Breda (pop. 170,000, with suburbs 200,000) is a major city in the South of the Netherlands. Its name is derived from brede Aa ("broad Aa"), referring to confluence of the the River Aa with the smaller River Mark.
The city is renowned for its beer (Breda Royal Beer and Oranjeboom) and is the place of origin of Mentos. Breda has the dubious pride of having the highest density of shoe shops in the Netherlands. It is also home to the Dutch Royal Military Academy (Koninklijke Militaire Academie).
Breda was first mentioned in the late 11th century as a direct fief of the Holy Roman Emperor. It received its charter of rights in 1252. Sold to John III, Duke of Brabant, in 1327, it was resold to John II of Wassenaar in 1350. In 1403 the heiress of his line, Johanna of Polanen (1392-1445), married Engelbert I of Nassau (1370-1442). Elevated to the rank of barony, Breda remained into the possession of the House of Nassau until the French Revolution.
When the Prince of Orange, René of Châlon, only son of Count Henry III of Nassau-Breda, died childless in 1544, his cousin William of Nassau-Dillenburg inherited all of his lands, including Breda. Now called William I of Orange-Nassau, (a.k.a. William the Silent), he went on to become the first stadtholder of the Netherlands, mostly thanks to his cousin's again, who had been stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht and Gelre.
In 1534, a huge fire devastated most of the city, leaving only 150 out of the 1500 buildings standing. The same year, the city's modest fortifications were greatly enhanced by by Henry III of Nassau-Breda, leaving Breda an impregnable stronghold in the line of fortresses in the Netherlands.
During the Eighty Years' War Breda was captured by surprise by the Spaniards in 1581, but in 1590 it fell again into the hands of Maurice of Nassau, thanks to a daring plan of Adriaen van Bergen (68 men managed to enter the city concealed under the turf in a peat boat).
The Spaniards came back in 1625 and besieged Breda for 10 months before it finally surrendered. In 1637 Breda was recaptured by Frederick Henry of Orange-Nassau after a four months siege, and in 1648 it was finally ceded to the Dutch Republic by the Treaty of Westphalia.
King Charles II of England (1844-1685) resided in Breda during most of his exile (1649-1660) during the Cromwellian Commonwealth and Protectorate, thanks to the proximity of his sister, Princess Mary, widow of Prince William II of Orange. The English Restoration was proclaimed through the Declaration of Breda in 1660. The Second Anglo-Dutch War ended with the signing of the Treaty of Breda in 1667.
In the aftermath of WWII, the only German war criminals ever to be imprisoned in the Netherlands were housed in one of the first panopticon prison in the world.
Breda is a nice city, though it is the overall atmosphere that makes its charm rather than individual sights. The 12th-century Beguinage (Begijnhof), one of the oldest in the Low Countries, is a good example of typical "neighbourhood atmosphere".
Between the railway station and the historical centre, the Valkenberg ("Falcon's Mount") is a park formerly used by the royalty to practise falcon hunting. The Castle of Breda stands nearby, surrounded by a moat, linked to the mainland by the Spaniards Gate (Spanjaardsgat).
No visit of Breda can be complete without seeing the Great Church of Our Lady (Grote of Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk), one of the most astounding Gothic churches in the country. It was constructed between 1269 and 1547. Its tower culminates at 97m. The Grote Kerk became a Protestant place of cult from 1637, which explains why its interior decoration is so sober.
How to get there
Breda is a major road hub between Belgium, Zeeland, Holland, and the East of the Netherlands. The E19 motorway links it to Den Haag (75km), Rotterdam (55km), Antwerp (55km) or Brussels (105km). The E312 (A58) motorway goes west to Bergen-op-Zoom (40km) and Middelburg (100km), and east to Tilburg (30km) and Eindhoven (65km). The E311 goes north to Utrecht (75km), then merges with the E35 to Amsterdam (105km).
There are frequent direct trains to/from Rotterdam (30min), Den Haag (55min), Tilburg (15min), 's Hertogenbosch (30min) and Nijmgen (1h). There are a few direct trains to/from Amsterdam (2h) and Utrecht (1h25min), but it is about 15min faster to go via 's Hertogenbosch. Trains to/from Brussels (1h50min), Antwerp (1h05min) or Middelburg (1h05min) require a change at Roosendaal.
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