I was worried I might find the Netherlands insipid. Belgium I really like for its chips, chocolate and beer, its well-documented strangeness, and because a country that is more of a buffer zone than a country, with two tribes who hate each other and are incapable of sharing it obviously resonates with me. The Dutch have their flare-ups around race, immigration, Zwarte Piet and Geert Wilders, but compared to most it seems a sorted and grown-up place, quite bereft of self-importance and happy to live and let live. This may come from having been conquered by Napoleon and Hitler; had we been invaded since 1066, it might have done us some good. Here, you can walk into a shop and buy drugs as easily as a pint of milk, and treating people like adults appears to make people behave like adults (we ought to try it some time). Indeed, I appear not to have come back with any spectacular stories, but I have come back with a full appreciation of the pleasures of a country where everything works, and everything is remarkably easy.
The Netherlands is a condensed country. It is well-known for having a very high-density population; considering this, we saw very few high-rises. Its many cities are close together, achieved by not having any nothingness in between. You won’t be able to commune with wild nature or get away from it all, unless you deliberately seek out the very fringes. But you will notice that every inch of land is being put to use, made to earn its keep. It’s less a country and more a gigantic, co-operative field of allotments. The sense of civic-minded pulling together is everywhere; in the tranquil feel of the towns, where there seems to be a general agreement that everyone will cycle instead of driving, and in the habit of leaving your curtains wide open as you potter around at home in the evening (this is particularly alien to Brits, who would be ashamed of how little, or how much, they had). We visited five cities, and I think the longest train journey we had was around half an hour. Every route seemed have 6 to 8 trains an hour. Like most of Europe and so, so unlike Britain, you can turn up ten minutes before the train leaves and buy a ticket for around £5. There’s something slightly Chris Morris about the “naughty square” on the platform for smokers.
As is usually the case, you find that the clichés contain more than a grain of truth. Under that billowing watercolour sky the flat fields are separated by canals, their water at ground level, rather than hedges. Along the train tracks are regular bungalows or two-level apartment blocks. You see herds of cows everywhere and, it being springtime, some tulip bulb fields. Like a girl applying a very loud lipstick, the plain fields between Leiden and Haarlem will sometimes be interrupted by a slash of near-fluorescent hot pink, blood red or imperial purple.
Having cottoned on to the fact that all the historic towns look a lot like Amsterdam, and were certain to cost less and attract fewer idiots than Amsterdam, our base for most of the week was in Leiden. Known for its venerable old university, Leiden is an easily-navigable, perfectly-sized town which is very historic, very pretty, and seemed to have barely any tourism (it is no accident that Leiden is twinned with Oxford). I think it lives under the radar simply because there are so many well-known cities clustered together in the Randstad.
The very heart of Leiden consists of three chunks of land surrounded by canals without, and separated by a Y-shape of canals within. The walk in from the station takes you to the wide Beestenmarkt, the other side of which is Haarlemmerstraat, the main shopping street; although you pass a rather jolly big windmill, neither are that pretty (I suspect wartime damage) and the place feels provincial and slightly quiet, making you momentarily feel foolish for having apparently come to Ipswich on holiday.
Press on to the southern end of the centre and you will get Leiden at its best. Twisty cobbled alleys, tree-lined canal sides, merchant houses from the Golden Age, dramatic church spires, everything a tourist is looking for. Rapenburg, despite the name, is an outrageously attractive canalside promenade with a selection of great bars and cafés. I had a very happy Saturday night in Café Esperance, even though it was just us, the barman, and a couple of old men on barstools. De Boente Koe was very good too but perhaps too far in the other direction, as a group of students invited my girlfriend back to their place when I was in the gents’.
The main church is the C14th Pieterskerk, which although deconsecrated has not been much tampered with. It is medieval Gothic; a very high cruciform nave is all timber beams, with vaulting above the shorter aisles and choir, and one end enclosed by a cute outward-facing crescent of houses. The spidery candelabra and the calligraphed chunks of biblical text are familiar from London churches. The great Jan Steen is buried here, as well as the leader of the Pilgrim Fathers. Having fallen out with everyone in England, they moved to Leiden hoping to find some proper Protestantism, but found the Dutch far too lax for their liking- and the rest is history.
Having served Protestants, these churches are comparatively bare. There are a couple of surviving scraps of fresco and an interesting Last Judgment that managed to survive the waves of iconoclasm, and a startlingly gargantuan Renaissance organ.
The similar Hooglandsekerk is the other main church (although the centre also has a Baroque church with a big octagonal dome roof, and an odd late-Victorian Catholic church). This one has vaulting in the nave ceiling and its white walls and pale stone make it feel celestial inside. One wing still has pews and a pulpit but most of the church is big and bare, with the slabs on the floor all memorials to those buried beneath. Watching people walk around here really feels like stepping into one of those paintings from the National Gallery showing the dimensions of a big Dutch church, with figures using it as a sort of forum.
These churches are in the best-preserved historic spots; these and the canals are wonderful places to wander, and you’re never far from a good bar. It’s a compact centre but we never got bored.
Other churches that dominate the Leiden skyline are the Baroque Marekerk, with a huge octagonal brick dome, that we didn’t manage to visit, and the C19th Hartebrugkerk, a ponderous Catholic place with a capped grey tower and, oddly, a masonic eye in the pediment.
Old Dutch cities always have huge amounts of detail on the buildings; carved crowd scenes, engraved text, plaques or pictures. These very strongly reminds me of the historic bits in the City of London. When people argue that England is not a European country I do wish they’d try looking at a map of the world.
