Cycling the North Sea Coast (III)

The difference a week makes.

August moved effortlessly into September and the hoards of tourists who had been inhabiting the North Sea Coast of the Netherlands suddenly, without fanfare, vanished. One day the cycle tracks, beaches and beach-side bars were buzzing with activity along this coastline, the next an eerie quietness descended. Where did everyone go? Alien abduction? Where is Sherlock Holmes when you need a ginormous know-it-all?

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Not that I’m complaining, fewer people is rarely a bad thing when you’re trying to enjoy nature. This is my first summer in the Netherlands so everything is still a little new. I hadn’t realised that such wondrous beaches existed in Northern Europe, let alone that hundreds of thousands of people would make their way here from across Europe to enjoy them.

Now though, the long decline into autumn and winter has begun; like birds heading south the North Sea’s summer visitors have migrated. The cycle tracks and beaches on the coast between The Hague and Haarlem to the north are much quieter; the beach-side bars that were host to a party crowd are closing, deconstructed and packed away until next year. Once again the coast is the preserve of local cyclists and dog walkers.

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Razor clam shells on a North Sea beach, Netherlands

Razor clam shells on a North Sea beach, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

I picked up my earlier route at Noordwijk and cycled towards Zandvoort on the coast, then inland to the city of Haarlem. The journey is, to say the least, picturesque. Passing through kilometre after kilometre of rolling sand dunes, I occasionally stopped to walk over the dunes onto wide sandy beaches with hardly any people on them. I imagine in winter, with a gale blowing, these beaches will be inhospitable places. On a sunny September day, they are glorious.

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Jellyfish on a North Sea beach, Netherlands

Jellyfish on a North Sea beach, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Arriving in Zandvoort is something of an anticlimax after the beauty of the journey. This is as close as the Netherlands gets to imitating the horrors of Torremolinos in the 1980s. At the height of the tourist season the beach can look like a seal colony, with thousands of people packed close together. Then there is the architecture.

There is a near universal truth that architects seem to lose their reason and sense of aesthetics when given the job of building by the sea. Almost every seaside town I’ve ever visited has been home to some of the most bizarre and fearfully ugly architecture known to humankind. My general theory is that architects, inspired by the liberating views of the ocean, do their drawing blindfolded. Zandvoort has not escaped this fate.

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

This isn’t entirely Zandvoort’s own fault. During World War II this area was considered strategically important, so the German Army built a series of fortifications here as part of the Atlantic Wall sea defences. To do so they first levelled around three kilometres of the town along the waterfront. Zandvoort had once been an upmarket resort with grand hotels and a wealth of beautiful buildings. By the time the German Army had finished, it had been devastated.

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Crossing from South Holland into North Holand en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Crossing from South Holland into North Holand en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

The beach at Zandvoort, Netherlands

The beach at Zandvoort, Netherlands

Amidst the general destruction of Zandvoort, the most iconic moment came when the the town’s ornate water tower was blown up. There is a grainy black and white photo capturing this moment on the town’s official website. Leaving Zandvoort behind I headed inland towards my final destination, Haarlem, which, as Harlem, has given its name famously to part of New York and numerous other places.

Snowman in summer, between Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Snowman in summer, between Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Haarlem train station, Netherlands

Haarlem train station, Netherlands

I often sing the praises of the Dutch cycling system, but the journey into the centre of Haarlem was poorly signposted and once in the town I did several circuits trying to find the train station. This at least gave me the opportunity to see quite a lot of this historic town, whetting my appetite to return and explore more thoroughly.

“Which would your men rather be, tired, or dead?” Echoes of Europe’s terrible past

When German Field Marshal Erwin ‘Desert Fox’ Rommel arrived on the Western front in 1944, he believed he had only months before the Allied invasion of Western Europe. Unsurprising then that he was dismayed by the failure of his predecessors to complete the Atlantic Wall defences which were supposed to repel the D-Day landings. He immediately set about building this giant defensive line along the coast from Norway to Spain.

The Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

The Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

The Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

The Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

He is reputed to have said to a subordinate tasked with the construction, “Which would your men rather be, tired, or dead?” Rommel’s forces faced insurmountable odds and he threw huge reserves of man power, much of it slave labour, and millions of tonnes of concrete and steel into the construction of the Atlantic Wall. The result was a vast string of defences running for thousands of kilometres.

The Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

The Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Anti aircraft gun, Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Anti aircraft gun, Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Gun, Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Gun, Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Most people thought France – Calais or Normandy – the likeliest D-Day landing site, but this coast is long and inviting to invaders (just ask the Vikings). Today the echoes of those feverish days in 1944/45 are still evident; Rommel’s defences are still seen all along the North Sea Coast. Some of the fortifications are preserved and open to the public, others cold, grey and silent reminders of Europe’s terrible history.

Cycling south I passed several well preserved sections of the Atlantic Wall, especially around the Hook of Holland. This entrance to the Rhine and gateway to the vital port and rail junction at Rotterdam was a major strategic asset; the German High Command were determined to defend it and prepared themselves accordingly.

Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Corridor in Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Corridor in Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

The major feature of the Atlantic Wall on this bit of coast is Fort 1881, as the name suggests built in 1881 following the Franco-Prussian War. In 1940 it was garrisoned by the Dutch Army and fell to the German advance across Western Europe. Germany held it until the British Army liberated the Hook of Holland in 1945. In 1940 the Dutch Government held its final cabinet meeting in the fort before the Dutch surrender. This strip of coast has seen momentous events.

