Haarlem, Leiden and the Hague

Tuesday 7th October 2008, Amsterdam
Today we made another, more successful attempt to visit Haarlem. We finally worked out the transport system, how to pay, where to catch the bus and how to change. It seemed a long journey but it did take us right around Schipol international airport on the way, leaving us to change buses at the main terminal building.

The Dutch countryside is generally very uninspiring. Except for herons along the banks of the canals and a few cows there is nothing much to see. Factories, car showrooms and office blocks all looked really dull as we sped by in the dedicated bus lane that whisked us straight through every set of traffic lights to deposit us right in the centre of Harlem.

Haarlem is a very pleasant town of charming old buildings sporting typical Dutch gabled facades. Most date from Holland's "golden age", mainly 17th century. On the main square stands the huge, Protestant church of St. Bavo. In common with several other north European churches, around the base are stalls where fish and meat used to be sold. Inside, the floor is entirely made-up of gravestones and the vaulting of the high roof has painted decorations. The organ is huge and was once played on by the 10 year old Mozart and later by Händel. We were treated to a rehearsal as the organist prepared for a recital this evening. This is the first Dutch church we have been inside. Normally they are kept locked. Beautiful as it undoubtedly was, compared to the German flamboyant gothic it seemed very bare with little ornamentation or stained glass, thanks to the 16th century iconoclasts.

Organ (1730s) in the Great Church, Haarlem

Great Church and Market Square, Haarlem

Town Hall on the Market Square, Haarlem

In the square outside is a statue to Laurens Coster whom the Dutch claimed invented printing from moveable type long before Gutenburg. It is now accepted, even in Holland, that he did not, but the statue still stands. Nearby too, stands the house where he never lived with a plaque stating he was born there.

Coster monument, Haarlem

Although Coster was not a printer, Haarlem has a long tradition of printing and book production. Dutch bank notes are printed in the town by the Enschede company and in the past they used to have a comprehensive printing museum. They have moved premises since we were last here and for security reasons we now need a special invitation to visit the museum. We could probably have got one but it required advance notice. I was fortunate that the Royal Library in the Hague actually organised a visit to the printing works for me while I was here back in 1969. It used to be said in Haarlem that you could tell which bank notes the company were printing that day by the colour of the water in the canal running past the print works!

For lunch we went to Vroom and Dreisman, one of Holland's major department stores. On the 6th floor, overlooking the town, we had today's special Dutch treat of thick pea soup with chopped sausage and chunky vegetables. Outside on the street we found a cigar shop selling typical thick chunky Havana cigars, also a speciality of the Netherlands but not one we will try. I'm still living in hope that Ian will take me to a diamond merchant before we move on from Holland and buy me the ultimate Dutch treat, but I fear I will be disappointed.

View over Haarlem with the Great Church

Cigar shop, Haarlem

Our main reason for coming to Haarlem was to see the Frans Hals Museum, named after the Haarlem portrait painter from the Golden Age. Until the 17th century having your portrait painted was the prerogative of the nobility, but Haarlem traders and burghers became incredibly wealthy around this time, particularly those involved in the brewing industry, and it became both fashionable, and an outward sign of affluence to have your portrait painted. A number of Frans Hals works are displayed in the museum, but there are also works by other painters from Haarlem where over 150 artists were all working to meet demand during this period. They did not all paint portraits. Landscape paintings became popular, as did ships, sea battles, panoramas, still life works and of course, interiors of houses and churches.

Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem

Frans Hals group portraits, Haarlem

The paintings are displayed alongside furnishings, tiles and porcelain in a building that itself is worthy of a visit. Originally, around 1600, it was built as an almshouse for gentlemen, later it was an orphanage and finally it became the art museum. It stands in a street of similar properties – terraces of small, pretty, brick houses with their high stepped gables that look just as they did when Vermeer and De Hoogh were painting them.

We returned to catch our bus, weary but with a sense of a day well spent. On the bus we discovered the rain last Sunday had penetrated right into our rucksack and our passports were still soggy and tacky. Into the bargain, the SIM card in our mobile phone, which we carry for emergencies only, got so wet it no longer works. Let's hope we have no emergencies before we get home later this month and can buy something rather more modern.

Clever clogs, Haarlem

Wednesday 8th October 2008, Katwijk aan Zee
Tonight we are camped behind the sand dunes that shelter us from the breezes blowing in from the North Sea. Very nearby the Old Rhine reaches the sea. Its water is controlled by a sluice gate and is released at low tide. This is the original course of the Rhine which now reaches the sea at nearby Rotterdam.

We left the Amsterdam campsite mid-morning. It has been a useful stop for us but others at the campsite had complained of rats and last night Ian encountered one as well. I suppose in a country with so many canals and waterways they are inevitable but I'm glad we were in Modestine rather than a tent.