Leiden has a few museums, the best of which is said to be the National Antiquities Museum with an excellent Egyptology section. We only got round to seeing the Lakenhal, formerly the guild for cloth merchants. It has a small collection of Dutch masters; the first room has some pre-Reformation altarpiece paintings, a loaf that was turned to stone in a C14th famine when its owner refused to share (a good yarn, and no doubt an instructive one), then, quite inexplicably in the middle of all this, a waxwork of a Caribbean chap carrying a crucifix.
From the golden age of painting there is some Jan Steen, a very early Rembrandt (he was from Leiden, but didn’t stick around) and typically Dutch subjects like quack doctors inspecting bottles of urine. There’s also an explanation of the cloth industry, how the stuff was brought here for inspection and sale, which is less dry than it sounds. I was surprised to find that by far my favourite exhibits were the modernist pieces of stained glass. Some were simple Mondrian patterns, one was a vast multi-panel cartoon strip showing all the processes of a big business; in the lowest floor, the rough manual labourers in flat caps and rolled-up sleeves, followed by typists and bureaucrats at their desks and phones, the bean counters surrounded by piles of money, and in the top panels, the directors courting ladies in fur coats.
Another feature that makes Leiden a charming place to wander in is its wall poems; reflecting the internationalist outlook of the Dutch, there are around 100 poems painted onto the sides of buildings, from all over the world and each in its original language. There is Shakespeare, Verlaine, Camões, Cafavy, but also poems in Japanese, Arabic, and the odd apocryphal contribution by a joker.
From Leiden we made brief visits to Delft and The Hague. Delft has a very pretty centre heavy with old houses and canals. The name has of course been made famous by the blue-and-white ceramics, and it is much more geared towards mass tourism. Charming as Delft was and friendly as its people were, I’m not sure what it would have been like to stay here; where Leiden had student bars, Delft was more tea rooms for old ladies.
The two main sights are the Nieuwe Kerk and Oude Kerk (New Church, Old Church; they started building the New Church in 1381). As in Amsterdam, it costs a few Euros to enter the church, ironically since they’re all very spartan within compared to the treasure troves of Catholic countries; the point is probably that they need to charge tourists in the absence of a contributing congregation.
The New Church’s skyscraping belfry tower faces the town hall from across the market square, which -unusually- still hosts a busy market. Inside it is very tall, with a long nave and a long choir. The crypt, closed to the public, is still used as the burial vault of the Dutch royal family and the choir has a few memorials, including a Canova sculpture. Centre-stage is claimed by an elaborate four-poster memorial effigy of William I (“The Silent”), who won Netherlandish autonomy from the Spanish. I particularly liked the cherub skiing down one side.
As in Leiden, one church is dark brick and another pale stone, darkness and light. The Old Church feels like a Byzantine monastic complex in its irregular, two-headed, not-quite-cruciform shape. Like Hooglandsekerk it’s one of those churches I must have seen in so many paintings with tiny people strolling side-by-side, and it’s certainly big enough for it. Amongst the great many memorial plaques on the floor is a particularly plain one for Delft’s favourite son, the peerless Vermeer.
The stained glass is C20th, but nevertheless one of the most striking features. Its palette is rich and wide, telling familiar stories and less familiar ones (a Miltonian battle scene represents the liberation of the Netherlands at the end of World War II).
Looking at the New Church from the market square, to its right you will notice the twin spires of the Catholic church beg for some attention. This one is less on the tourist itinerary, but entrance is free and its vaguely Arts and Crafts frescoes above the arches are worth looking at; as is the bombastic pulpit.
The Hague is a different kettle of fish. Less of an iconic pleasure centre than Amsterdam, it is nevertheless an important city. Netherlandish capital for a long time, it is still the seat of government and monarchy. As your train pulls into the central station, it does so surrounded by skyscraper office blocks and I wondered if it was the seat of Dutch banking too. Some were an odd echo of gabled Dutch houses, some seemed like Brutalist housing after a makeover by New Look.
Walking around, the population looks poorer and more diverse. At Millwall we get quite a few travelling fans from The Hague and Rotterdam, former dockyard workers cut from the same cloth. The architecture is a bit more austere, even the old stuff. There are some interesting C18th government buildings that look a Dutch counterpart to 10 Downing Street. The squares and shopping streets we wandered in didn’t have the feel of a on-trend city, but there were occasional glimpses of a belle epoque past, like old covered arcades.
The Hague’s Grote Kerk has also been deconsecrated, and on our visit was in the humiliating position of hosting a fashion exhibition called ‘Fabulous Women: What Women Want’.
The two big tourist draws that we could see were side by side. One seemed to be the old parliament buildings, a succession of joined courtyards with a church and elaborate gilded fountain at the centre.
Another was the Mauritshuis, a painting gallery with interminable queues, that has a strikeforce of some of the world’s most famous paintings; Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and View of Delft, Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson, Fabritius’ Goldfinch (its fame reinforced by Donna Tartt) and Potter’s Bull. You can guess which one had a crowd five lines deep. I only learnt about the Bull from a documentary a couple of years ago. It is less famous now but in the C18th and C19th centuries was considered as damn near as the perfect painting for its detail and realism. At the time it was fairly bold to paint a fairly mundane subject to life-size scale, instead of Gods, heroes or battles, and you can indeed see the flies buzzing around the cowhide. As technology rips through the book and music businesses like a tornado, this made me reflect on what a colossal hit painting must have taken with the advent of photography.