Mannequin on the toilet! Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Mannequin on the toilet! Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Newspapers, Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Newspapers, Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Mannequin in Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Mannequin in Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Inside the fort two things are apparent: it is deceptively large (I must have walked a mile and a half); and it would be easy to get lost were it not for the numbered arrows pointing you in the right direction. Even then it’s easy to feel lost: at one stage I hadn’t seen or heard another person for quite a while and began to wonder if I’d taken a wrong turn never to be seen again. The silence was deafening. I wouldn’t want to spend a night locked in here.

Mannequins, Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Mannequins, Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Old sign in Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Old sign in Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Graffeti in Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Graffeti in Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Deep underground the air has a damp, dank smell and taste; it is humid and unpleasant. The endless silence is spooky, only occasionally broken by the sound of running water. When you’re underground that isn’t a sound that instils a sense of wellbeing. I started climbing up a set of steep stairs, eventually arriving with beads of sweat forming on my brow in the domed gun emplacement three or four stories up.

Mannequin in Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Mannequin in Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Corridor in Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Corridor in Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Parts of the fort are as they were in 1970 when it was finally abandoned; other parts have interesting (occasionally bizarre) displays involving some unconvincing mannequins. When I say ‘bizarre’ my benchmark for this is a group of mannequins in the surgery. There is no legitimate reason why the person being operated on should have his genitals exposed. There is even less reason for a Harry Potter look-a-like mannequin to be holding a pair of tweezers over said genitals.

Mannequins, Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Mannequins, Fort 1881, Atlantic Wall at Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Unfortunately, and for the Netherlands unusually, the museum is only labelled in Dutch. This is probably down to resources, this piece of European history is only open and accessible thanks to volunteers – even then it is only open for a couple of hours each day.

It was enormous fun and I can heartily recommend a visit; although the claustrophobic corridors and rooms won’t be for everyone. If you want to know more the website is www.forthvh.nl (only in Dutch).

Cycling the North Sea Coast (II)

The weather in The Hague, and all along the North Sea coastline that stretches to the north and south, can change in the blink of an eye. I’ve often looked out of the front window of my apartment and the weather is blue skies and sunshine; meanwhile, a peek out of the back window reveals dark and foreboding rain clouds. Its not so much that you can have four seasons in one day; more that you can have four seasons several times a day.

Run aground ship at the start of the cycle route leaving The Hague, Netherlands

Run aground ship at the start of the cycle route leaving The Hague, Netherlands

Beach near The Hague, Netherlands

Beach near The Hague, Netherlands

Beach mural, The Hague, Netherlands

Beach mural, The Hague, Netherlands

When the weather is changeable (when isn’t it?), timing and a slice of luck are all important to stay dry should you step outdoors. This was illustrated for me on my recent cycle south along the North Sea Coast to the Hook of Holland or Hoek van Holland (Dutch often seems like badly spelled English). The Hook is the spot where the mighty River Rhine emerges from deep inside Europe’s interior and empties into the ocean.

Beach on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Kite surfers on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Kite surfers on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

I set off in windy but sunny conditions. It only takes an hour to reach the Hook of Holland, but riding high on the dunes path into a stiff wind with little protection is still a struggle. I kept telling myself that at least I’d have the wind at my back on the return journey, little knowing that I’d also be racing a tempestuous storm in a desperate bid to avoid a soaking. Amazing how motivational massive rain clouds prove to be.

Kite surfers on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Kite surfers on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Cycle route and lighthouse, Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Cycle route and lighthouse, Hook of Holland, Netherlands

The journey down this stretch of coast is wonderful. Often you can cycle along the tops of the dunes with views over the beach and North Sea. While the journey takes you through beautiful sand dunes, the view to the south is dominated by the silhouette of the vast industrial complex at the massive port on the Hook of Holland. Giant cranes and wind turbines tower over the landscape like a metal forest; huge cargo ships can be seen from miles away.

Ships at the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Ships at the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

On the beach close to The Hague there are plenty of people walking, sailing and kite surfing. Further away from urban centres the people thin out and often the beach is empty but for the crashing waves and wailing seagulls. All the while I travelled along basking in the sun, but could see trouble brewing out to sea.

Despite being one of the most densely populated areas in Europe, once outside the city limits you can find yourself alone for longish periods of time. This is a car free route, but when you think it’s just you and the seagulls a party of enthusiastic and swift moving Dutch cyclists will inevitably hove into view. They do love to cycle in these parts.

Ships at the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Ships at the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Ships at the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Ships at the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

At the Hook of Holland itself you can stand on a white sand beach and watch enormous container ships sail out into the ocean bound for distant parts of the globe. It’s a mesmerising experience, one I enjoyed in the company of several dozen other people. The number and size of the ships coming and going along this section of river is amazing; sail a little further up river and you arrive in Rotterdam, still one of the world’s largest and busiest ports.

Beach and North Sea at the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Beach and North Sea at the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Cycle route and weather returning from the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Cycle route and weather returning from the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

I cycled a little further along and discovered a series ofWorld War II military installations. This was an important area to defend for the occupying German forces, and the vast Atlantic Wall defensive fortifications that stretched from Norway to Spain are visible here. I was lucky that many of the fortifications were open to visit…but more of that next time.

Cycle route and weather returning from the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Cycle route and weather returning from the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Cycle route and weather returning from the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Cycle route and weather returning from the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Deciding that the weather was going to become rough I set off back to The Hague. When I stopped to look backwards it was barely credible that I would remain dry. Terrifyingly large rain clouds loomed, while up ahead I could see the sun illuminating the golden sand of the beach and sand dunes. I cycled in a netherworld between the two and managed to reach home just before a tremendous storm hit. The rain was bouncing off the streets.

