europe. Most of the country is below sea level, reclaimed with great effort over many generations from the sea. That's why they like to say, "God made the world, but the Dutch, we made Holland." This is polder land. Much of it once covered by the sea, it was encircled by dikes and dams and then drained. To pump out all that water, the Dutch used one of their leading natural resources -- the wind. For centuries, the Dutch built windmills. Over a thousand survive, and many still work. Some welcome visitors interested in a peek at the clever engine that powered the creation of this land. I'm standing on reclaimed land, 12 feet below sea level. The challenge for the Dutch -- to keep this land dry by pumping water uphill. Many windmills used their wind power to turn an Archimedes' screw, like this, which, by rotating in a tube, lifted water up and over the dike. To catch the desired amount of wind, millers, like expert sailors, know just how much to unfurl the sails -- or furl them back, as necessary. Mills are built with sturdy oak timber frames to withstand the constant tension. These timbers have stood strong since the 1600s. When the direction of the wind shifts, the miller turns the cap of the building -- which weighs many tons -- to face the breeze. As he spins the winch, it all slides on these wooden roller bearings. Then, with a hefty chain, he anchors it in the correct spot. As the wooden cogs connect, wind becomes clean power, Archimedes' screw rotates, and the water spirals up. The Dutch had long eyed what was the vast inland Zuiderzee as a source of new land. This 18-mile-long dam was built as one of many steps in turning that sea into farmland. The master plan -- cordon off sections of the shallow sea with hundreds of miles of dams and dikes like this. Then, by draining each section dry, piece by piece, build a bigger country. These fields were once the bottom of that wide-open sea. Gradually, land was reclaimed, and today the Netherlands is twice the size it was 400 years ago. Because of this reclamation, what had been fishing villages on little islands -- like Schokland -- are now high and dry mounds rising above fertile farmland. Behind this sturdy stone-and-wood seawall, this tiny community once harvested the sea. In its day, this cannon warned visitors of a high tide. I'm standing below sea level. I know that because I picked up a handful of dirt and it came with some shells -- and this marks sea level according to the official Amsterdam measure, zero. Imagine, a couple generations ago, this buoy bobbed in the harbor. What was the bottom of the sea is now productive farmland. The salty seabed soil, with a mix of rain, sunshine, and clever crop rotation, eventually becomes extremely fertile. One thing the polder soil grows particularly well is flowers. And here at the Aalsmeer flower auction, it's clear -- flowers are big business in Holland. Visitors are welcome in this, one of the world's largest commercial buildings. They witness millions of dollars in the trafficking of flowers. In its auction halls, hundreds of wholesalers bid on trainloads of flowers as they roll by. To get the flowers out as fresh as possible, everything happens fast, including the bidding. A "Dutch auction" is speedy because the prices go from high to low. Batches of flowers are sold to the first buyer to press the button. Buyers must be lightning-quick -- it's the only way to sell so many flowers in one morning. Strolling the fragrant catwalk, it's fun to peer down on the action. They boast that fresh flowers go from cutting in the fields to flower shops anywhere in Europe within 24 hours. Workers scramble to get each buyer's purchase assembled on a train and shipped out. The Dutch are the world's leading flower exporters -- 80% of these flowers are going abroad. Every day from this building, 20 million flowers are shipped, destined to make someone's day. The industrious heritage of the Dutch people is evident in its many historic cities. Haarlem is a "Dutch masters" kind of town with plenty of 17th-century architecture. The town gate, no longer needed as part of its fortification, welcomes all into a delightful Old Town. Haarlem's market square -- traffic-free since the 1960s -- has been the town's focal point for centuries. The herring stand is a standard feature of small town squares throughout Holland. Hello, is it herring time now? Are these fresh? That's fresh, it's now herring season. -RICK: In the summertime? -Yeah, summertime. RICK: So, what are my options? The options -- outside of Amsterdam, they grab it from the tail and just slide it inside and they bite it. -And in Amsterdam? -In Amsterdam we cut it in pieces. Let's have it Amsterdam style. Yeah. Do you want onions and pickles with it? -RICK: What is the normal way? -With everything. -I'll have everything. -The whole package? RICK: The whole package. Beautiful. And this is actually raw? This is raw, it's marinated with salt. And then we eat it with the Dutch flag. RICK: So, this is a patriotic duty in the Netherlands. Is this -- people say this is a healthy thing to eat. It is. RICK: So, how do you say "delicious and healthy"? -Lekker en gezond. -Lekker en gezond. Yeah. -Raw fish. -Raw fish. Mmm, why not? This will make me a good man? You already are, but now you're better. [Laughs] Mmm! Lekker en gezond! To uncover some of Haarlem's sites, dodge bikes down narrow, characteristic lanes. Just down the street, Haarlem's top museum features the work of its most famous son, the great portrait artist Frans Hals. Here, in a room full of his masterpieces, we get a good taste of Protestant Dutch art. When the Dutch broke away from Spain and the Catholic Church in the 1600s, they established an independent Protestant republic. While this was great for freedom, it was a crisis for painters -- no more wealthy bishops and art-loving kings to commission grand works of art. Dutch society was a merchant society, and now artists worked for a new kind of customer -- Merchants. These are ego-boosting portraits of city big shots. They epitomize the independent and upwardly mobile Dutch of the 17th century -- the men who made the Golden Age golden. These Dutchmen worked hard and were proud of it. Here, some business leaders close a deal. They enjoyed displaying the fruits of their labor, like this -- an exquisitely detailed still life of good food. No preachy Madonnas or saints, but a canvas reminder that this household ate very well.