There's something beautiful about sitting in a European terrace cafÃ© on a chilled but sunny winter's day. Perhaps the cold air accentuates the warm aroma of the espresso, or is it the way the soft seasonal light plays on the faces of passing pedestrians?
I'm enjoying this moment of people watching in Breda, in the Netherlands. Situated in the southwest part of the country, Breda might not be a name that resonates like Amsterdam or Rotterdam do in terms of international recognition, but it's a great regional city that offers much to travellers willing to stray from Europe's well-trekked tourist trails. And it's not much of a detour to get here either.
Rotterdam, just 43 km distant, is only a 32-minute train ride to the north.
As I sit with my coffee looking on at scenes from everyday life in the Grote Markt, the cobbled market square which is Breda's heart, I can't help but think positively about the urban planners who allowed a modern city to evolve while ensuring the centre's historic character was retained.
With 1,60,000 inhabitants, Breda is a relatively large city, at least in Dutch terms. Strolling along the lanes that lead away from Grote Markt, I'm impressed by an extensive selection of shops, including the big chains and boutiques. Passing a snack bar, I'm drawn in by the metallic-fronted vending machines -- something I've seen only in the Netherlands -- that dispense warm food and I buy a croquette. I nibble on it as I window shop in the De Barones shopping mall, which hosts 55 stores, then nip back outside onto Breda's bustling but not overly busy streets.
Thanks to the city centre's `no motor vehicle' rule, noise and air pollution levels are low. The hubbub of conversations and footfall of pedestrians create a pleasant ambiance for exploring. I note that a good number of the shoppers have arrived on bicycles, a popular mode of transport here in the Netherlands. Is that due to the flatness of the countryside or the high level of environmental awareness among Dutch people?
Discover history by foot
I begin to walk towards the Grote Kerk, a medieval cathedral whose steeple acts as Breda's dominating landmark. Bredanaars, as locals call themselves, are proud to call their hometown a Nassaustad, emphasising historic links with the once powerful Nassau dynasty. The sculpted tomb of Count Engelbert II of Nassau, the Stadtholder-General of the Netherlands, dating back to 1510, is the most significant of several such memorials within the Grote Kerk.
Back outside, I notice that I've taken a meandering loop through the city and returned to the cobbles of the Grote Markt. It is easy to explore the attractions of Breda on foot, and that is one of its charms. I cross to the town hall, or Stadthuis, which faces onto the market square. A copy of VelÃ¡zquez's famous painting The Surrender of Breda hangs within the great hall.
The original is in Madrid's Museo del Prado and shows Dutch troops surrendering to Ambrosio Spinola's Spanish army on June 5, 1625.
Interestingly, Breda played an important role in the struggle for independence from Spain between 1567 to 1648. The city changed hands several times during that period.
Just a couple of minutes walk from the town hall, I reach the Spanjaardsgat, one of the legacies from that turbulent era. A series of defensive towers overlooking a moat, the Spanjaardsgat guards a gate to the city's castle.
Unfortunately the castle is not open to the public. Since 1828 it has been the site of the Royal Military Academy. Nevertheless, it is possible to walk outside the castle. Some of the best views of the castle are from the Kasteelplein, which hosts an equestrian statue of William III of Orange.
Napoleon stayed here in 1810, at the building now used as the Museum of Ethnology (25 Kasteelplein). The French Emperor, famed for petulance as well as his military genius, is said to have expressed disappointment at the cool reception given to him by locals.
Night life in Breda
That, however, is not a complaint I can echo. The previous night I'd visited a couple of the bars around the Havenmarkt and the atmosphere was pleasant. Breda is known for its nightlife and from Thursday until Saturday the streets become busy with rev ellers. The people in this region are proud of their sociability and cama raderie, and call the trait gezel ligheid. "People enjoy life in this part of the Netherlands," explained a local, in excellent English, during a conversation in one of the bars where music boomed and people swayed.
In a display that wasn't particu larly gezellig, I made an excuse while the night was still young so that I could head over to the Holland Casino. I'm not a gambler, as the croupiers probably noticed when I quickly lost my 20 gambling budg et, but I did want to take a look inside the plush casino, said to be Europe's largest in terms of space.
Opened in 2003, the casino occupies the site of an old monastery, making use of its exterior walls. It adjoins the ChassÃ© Theatre, a cultural and entertainment centre designed by Hertzberger, whose architectural style adds a dash of modernity to the edge of Breda's centre.
Though I didn't win on the casino's tables, choosing Breda as the venue for my city break was, at least, some consolation.
Stuart is a freelance writer who lives in London