The Netherlands is a small parliamentary democratic constitutional monarchy in the west of Europe, between the North Sea, Belgium and Germany, and is known for much more than cheese, windmills, wooden shoes and tulips.
Its recorded history starts with the Roman invasion halfway through the first century A.D., but it had its heyday in the 17th century when it disputed hegemony of the Seven Seas with the English and the Spanish empires. In that period New York, parts of India, a series of forts along the African Coast and the Colonies in Indonesiaformed part of the vast Dutch Empire.
Though most historic town centers in the Netherlands date back to the Dark Ages, most building was done in the era of oversea expansion and in the nineteenth century when the industrial revolution started. In Amsterdam, Leiden or Utrecht you can see the big 17th century mansions once owned by the commanders of the Dutch fleet and those of the rich merchants who financed the wars with their overseas gains. They were the Dutch elite. They preferred small items of great value stashed away in their mansions over baroque palaces. Though the Dutch never were really extravagant and did not have a real court like there was in Germany, France and Spain, they were very proud of themselves. This can still be seen in the countless portrait paintings they commissioned. Many of the world's famous painters are Dutch, such as Rembrandt, van Gogh, Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer.
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