I made my song a coat … out of old mythologies

I was returning to the railway station after a successful day wandering the streets of Leiden when I noticed, painted high on a wall, William Butler Yeats’ poem, A Coat. After an afternoon exploring the ancient lanes and alleyways of this historic city the lines, “I made my song a coat, Covered with embroideries, Out of old mythologies, From heel to throat”, struck a resonant note.

Houses and canal, Leiden, Netherlands

Houses and canal, Leiden, Netherlands

SIgn for a bar, Leiden, Netherlands

SIgn for a bar, Leiden, Netherlands

Molen de Put, Leiden, Netherlands

Molen de Put, Leiden, Netherlands

Floating restaurant, Leiden, Netherlands

Floating restaurant, Leiden, Netherlands

This wasn’t the first piece of literature I’d seen painted on buildings. Perhaps fitting for a city renowned for learning, and teeming with students, there are literary quotations on walls scattered all across Leiden. It’s fun to walk around spotting Leiden’s ‘Wall Poems’, I came across five or six including poems from William Shakespeare and Syrian poet, Adonis. Enough to brighten any stroll as you explore the winding streets and broad canals.

Shakespeares Sonnet XXX on a wall in Leiden, Netherlands

Shakespeares Sonnet XXX on a wall in Leiden, Netherlands

Loss by Syrian poet Adonis on a wall in Leiden, Netherlands

Loss by Syrian poet Adonis on a wall in Leiden, Netherlands

Pop up restaurant, Leiden, Netherlands

Pop up restaurant, Leiden, Netherlands

Houses, Leiden, Netherlands

Houses, Leiden, Netherlands

Mackerel in the market, Leiden, Netherlands

Mackerel in the market, Leiden, Netherlands

Not that this city needs a lot of brightening. When I wasn’t passing down some ancient and narrow passage, probably used by pedestrians for hundreds of years, I was elbowing my way along streets crowded with people and extraordinary sights. All this activity was rewarded at the end of the day with a delicious Belgian beer in one of Leiden’s oldest bars, the Café de Bonte Koe (the Colourful Cow). If you find yourself in Leiden, don’t miss out on a visit to de Bonte Koe.

Women role playing in a shop window, Leiden, Netherlands

Women role playing in a shop window, Leiden, Netherlands

Coffee urn, Leiden, Netherlands

Coffee urn, Leiden, Netherlands

Mackerel in the market, Leiden, Netherlands

Mackerel in the market, Leiden, Netherlands

Music maker, Leiden, Netherlands

Music maker, Leiden, Netherlands

Whether it was the three people sat in a shop window playing out an 18th Century tea party (quite an odd sight); golden mackerel in the local market; crowds of people passing a warm day on a floating restaurant on one of the many canals; or an old music box on wheels playing a tune on a street corner, Leiden seemed to be going out of its way to entertain.

Stained glass window in Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

Stained glass window in Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

Old doorway, Leiden, Netherlands

Old doorway, Leiden, Netherlands

Bunting and bikes, Leiden, Netherlands

Bunting and bikes, Leiden, Netherlands

Yeats's poem high on a wall, Leiden, Netherlands

Yeats’s poem high on a wall, Leiden, Netherlands

“But now we are all, in all places, strangers and pilgrims, travellers and sojourners”

The City of Leiden has seen turbulent times and been a place of refuge for those fleeing turbulence. No more so than at the turn of the 16th and 17th Centuries. Wars were constantly raging across Europe; many driven by dynastic ambition, but many driven by religion. The established Catholic hegemony was being overturned by the Reformation sparked by Martin Luther, John Calvin and many other Protestant ‘Reformers’ in the early 16th Century. The predictable result was war and persecution.

St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

Memorial to the Pilgrim Fathers, St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

Memorial to the Pilgrim Fathers, St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

When Luther nailed The Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg in 1517, it marked the start of a new and bloody era of religious conflict. What Luther, Calvin and the English Puritans who turned up in Leiden seeking refuge wouldn’t have suspected was that, one day, one of their churches would house a funfair and a photographic exhibition featuring nudity. I looked but couldn’t find any money lenders.

St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

Funfair in St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

Funfair in St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden’s St.Pieterskerk is best known today as the church of the Pilgrim Fathers. In the area around it John Robinson’s group of English Puritans settled before they left Europe to found Plymouth Colony and establish New England. Robinson never made the trip to Massachusetts, he died in Leiden and is buried in St. Pieterskerk. I’m sure he’d be appalled that the church he knew so well was deconsecrated in the 1970s.

What he would have thought of the funfair we’ll never know. I suspect he’d have been secretly delighted. I was.

Memorial to John Robinson, St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

Memorial to John Robinson, St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

Medieval hopscotch? St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

Medieval hopscotch? St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

The connection between the Protestant nations and their religious and colonial history is everywhere in Leiden. The city became a hotbed of religious debate and was a tolerant sanctuary for Protestants fleeing persecution: the Huguenots from France, Puritans from England. Both nations were influential in the early development of European colonialisation in North America: New Netherlands and New England; New Amsterdam became New York.

It was to Leiden in 1609 that around 300 English religious dissidents fled hoping to live free from religious persecution. England was a Protestant country but many Puritans believed the Church of England, under the control of the monarch, had not been sufficiently reformed of its Catholic tendencies.

Organ in St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

Organ in St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

Grave in St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

Grave in St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

The English Church and Crown viewed these religious fundamentalists as a threat to the peace and stability. They had a point: England was a country coming to terms with a period of bitter religious persecution and bloodshed, and facing the very real threat of invasion and destruction from Catholic Spain.

