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…

Electric art or the art of electricity?

Ugly, functional things exist in great numbers throughout cities – and I’m not just talking about rush hour commuters on London’s Underground. Modern life is full of bits of infrastructure squatting on corners, lurking overhead and hidden down cul-de-sacs. If not exactly blighting the landscape, these bits of metal and concrete are rarely things of great beauty.

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Cities couldn’t function without them of course: things like electricity substations are vital to the smooth running of daily life. Which may be one of the reasons why we, the inhabitants, stop actively seeing them. Their very ordinariness fading them into the background of the cityscape and the human psyche. We accept that modern life with all its wondrous advantages, comes with a few drawbacks – traffic wardens, call centres and city infrastructure. After all who could love the box in the photo below?

A normal electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

A normal electricity sub-station, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Across the world these grey lumps inhabit city streets providing essential services unremarked and unloved by people as they walk or drive past. Not so in The Hague. In The Hague they are the canvass for a large-scale art project which brings some joy and humour onto the streets.

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

It may seem a small thing amongst the many issues facing urban areas, but you can change the way a street ‘feels’ (and probably how people behave) with a little creativity and a paint brush. I’ve always suspected this to be true, but my experience in The Hague has convinced me that public art – in the widest sense – can make a difference.

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

City authorities in The Hague have approached the dilemma of the urban landscape by issuing would-be graffiti artists with officially sanctioned paint and brushes. The results speak for themselves – although these electric artworks only appear in some areas of the city, other areas continue to endure grey concrete boxes.

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Public art on electricity sub-stations, The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling the North Sea Coast

Life is full of surprises. The beauty and tranquility of the Dutch coastline near The Hague is one of those surprises. Rolling sand dunes stretch for kilometres north and south; wide, sandy beaches run as far as the eye can see; and colourful sailing boats flit across the grey-blue waters of the North Sea. You can see why this coastline has attracted artists over the centuries, including Vincent van Gogh who lived in The Hague for a year or so in 1882-3 and painted seascapes on this same bit of coast.

Meijendel Dunes, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Meijendel Dunes, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

North Sea Coast beaches, Netherlands

North Sea Coast beaches, Netherlands

Cycling through The Hague to the former fishing village of Scheveningen – now a slightly tacky seaside resort stuffed full of casinos, friet and mayo concessions and a bizarre mix of architecture – I joined the LF1 long-distance cycle route which runs for 310km along the Dutch North Sea coast and headed towards another former fishing village, Katwijk.

Lighthouse in Noordwijk, North Sea Coast cycle route, Netherlands

Lighthouse in Noordwijk, North Sea Coast cycle route, Netherlands

North Sea Coast beaches, Katwijk, Netherlands

North Sea Coast beaches, Katwijk, Netherlands

North Sea Coast beaches, Netherlands

North Sea Coast beaches, Netherlands

This stretch of coast is known as the Meijendel Dunes and is one of the most important coastal areas in the Netherlands. On a hot, sunny day it is breathtakingly beautiful. The rolling dunes topped with brushwood and wooded inland valleys are home to over 250 bird species and a variety of other wildlife, including roe deer, foxes, toads, frogs and the elusive Sand Lizard. Protected from the wind coming off the North Sea, the silence of the dunes is wonderful.

Meijendel Dunes, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Meijendel Dunes, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Meijendel Dunes, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Meijendel Dunes, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Meijendel Dunes, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Meijendel Dunes, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

The most unexpected sight amongst the dunes are numerous small lakes. Remarkably, these are a natural water purification system operated by Dunea, the water company which supplies The Hague. Water is pumped into these ponds from the Maas river and is allowed to filter through the sand for around two months. This cleans and purifies the water, which is then pumped from underground to provide drinking water to around 1.2 million people.

North Sea Coast beaches, Netherlands

North Sea Coast beaches, Netherlands

North Sea Coast beaches, Netherlands

North Sea Coast beaches, Netherlands

North Sea Coast beaches, Netherlands

North Sea Coast beaches, Netherlands

From Katwijk I continued alongside the North Sea towards Noordwijk, making occasional excursions on foot over the dunes and onto the beach before looping back towards The Hague. This area is hugely popular, and not just with cyclists. Over a million people visit the coast here every year, lots of them from Germany and Belgium. Despite the numbers, these seaside towns still have a pretty laid-back feel.

North Sea Coast cycle route, Netherlands

North Sea Coast cycle route, Netherlands

As you’d expect in a country renowned for being the world’s most cycle friendly, the LF-1 route is brilliant. Everything is well maintained, there are shelters, maps, signposts with distances and benches to rest on dotted along the entire route. Best of all though, the majority of the route is only accessible by bike or on foot – no cars are allowed – creating an unexpected tranquility. The Dutch know how to do cycling.