First we parked at the local library and spent time sorting emails and blogs so it was after lunch time before we found ourselves clear of the Amsterdam sprawl and heading towards Leiden.

I particularly want to visit Leiden having spent several weeks there in younger days. I remember cycling on a borrowed bike down to the sea at Katwijk so we headed here first of all in search of a campsite. This one is well appointed and very convenient for both Leiden and the Hague with buses stopping at the gate. So long as the rain behaves itself we should spend a happy few days here.

Having settled Modestine we walked through the dunes and along the sandy beach to the town. It is just a small seaside town catering for tourists. Since I was here it has changed and developed so that I cannot recall anything at all except the dunes.

It has been warm and sunny all afternoon so that when we returned to Modestine we were actually able to sit outside to enjoy our pre-meal glass of wine while Remoska busied itself in the tiny kitchen cooking us a very nice lasagne.

Thursday 9th October 2008, Katwijk aan Zee
We have had a really lovely day. The sun has shone and temperatures have been around 25 degrees. It's been one of the most enjoyable days for ages.

It started with a lazy breakfast outside, soaking up the sun. Today's Dutch treat was chocolate vla for breakfast. It's a sort of gloopy, cold, chocolate custard. None of your tiny pots here though. It comes in litre size packs and it's delicious.

We unpacked Hinge and Bracket and cycled into Leiden, about eleven kilometres away. The bicycle is boss in Holland. Cyclists take priority over cars and pedestrians. When you get out there and join them, you realise how complicated it all is. There are designated routes for bikes and motor cycles so you never need to cycle on the roads. They have their own sign posts, road signs and traffic lights system. We are not used to cars giving way to cyclists and obediently stop when the cycle path crosses the road, waiting for vehicles to pass. Dutch cyclists just keep going and drivers have to brake to let them across. This has already scared me as a driver and seems an incredibly dangerous practice. Small children will suddenly rocket across the road paying no attention to oncoming cars and we've seen nobody wearing a crash helmet.

That said, outside of the busy town streets cycling can be very pleasurable. There is no effort involved as it's so flat, and frequently the cycle routes follow alongside canals or through woodland. We've seen bikes, tandems, even trandems (for 3 people)! Alongside us on the cycle paths we have seen motorbike riders pushing friends on bikes and cyclists with their girlfriends on the rear luggage rack hanging onto motorbikes for a free ride.

In Leiden we left our bikes chained up near the windmill which is still in working order and a landmark of the town.

Windmill, Leiden

Leiden is to Holland what Oxford and Cambridge are to England. It has one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the Netherlands. The streets and canal sides are full of lively student cafes and everywhere seems to hum with activity.

University buildings, Leiden

Away from the very pleasant shopping centre there are many bustling canals criss-crossing the town, dissecting it into small districts of beautiful old canal-side residential properties, often dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. Many have potted plants and shrubs growing beside the front doors and little boats tied up on the canal outside. The larger canals are known as singels and these often have large, attractive old warehouse buildings alongside. There are also a surprising number of old barges, moored permanently and used as living accommodation. There must be hundreds of little bridges, some so low only the smallest of boats can pass beneath; others are humped up in the middle while many are swing bridges, opening upwards or sideways.

Canal side view, Leiden

Canal side view, Leiden

Bridges across one of the canals, Leiden

Canal side view, Leiden

Canal side view, Leiden

Canal side houses, Leiden

We have spent the entire day just wandering the maze of lovely streets, squares and canals. Along with Nancy and Wismar, both very different, we have decided Leiden is another of the stunning, unexpected gems of our travels. We have not been inside any of the museums simply because the entire town is a fascinating and beautiful museum and the sun has been so wonderful. Otherwise there is the National Museum of Antiquities, the City Archives and the art museum in the Lakenhal, the old Cloth Hall. This last has paintings by Leiden artists including those of the 17th century. Rembrandt was born and educated in Leiden but there are very few of his works in the city.

Outside the town gate, Leiden

Inside the town gate, Leiden

Lakenhal Art Museum, Leiden

Rembrandt was born on this square and educated at the Latin School – gabled building in the centre, Leiden

Town prison with enclosed gallery from where officials watched executions on the square, Leiden

There are several, huge, Protestant churches but they were all closed, including the Pieterskerk where Rembrandt's parents are buried, as too is John Robinson, the leader of the Pilgrim Fathers.

John Robinson and his followers left England in the first years of the 17th century to practice their Puritan faith more freely in Calvinist Holland, settling in Leiden. Encouraged by their leader, they eventually decided to sail to the New World. It was from Leiden therefore that their ship, the Mayflower, originally set sail, stopping off at Plymouth on the way. John Robinson did not go with them at the time and died shortly after, before he could join them.