Fearing the Spanish, the superpower of the age, England and the Netherlands regularly found common cause to protect their religion and sovereignty. They also regularly attacked Spanish ships returning from the Americas laden with stolen Inca, Maya and Aztec gold. While Spain sought to suppress Protestantism, it was also protecting its ‘trade’ with the Americas. A right granted to Spain by the Pope, an authority neither England or the Netherlands recognised.

Grave stone in St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

Grave stone in St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

Grave in St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

Grave in St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

From Robinson’s Puritans were drawn the Pilgrim Fathers who in 1620 sailed via England to found Plymouth Colony.

What is so extraordinary about this group of people is just how influential their gene pool has been throughout American history. Four US Presidents can claim their lineage to this group of English religious dissidents: Franklin D. Roosevelt, George Bush Sr., George Bush Jr. and current President, Barack Obama. More disturbing than this, much, much more disturbing, is the fact that Presidents Bush Sr. and Jr. share the same common ancestor as President Barack Obama.

St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

St. Pieterskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

These three Presidents trace their lineage to an English family, the Blossoms, originally from Little Shelford, Cambridgeshire. Thomas Blossom and his wife Anne settled in Leiden in 1609; they left for the New World from Delfshaven in 1620 on the Speedwell which was to join the Mayflower in Plymouth, England before sailing onwards. The Speedwell proved unseaworthy and the Blossoms were forced back to Leiden. They finally made it to New England in 1629 – luckily for at least three American Presidents.

Seriously America. Three Presidents related to a bloke from Cambridgeshire. It’s just not right. Sort it out…and someone double-check that Hilary isn’t also related.

Siege, famine and a wealth of history in beautiful Leiden

Leiden’s history is all incident and intrigue. Ancient battles were fought here, legendary thinkers and artists lived here, it was a global centre of trade, and the ghosts of Pilgrim Fathers and religious refugees still haunt the streets. History only tells you so much about a place though, and Leiden is so much more than just its dramatic history.

Oude Vest, Leiden, Netherlands

Oude Vest, Leiden, Netherlands

Catholic Church, Leiden, Netherlands

Catholic Church, Leiden, Netherlands

I had no expectation of Leiden when I got off the train at the city’s modern railway station, but it’s a beautiful, vibrant place with a selection of great bars and restaurants, museums and galleries. Well worth exploring and re-exploring (I’ve been back three times already). Walking south-east you quickly find yourself among ancient alleyways, crisscrossed by canals and overshadowed by three- and four-storey traditional buildings.

Leiden is quintessentially Dutch, with a grandeur close to matching Amsterdam. Which makes it all the more remarkable that it is largely a tourist free zone. Compensating for the lack of bewildered, map carrying day trippers doing battle with irritated cyclists, the streets are instead a haunt for the city’s students. Leiden has a population of around 120,000, of which 20,000 are students…every fifth person you see is a student. That must be some sort of record?

Houses overlooking the Oude Rijn, Leiden, Netherlands

Houses overlooking the Oude Rijn, Leiden, Netherlands

Cyclist, Leiden, Netherlands

Cyclist, Leiden, Netherlands

Molen de Put, Leiden, Netherlands

Molen de Put, Leiden, Netherlands

Apart from cluttering up the place, especially on a Saturday afternoon in summer, the students give Leiden a youthful vibe that makes it stand out from most other places I’ve visited in the Netherlands. Away from the main drag though, wandering narrow cobbled streets, you could think yourself transported back in time.

House on the Oude Vest, Leiden, Netherlands

House on the Oude Vest, Leiden, Netherlands

Canal and the University of Leiden building, Leiden, Netherlands

Canal and the University of Leiden building, Leiden, Netherlands

Boats and canal, Leiden, Netherlands

Boats and canal, Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden can lay claim to many things, but it is the university that defines it. Founded in 1575, the oldest in the Netherlands, over the centuries it has been home to some of Europe’s most important thinkers, including sixteen Nobel Prize winners. René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Hugo Grotius (founder of international law), Albert Einstein and a cohort of renowned Physicists, including Paul Ehrenfest and Enrico Fermi, all attend this ancient institution. Even John Quincy Adams, 6th President of the United States, was here.

Narrow house, Leiden, Netherlands

Narrow house, Leiden, Netherlands

Wonky door, Leiden, Netherlands

Wonky door, Leiden, Netherlands

The stellar gallery of alumni isn’t the most extraordinary thing about Leiden University though. That honour goes to the way it came to be founded. The university was given to Leiden as a reward for withstanding a brutal and bitter siege and famine during the Dutch struggle for independence from the Spanish. Europe didn’t do wars by halves in the 16th Century; Leiden’s siege was one of many that took place during the 80 Years War.

The Self-Sacrifice of Mayor Pieter van den Werf by Matthijs van Bree, 1817

The Self-Sacrifice of Mayor Pieter van den Werf by Matthijs van Bree, 1817

The Self-Sacrifice of Mayor Pieter van den Werf by Matthijs van Bree, 1817

The Self-Sacrifice of Mayor Pieter van den Werf by Matthijs van Bree, 1817

The Siege of Leiden began in October 1573 and, although it was lifted briefly in April 1574, only ended in October 1575. A level of suffering had been inflicted upon the population that defeats description. After months of siege with little or no food, conditions in the city were squalid verging on the pestilential. Thousands died as relief ships battled both the Spanish and the dykes of the surrounding countryside. The population clamoured for surrender.

