The Netherlands is a country partly reclaimed from the waters of the North Sea, and around half of it lies at or below sea level. Land reclamation has been the dominant motif of its history, the result a country of resonant and unique images - flat, fertile landscapes punctured by windmills and church spires; ornately gabled terraces flanking peaceful canals; and mile upon mile of grassy dunes, backing onto stretches of pristine sandy beach.

A leading colonial power, its mercantile fleets once challenged the best in the world for supremacy, and the country enjoyed a so-called "Golden Age" of prosperity in the seventeenth century. These days, the Netherlands is one of the most developed countries in the world, with the highest population density in Europe, its sixteen million or so inhabitants (most of whom speak English) concentrated into an area about the size of southern England.

Most people travel only to the uniquely atmospheric capital, Amsterdam : the rest of the country, despite its accessibility, is comparatively untouched by tourism. The west of the country is the most populated and most historically interesting region - unrelentingly flat territory, much of it reclaimed, that is home to a grouping of towns known collectively as the Randstad (literally "rim town"). It's a good idea to forsake Amsterdam for a day or two and investigate places like Haarlem , Leiden and Delft with their old canal-girded centres, the gritty port city of Rotterdam , or The Hague , stately home of the government and the Dutch royals. Outside the Randstad, life moves more slowly. The province of Zeeland , in the southwest, is the country at its most remote, its inhabitants a sturdy, distant people, busy with farming and fishing and hardly connected to the mainland. In the north, Groningen is a busy cultural centre, lent verve by its large resident student population. To the south, around the town of Arnhem , the landscape undulates into heathy moorland, best experienced in the Hoge Veluwe national park. Further south still lies the compelling city of Maastricht , squeezed between the German and Belgian borders.

Though "Holland" is often used as a shorthand alternative name for the country, this is strictly speaking outdated; these days, although there are two Dutch provinces called North Holland and South Holland, they are separate entities. On the same note, it's common to call Belgium and the Netherlands "the Low Countries", and to use the abbreviation "Benelux" to refer to the neighbouring trio of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg

You're unlikely to come into contact with the police force . It's normally possible to walk anywhere in the larger cities at any time of day, though you should obviously be wary of pickpockets in busy places, and badly lit or empty streets at night. If you're detained by the police, you don't automatically have the right to a phone call, although they'll probably phone your embassy for you. As for drugs , people over the age of eighteen are legally allowed to buy five grammes of hashish or marijuana (less than one-fifth of one ounce) for personal use. Don't assume that the bar or café you're in permits dope-smoking; if in doubt, ask. Also bear in mind that the liberal attitude exists only in Amsterdam and the larger cities of the Randstad: elsewhere, public dope-smoking is frowned upon. Possession of amounts less than 28 grammes (one ounce) is ignored by police. All other narcotics - except fresh magic mushrooms - are illegal. Check out The Honest Cannabis Info Site ( www.thc.nl ). Regarding health, a pharmacy ( apotheek ) is the place to get a prescription filled; all are open Mon-Fri 8.30am-5.30pm. Outside this time there'll be a note of the nearest open pharmacy on the door. Duty doctors at the Centrale Doktorsdienst (tel 0900/503 2042) offer general advice about medical symptoms; otherwise head for the casualty department of any hospital ( ziekenhuis ).

The Netherlands is one of twelve European Union countries which have changed over to a single currency, the euro (€). Euro notes and coins went into circulation on January 1, 2002, with Dutch guilders ( ƒ ) remaining until January 28, 2002. You can exchange your guilders for euros in banks for at least a year after this date. Euro notes are issued in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 and 500 euros, and coins in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50 cents and 1 and 2 euros. All prices in this guide are given in euros correct at the time of writing.

The Netherlands is not renowned for its food , with local cuisine drawing heavily on a sober, potato-eating culture. But, tempering this, there's an enormous variety of ethnic restaurants, especially Indonesian and Chinese, and if you're selective prices needn't break the bank. Drinking , too, is easily affordable: sampling the Dutch and Belgian beers on ready supply in every region is one of the country's real pleasures.

Most drinking is done either in the cosy environs of a brown café ( bruine kroeg ) - so named because of the colour of the tobacco-stained walls - or in more modern-looking bars , usually catering to a younger crowd. Most bars are open till around 1am during the week, 2am at weekends. You may also come across proeflokalen or tasting houses , small, old-fashioned bars that once only served spirits - though most now serve beer and, usually, coffee - and close around 8pm. The most commonly consumed beverage is beer , usually served in small measures for about €1 (ask for een pils ); a bigger glass is een vaasje . From a supermarket, you'll pay about the same for a half-litre bottle. The most common names are Heineken, Amstel, Oranjeboom and Grolsch, though there are other regional brews and you'll also come across plenty of Belgian brands. Wine is reasonably priced; expect to pay around €3 for an average bottle of French white or red. The indigenous firewater is jenever or Dutch gin, served in small glasses (€1) and traditionally drunk straight; oud (old) is smooth and mellow, jong (young) packs more of a punch, though neither is very strong.