John Robinson, leader of the Pilgrims Fathers, lived on this site, Leiden

Plaque commemorating the voyage of the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620, Leiden

From here the Pilgrim Fathers started their journey to the New World via Plymouth, Leiden

We peeped in at the botanical gardens with its hot houses and parkland. This is attached to the university and it was here that the very first tulips were grown in Europe. Some bulbs were brought back to Vienna by the Austrian ambassador to Turkey and given to the director of the botanical gardens of Leiden University. They grew so well in the sandy Dutch soil that soon they had taken Europe by storm. Different strains and colours were produced and people started speculating on new varieties. Soon bulbs were selling at astronomical prices until eventually the bubble burst and investors went bankrupt.

The tradition of bulb growing continues however, and it is just to the north of Leiden, in the Keukenhof gardens, that the vast tulip fields that fill the landscape with solid blocks of colour in April, can be found. Flowers are a major industry here. As we skirted Amsterdam yesterday we passed a factory with queues of huge container lorries going in and out, loaded with flowers destined for all over Europe. Near our campsite, beside one of the canals on our way home this evening, we passed acres of glass houses where carnations are growing under automated conditions. The Dutch seem to love flowers. People carry armfuls home through the streets, young men carry bouquets to meet their girl friends and very frequently we have seen people carrying a single bloom.

Count Ian feels at home, Leiden

We reluctantly dragged ourselves away and made our way back through the town and along beside the old Rhine to Katwijk. We have bumped into the Rhine, from source to sea, so many times in our travels now, and seen it in so many different moods, it has become an old friend.

Friday 10th October 2008, Katwijk aan Zee
We took the bus into the Hague today. It's by far the most convenient way of travelling as parking anywhere in Holland seems both difficult and expensive.

As we arrived at the main bus station in the Hague we passed the Royal Library, the National Library of the Netherlands. It is a huge, modern complex of glass and steel, built up on girders with the railway running through underneath! It is totally lacking in charm and advertises itself in huge blue letters across the front with the subtlety of IKEA, the main difference being that we were quite unable to find a way into the building, whereas at IKEA the difficulty is in getting out. It looks as if it is still in the middle of a building site, bur we were later reliably informed that it is operational and has been for a number of years.

Royal Library building with a high level railway line suspended beneath it, The Hague

It is forty years since I carried out my study placement in the Royal Library and in those days I recall it being housed in a beautiful old terraced building not far from the Royal Palace. Such is progress that we discovered today that, since our last visit, the Dutch Parliament has moved from its former home in the Binnenhof into a modern complex behind, the Royal Palace has been sold and turned into a modern Art Gallery housing the works of the Dutch graphic artist, M.C. Escher and all the neighbouring properties house various European embassies.

Art gallery, formerely a Royal Palace, housing the works of M.C. Escher, The Hague

It is not surprising I suppose that the city has changed so radically since we were last here, but it is something of a shock to see how huge and ugly it all is. Individually some of the buildings, such as the new town hall, have a certain merit, but they seem to have been put up without much though for neighbouring buildings and the result is a soulless mass of glass, steel and concrete devoid of pavements, people, shops or cafes.

Once clear of the Central Station area we quickly found ourselves in a city of an earlier age with the Binnenhof at its centre. Beside it there is a wide lake and the Mauritshuis, home to some of the most treasured Dutch paintings from the Golden Age. It was far less crowded than the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam so we were able to browse the paintings at leisure. We found several Rembrandt's, including the famous "Anatomy lesson" and a couple of Vermeer's works, in particular his "Girl with a pearl earring". There were renowned paintings too by Frans Hals, Jan Steen, Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony Van Dyck, Breughel, Paulus Potter, Hans Holbein and others. Seeing such familiar works displayed in a beautiful 17th century building is an exciting experience and something of a surprise to realise how small some of these masterpieces are. However good a facsimile may be in a fine art book, it does not make up for seeing, close up, the original brush strokes on the canvas, particularly dramatic in the case of Rembrandt's portrait of the blind Homer.

Courtyard of the Binnenhof, The Hague

The rest of the day we spent exploring the town. It is too big to see everything of merit in an afternoon and its architectural gems are inconveniently scattered around the city. The old town hall is a pretty, 16th century building with gables and mullioned windows, while the new town hall is an immense, glass building with a vast interior space crossed by white walkways at all floor levels. Certainly it is impressive but it must be the tallest town hall in the world!

Old Town Hall, The Hague

Inside the new Town Hall, The Hague

We were exhausted with walking by the time we caught the bus back in the late afternoon. We have decided smaller cities are far more rewarding to visit than the larger ones. It was good to see the Mauritshuis but I'd be in no hurry to return to the Hague again.

Back at Katwijk it had been another beautiful day. At 7.15 pm we watched as the sun sank into the sea beyond the dunes, leaving behind a sky more beautiful than any seen in the Dutch landscape paintings in the Mauritshuis.

Sunset at Katwijk