Liberty - Plague and Famine During the Siege of Leiden by Erwin Olaf, 2011

Liberty – Plague and Famine During the Siege of Leiden by Erwin Olaf, 2011

A turning point, immortalised in Dutch art and literature, came when the Mayor of Leiden offered his own flesh as food for the population. In reality, fear of the Spanish probably prevented most from surrendering. Only months earlier the Spanish had slaughtered the population of Naarden as a warning to the rebellious Dutch. The same fate would almost certainly have awaited the good people of Leiden.

St. Pancraskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

St. Pancraskerk, Leiden, Netherlands

These were turbulent times. The new Protestant religion was viewed as heresy by the Catholic Church, which resolved to eradicate it. The French and Spanish did their best to oblige, but the lifting of the Siege of Leiden was a defining moment in the long slow decline in Spanish power. This defeat against the Calvinist Dutch proved to be permanent; confirmed a few years later when, in 1588, the Spanish Armada was destroyed by Protestant England. Europe’s religion and centres of power were changing.

Food market, Leiden, Netherlands

Food market, Leiden, Netherlands

Cheese at the food market, Leiden, Netherlands

Cheese at the food market, Leiden, Netherlands

Walking these streets today, Leiden’s history is writ large and you’re confronted with it at almost every turn. After all this is the birthplace of Rembrandt and is a city that attracted the most famous artists of the Dutch Golden Age. It is also where the first tulip to be seen in the Netherlands was cultivated and grown. An event which sparked a global craze for the flower, which traded for prices above that of gold and silver, and which would come to be one of the most recognisable symbols of Dutchness.

Food market, Leiden, Netherlands

Food market, Leiden, Netherlands

Morcilla sandwich at the food market, Leiden, Netherlands

Morcilla sandwich at the food market, Leiden, Netherlands

Tapas at the food market, Leiden, Netherlands

Tapas at the food market, Leiden, Netherlands

Don’t think of Leiden as a living museum though, it has a visible and youthful pulse. The many street-side cafes and floating restaurants are crowded with people on a Saturday. There is a thriving traditional food market, and I was lucky enough to wander into a gastro-food market in a square near the Pieterskerk. Seriously good food was on offer. I’ll definitely be visiting again.

The Fijnschilder of Leiden, art from the Golden Age

Amidst a selection of 15th and 16th Century religious art, Lucas van Leyden’s The Final Judgement is a charming piece to start a tour of Leiden’s Lakenhal museum. Completed in 1526-7, this ghastly allegorical triptych is full of terrified people being brutalised by all of Hell’s demons on Judgement Day. To get the full effect, you have to imagine the painting being opened to an unsuspecting audience to reveal it’s terrifying interior.

Off to one side the saved (some of whom are definitely looking a bit smug) are being herded away from scenes of carnage. The damned are being dragged kicking and screaming by diabolical creatures into the fiery pits of Hell – or in this case what looks like a huge fish/dog hybrid. They didn’t lack for overactive imaginations in the 16th Century.

The Final Judgement by Lucas van Leyden, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

The Final Judgement by Lucas van Leyden, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

The Final Judgement by Lucas van Leyden, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

The Final Judgement by Lucas van Leyden, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

The Final Judgement by Lucas van Leyden, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

The Final Judgement by Lucas van Leyden, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

The Final Judgement by Lucas van Leyden, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

The Final Judgement by Lucas van Leyden, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

One thing is certain, religious art of this nature was intended to induce terror in a largely uneducated, superstitious and already fearful population. I imagine it succeeded. In a world without science to explain natural phenomena the supernatural was very real in people’s minds. It hardly seems fair of religious authorities to terrorise people with the art of damnation as well. Ironically, come the Reformation, these Catholic paintings themselves had to be saved from Protestant iconoclasts.

The Final Judgement by Lucas van Leyden, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

Cheeky! The Final Judgement by Lucas van Leyden, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

The Final Judgement by Lucas van Leyden, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

The Final Judgement by Lucas van Leyden, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

Crucifixion by Cornelis Engebrechtsz, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

Crucifixion by Cornelis Engebrechtsz, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

Lamentation of Christ by Cornelis Engebrechtsz, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

Lamentation of Christ by Cornelis Engebrechtsz, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

The Lakenhal is home to Leiden’s finest art collection, and the building itself has to be included as one of the artworks. Formerly the Cloth Hall where Leiden’s world famous (in the 17th Century) textiles were inspected and valued, it opened in 1640 and became a museum just over 200 years later. It now houses a wonderful selection of art from the Dutch Golden Age, including works from Leiden’s 17th Century Fijnschilder school of fine artists.

Old Woman Reading a Book by Jan Lievans, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

Old Woman Reading a Book by Jan Lievans, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

Luxurious Still Life by Pieter de Ring, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

Luxurious Still Life by Pieter de Ring, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

During the Dutch Golden Age the arts flourished. Under the patronage of wealthy merchants and noblemen, Leiden nurtured the talents of Rembrandt van Rijn (or Rembrandt as we know him). Here Rembrandt worked alongside other influential artists like Jan Lievens and Jan van Goyen, although all three were to leave the city in the 1630s due to political unrest. Art and politics intertwined as ever.

They were to be replaced by the Fijnschilders led by Gerrit Dou, who had studied under Rembrandt before evolving his own distinctive style. He painted small scenes from daily life, rendered in fine brush strokes and extraordinary detail to produce a very smooth finish.

Herring Seller and Boy, by Gerrit Dou, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

Herring Seller and Boy, by Gerrit Dou, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

Housemaid with Oil Lamp by Gerrit Dou, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

Housemaid by Gerrit Dou, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

What is fascinating about many of these paintings is how risque they are; some are bawdy and some explicitly sexual. Not what you’d expect from a staunchly Calvinist bunch. I particularly like Jan Steen’s works; his paintings depict scenes from daily life that are full of intrigue and fun. Not one to shy away from the sexual, his The Indecent Proposal is loaded with sexual meaning, featuring a provocative baguette and a large cleavage.

The Quack by Jan Steen, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

The Quack by Jan Steen, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

Merry Couple by Jan Steen, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

Merry Couple by Jan Steen, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

The Inappropriate Proposal by Jan Steen, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

The Inappropriate Proposal by Jan Steen, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

Given Rembrandt’s association with Leiden – he was born and lived here – the museum doesn’t have many of his paintings. The Lakenhal only came into possession of its first Rembrandt in 2012. Today, two works are ascribed definitively to him: one a historical piece in which he painted himself into the background; the other, the wonderful Brillenverkoper (The Spectacles Seller). This small painting is Rembrandt’s earliest known work, and is full of colour and humour.

The Spectacles Seller by Rembrandt, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

The Spectacles Seller by Rembrandt, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

The Robbed Violinist by Jan Steen, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

The Robbed Violinist by Jan Steen, Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

The concentration of artistic talent in Leiden during the 17th Century didn’t come about by chance. The flourishing of the arts coincided with Leiden’s economic expansion and population growth. It became a boom town for the cloth trade and grew to be the most important and modern textile centre in Europe. Leiden became a byword for the highest quality fabrics across the ‘known’ world.

Spinning, Shaving the Chain and Weaving by Isaac Claesz. of Swanenburg, Lakenhal, Leiden

Spinning, Shaving the Chain and Weaving by Isaac Claesz. of Swanenburg, Lakenhal, Leiden

The Ploten and Combs by Isaac Claesz. of Swanenburg, Lakenhal, Leiden

The Ploten and Combs by Isaac Claesz. of Swanenburg, Lakenhal, Leiden

In the Lakenhal cloth was inspected for its quality and consistency, something critical to cementing Leiden’s textile reputation. Leiden cloth was known both in the Americas and in China, and the artistry and skill of Leiden’s weavers was in as much demand as that of its painters. No surprise that the two overlapped, the Lakenhal has several wonderful paintings depicting the cloth trade.

To learn more about the Lakenhall Museum and its collection visit lakenhal.nl/en

De Valk, life in a Dutch windmill

Windmills, simultaneously iconic and anachronistic, hold a powerful fascination. The De Valk (The Falcon) windmill in Leiden is a survivor. There were once nineteen windmills built on city walls of Leiden, grinding corn to feed the population, and De Valk is the only one to have made it into the modern age. Now a well preserved and informative museum, it is also the only windmill in the Netherlands to retain the original miller’s residence from the 19th Century.

De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

That it survived this long is something of an achievement. Built on the Valkenburger Rampart of the city walls, from where it gets it’s name, De Valk was originally constructed as a much simpler wooden ‘post’ mill around 1611. In 1667 it was pulled down and replaced with a bigger eight-sided ‘smock’ mill. Less than a century later in 1743 it was replaced again by the present brick-built ‘tower’ mill. Remarkably it took only two months to complete this final construction of De Valk.

Living room, De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

Living room, De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

Living room, De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

Living room, De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

Windmill painting, De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

Windmill painting, De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

Kitchen, De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

Kitchen, De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

As you walk around the building, you really are walking through four hundred years of history. The 1743 version of De Valk is big, inside and out. The base is 29 metres high; the top part above the wooden Reefing Stage platform another 14 metres; and the sails are 27 metres in length. Until 1869 this wasn’t just a corn mill capable of producing 1280 kg of flour daily – enough to feed 8000 people – it was also home to two families. There are nine floors, the bottom two given over to living quarters.

Stairs, De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

Stairs, De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

Flour sales board, De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

Flour sales board, De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

Climbing up the stairs out of the ground floor kitchen, the first floor was where the bedrooms would have been, but is now houses an audio-visual show. The higher you get in a windmill the rooms become increasingly narrow (and a little claustrophobic) and the stairs become ever steeper until, close to the top, they are almost vertical. In a functioning mill the millers would have had to go up and down these stairs dozens of times a day as the corn was ground – I don’t envy them that.

Flour chute, De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

Flour chute, De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

Steering wheel, De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

Steering wheel, De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

Above the first floor De Valk transforms itself from comfy home into a factory. When the sails of a windmill are going they generate a lot of noise and vibration; add to that the sound of grinding machinery and this cheek by jowl existence must have made for very noisy living arrangements.

The milling floor has a large chute in the middle, down which came the ground flour to be weighed and bagged. This is also the level where you can go out onto the Reefing Stage where the miller would have controlled the sails, changing their direction using the large wheel and adding or removing cloth from the sails depending upon how strong the wind was blowing. Today, you get panoramic views over Leiden.

Grinding stones, De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

Grinding stones, De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

Milling tools, De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

Milling tools, De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

Milling tools, De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

Milling tools, De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

Higher still are the grinding floors which are full of milling stones, ropes and pulleys, and all manner of old equipment. The very top floor is the smallest in the building, with some tiny windows providing a little light. It’s only at this point that the reality of going back down hits you. Looking down the very steep and narrow stairs is vertigo inducing…

Stairs, De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

Stairs, De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

De Valk windmill, Leiden, Netherlands

A journey through the beers of the Low Countries

I have a firm belief that you can tell a lot about a place by the craft which has gone into the noble art of brewing. The thought came to me as I sat in a square in Amersfoort sipping Gulperner brewery’s Korenwolf for the very first time.

Beer skills and recipes are passed down from generation to generation, enormous care is taken to find the perfect ingredients and pure water. Delicacy is exercised in the roasting, malting, milling, mashing, lautering, boiling, fermenting, conditioning, filtering and pouring. Beer becomes an expression of national identity. Think Guinness.

La Trappe Blond, sat beside a canal in Amsterdam

La Trappe Blond, sat beside a canal in Amsterdam

Korenwolf from Gulpener, cloudy and strong, tasted in Amersfoord

Korenwolf from Gulpener, cloudy and strong, tasted in Amersfoord

De Koninck and bitterballen, Plein, The Hague

De Koninck and bitterballen, Plein, The Hague

All of this is done so that someone like me can pull up a chair at an outdoor cafe in The Hague, Rotterdam, Delft or Amsterdam and enjoy a leisurely ale while watching the world go by or reading the paper. Over the years I have sought out or been introduced to the unusual, the delicious and occasionally the diabolical brew just to get a better idea of where I am. While not exactly scientific, I approach this task with scientific rigour.

Light and sweet Floreffe Blond, Abbey Beer from Belgium

Light and sweet Floreffe Blond, Abbey Beer from Belgium

Delicious and brewed in in the north of the Netherlands, tasted in Delft

Delicious and brewed in in the north of the Netherlands, tasted in Delft

In Bolivia this quest led me to chicha, the traditional fermented maize drink of Inca royalty, and Lipena, a Potosi beer made from quinoa; in Uganda, and Rwanda cloudy sorghum and millet beers were tested through straws; in Nepal, at a funeral, I drank something unspeakable from a bowl smeared with rancid yak butter. All of this I have done selflessly, so that the next person to pass that way may be better informed, and have time to learn the Nepali for, “Hold the yak butter”.

Gouden Carolus Tripel, tasting by Scheveningen harbour, The Hague

Gouden Carolus Tripel, tasting by Scheveningen harbour, The Hague

Microbrew from Ambachtelijke Brouwerij, tasted in Amsterdam

Microbrew from Ambachtelijke Brouwerij, tasted in Amsterdam

The infamous La Chouffe, tasted in The Hague

The infamous La Chouffe, tasted in The Hague

In that spirit I am delighted that the Dutch and Belgians know a thing or two about brewing. I’d go as far as to say they have probably mastered this finest of arts to a degree that puts most other countries to shame. Of course there are the standard fizzy lagers, typically Heineken or Amstel (hint, they taste virtually identical); but there are also Blondes, Golden, Dubbels, Trippels, Saisons, Witte, Bruin, Rood, and Trappist.

Then there are the glasses. Every beer in Belgium and the Netherlands has its own glass. These are as distinctive as the beer, and make the drinking experience that extra bit special. Glass size is also different. No pint glasses here, most beer is served in small measures. Admittedly, this is because a fair number of them are strong enough to stop a bull elephant in its tracks. Still, it’s the thought that counts.

Faithful standby, Leffe Brun, Tasted in The Hague

Faithful standby, Leffe Brun, Tasted in The Hague

Malty and dark Trappist beer, Westmalle Dubbel, tasted in The Hague

Malty and dark Trappist beer, Westmalle Dubbel, tasted in The Hague

Malty and dark Trappist beer, Westmalle Dubbel, tasted in The Hague

Malty and dark Trappist beer, Westmalle Dubbel, tasted in The Hague

Beer culture is more akin to that of wine in France, giving it a (thin) veneer of respectability. The range of ingredients, variety of flavours and different styles makes every tasting an adventure.

As does the chronic lack of glass hygiene. If the entire Dutch population is wiped out by a mystery disease it will be because glasses are ‘cleaned’ by dunking them in warm soapy water. Not washed, dunked. In soapy water. Soapy water that dozens of other glasses have also been dunked in. It won’t end well.

Steenbrugge Blonde from the Palm Brewery, tasted in Delft

Steenbrugge Blonde from the Palm Brewery, tasted in Delft

Honey-toned Speciale Belge Palm, tasted in Delft

Honey-toned Speciale Belge Palm, tasted in Delft

Palm Dubbel tasted in The Hague

Palm Dubbel tasted in The Hague

Fruity and hoppy, Brugse Zot tested in The Hague

Fruity and hoppy, Brugse Zot tested in The Hague

Since I’ve been here the weather has been good enough to afford plenty of opportunities to find a shady square, or crowded street-side cafe, in which to sample something different. This is normally accompanied by a bowl of the traditional Dutch snack, bitterballen, a deep fried croquette of indeterminate provenance. Very occasionally it is accompanied by an impromptu musical performance, and every now and then a grown man running around dressed as a rabbit.

Strong, sweet and tasty, Kasteel Blonde tasted in Delft

Strong, sweet and tasty, Kasteel Blonde tasted in Delft

Live music and a man in a rabbit costume in Delft, Netherlands

Live music and a man in a rabbit costume in Delft, Netherlands

Live music in Delft, Netherlands

Live music in Delft, Netherlands

What more could you want when circumstance can provide beer, music and a man dressed as a rabbit? Actually, the rabbit is probably a sign to order a coffee…

An amble through medieval Amersfoort

Beer, tobacco and cloth were the three pillars upon which Amersfoort’s vast wealth was built during the Dutch Golden Age in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Normally just the first of those things would convince me to visit somewhere, so it seemed like a good omen. The result of all that wealth is a town retaining a beautiful medieval centre with fine traditional merchant houses interwoven with canals.

History oozes from it’s narrow streets, ancient churches and peaceful squares. As if to underline the point, there are over 300 buildings dating from before the 18th Century and more than 400 buildings considered to be National Monuments by the Dutch Government. In a town this size, that is just overachieving.

Onze Lieve Vrouwetoren, Tower of Our Lady, Amersfoort, Netherlands

Onze Lieve Vrouwetoren, Tower of Our Lady, Amersfoort, Netherlands

Medieval town centre, Amersfoort, Netherlands

Medieval town centre, Amersfoort, Netherlands

In truth, Amersfoort is ridiculously picturesque, which explains why well over a million people visit every year – visitors outnumber residents by ten-to-one. Walking around the streets on a Sunday there was a buzz of activity with people eating in the squares and shoppers plying up and down the longest shopping street in the Netherlands. Imaginatively named Langestraat may be the longest but it is also an ugly reminder of modernity amidst Amersfoort’s historic splendour.

Medieval town centre, Amersfoort, Netherlands

Medieval town centre, Amersfoort, Netherlands

Medieval town centre, Amersfoort, Netherlands

Medieval town centre, Amersfoort, Netherlands

Doorway in medieval town centre, Amersfoort, Netherlands

Doorway in medieval town centre, Amersfoort, Netherlands

Amersfoort’s most striking feature, visible from all over the city, is the Onze Lieve Vrouwetoren, the Gothic Tower of Our Lady. At 98.33 metres it is the third tallest church tower in the Netherlands. Construction began in 1444 and was completed in 1470. Rising dramatically upwards at one end of Lieve Vrouwekerkhof, a lovely square where I had a terrible lunch, you can go up the tower for what I imagine are spectacular views – the only way to visit is on a 90 minute tour, we didn’t have the time or patience.

Onze Lieve Vrouwetoren, Tower of Our Lady, Amersfoort, Netherlands

Onze Lieve Vrouwetoren, Tower of Our Lady, Amersfoort, Netherlands

Medieval town centre, Amersfoort, Netherlands

Medieval town centre, Amersfoort, Netherlands

Following the Reformation, the Protestant authorities turned this former Catholic church to other uses, including as a storehouse for munitions. This explains why there isn’t a church attached to the Onze Lieve Vrouwetoren any more. In a highly predictable series of events, a massive gunpowder explosion flattened the former church in 1787. Only the tower was left standing.

Lieve Vrouwekerkhof, Amersfoort, Netherlands

Lieve Vrouwekerkhof, Amersfoort, Netherlands

Medieval town centre, Amersfoort, Netherlands

Medieval town centre, Amersfoort, Netherlands

The Onze Lieve Vrouwetoren may be the town’s most prominent feature, but its most wonderful historic flourishes are the medieval city gates, which guarded the entrances to the old city for hundreds of years. They look almost absurdly twee these days, a bit like they’ve been built by Disney, but these fabulous monuments date from the 14th and 15th Centuries. The most famous of the gates is the Koppelpoort, which protected the town and controlled trade.

Koppelpoort city gate, Amersfoort, Netherlands

Koppelpoort city gate, Amersfoort, Netherlands

De Monnikendam city gate, Amersfoort, Netherlands

De Monnikendam city gate, Amersfoort, Netherlands

The Koppelpoort gate sits on the old city walls, inside of which is the medieval heart of old Amersfoort, a small area crowded with narrow streets and canals. It makes for wonderful strolling, the feeling of being lost is always accompanied by the knowledge that you’re close to somewhere familiar. Away from the main tourist areas the streets are quiet, the walking a real pleasure.

House in medieval town centre, Amersfoort, Netherlands

House in medieval town centre, Amersfoort, Netherlands

Medieval town centre, Amersfoort, Netherlands

Medieval town centre, Amersfoort, Netherlands

Doorway in medieval town centre, Amersfoort, Netherlands

Doorway in medieval town centre, Amersfoort, Netherlands

In its heyday Amersfoort was home to 300 breweries which, for a town with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants as late as 1940, must be a record. The density of breweries may have contributed to the nickname of Amersfoort’s residents: Boulder Draggers. Legend has it that in 1661 the citizens of Amersfoort dragged the Amersfoortse Kei, a 9-tonne boulder, into the city to win a bet. Their reward was beer and pretzels but let’s face it, these people had been drinking before they accepted that challenge.

Beer tasting at Drie Ringen Bierbrouwwerij, Amersfoort, Netherlands

Beer tasting at Drie Ringen Bierbrouwwerij, Amersfoort, Netherlands

Rivals from nearby towns bestowed upon Amersfoort the mocking nicknames of Keistad (Boulder Town) and Keientrekker (Boulder Draggers). The inhabitants quickly tired of these titles and buried the boulder in an attempt to hide their shame. It was dug up and put on display in 1903; today the citizenry has reclaimed this proud, drunken history and built a boulder garden, with boulders on display from all over the world.

A boulder by the Flehite Museum, Amersfoort, Netherlands

A boulder by the Flehite Museum, Amersfoort, Netherlands

Just inside the Koppelpoort the Drie Ringen Bierbrouwwerij microbrewery, producer of several delicious traditional beers, is a reminder of Amersfoort’s historic association with brewing. The dragging of boulders after having a few in Drie Ringen isn’t to be recommended, but the Amersfoort boulder has been stolen several times in drunken pranks…