A love-locked heart on a Rotterdam quay

Illuminated in the bright sunshine, Rotterdam’s metal heart shone out like a brilliant red beacon pulling me towards it as I walked down the quay. I’m not sure why the whole ‘love locks’ trend has become such a big deal worldwide, but there is hardly a city left on the planet where people aren’t busily disposing of their unwanted padlocks as an alleged gesture of eternal love.

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

It’s such a big deal that the collapse of part of the Pont des Arts bridge in Paris was caused by the weight of padlocks. Padlocks attached by those who genuinely believe padlocking a lump of metal to an inanimate object equates to a meaningful romantic gesture. I feel uneasy, if not downright queasy, that the padlock has come to symbolise love for a whole generation.

Unless you’re into that kind of thing, it isn’t healthy to put padlocks and love together. I prefer Shakespeare’s interpretation of love, delivered by his greatest doomed romantic, Cleopatra:

Eternity was in our lips and eyes,
Bliss in our brows’ bent; none our parts so poor
But was a race of heaven.

It’s hard to imagine Cleopatra – a woman who, upon hearing of Mark Anthony’s death, killed herself with an asp bite – padlocking anything to a bridge. But maybe I’m just being a curmudgeon?

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Rotterdam’s answer to the Pont des Arts is the Lock of Love – presumably named after Dusty Springfield’s version of the Burt Bacharach-penned song, Look of Love - an art installation on the waterfront near Delfshaven. It was created by Dutch art collective, BLISS, and is made from heart-shaped steel welded together to form a larger heart-shaped seat.

It was officially ‘opened’ on – when else – Valentine’s Day, 2010. If you look carefully you can see the word ‘Bliss’ woven into the work; I couldn’t find the words ‘giant red cliché’ anywhere.

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Its location overlooking the River Schie and the harbour of Coolhaven is romantic and dramatic. A heart shaped hole in the back of the sculpture framing downtown Rotterdam, passing boats and the Euromast alike. The authorities probably remove them periodically, but it’s still strange that there aren’t many locks on the sculpture. Perhaps Rotterdammers prefer asps.

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Up above the streets and houses…Rotterdam’s Euromast

When you’re being rotated through 360 degrees nearly 200 metres in the air it’s possible to truly appreciate the transitory nature of life, and marvel at the extraordinarily flatness of the Dutch landscape. At the top of Rotterdam’s Euromast you can see for miles (even further in kilometres), the most striking feature is that there isn’t a single hill to be seen anywhere. Which explains why you can see all the way to The Hague some 30km away.

The views from the Euromast are spectacular: a perspective normally only granted to birds and pilots. Towering over Rotterdam’s many skyscrapers you get an unrivalled view of the city and you can finally see how all the waterways connect. The numbers speak for themselves: 185 metres high, 600 steps (it does have elevators), anchored by a concrete block weighing 1.9 million kilograms and views that stretch for 50km on a clear day. The Euromast wasn’t just constructed for views though.

Views over Rotterdam from the Euromast, Netherlands

Views over Rotterdam from the Euromast, Netherlands

Views over Rotterdam from the Euromast, Netherlands

Views over Rotterdam from the Euromast, Netherlands

Views over Rotterdam from the Euromast, Netherlands

Views over Rotterdam from the Euromast, Netherlands

Views over Rotterdam from the Euromast, Netherlands

Views over Rotterdam from the Euromast, Netherlands

Views over Rotterdam from the Euromast, Netherlands

Views over Rotterdam from the Euromast, Netherlands

When it was built in the 1960s it was a symbol of the new spirit of Europe, a post-war experiment in unity that sprang up after the cataclysm and horror of the Second World War. At that time, before the eastward expansion of the European Union to the former Soviet-bloc countries, the Euromast stood centrally in Western Europe and was meant to inspire hope for the future.

In the early 1960s the future seemed in doubt. The Cold War at its height, the Cuban Missile Crisis arrived two years after the Euromast was built, and with Europe physically divided by the ‘Iron Curtain’ European unity was a serious business. The Euromast is still pretty inspiring today, even if the politics of Europe have become retrograde in recent times.

Abseiling down the Euromast, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Abseiling down the Euromast, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Abseiling down the Euromast, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Abseiling down the Euromast, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Approaching from a distance, I could see what looked like string dangling off the side of the tower. Walking a little closer this turned out to be some people abseiling down from approximately 100 metres up the Euromast. Call me unadventurous, but that seemed like an unnecessary thing to be doing when you could be admiring the view instead.

Abseiling down the Euromast, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Abseiling down the Euromast, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Abseiling down the Euromast, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Abseiling down the Euromast, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Inside the base of the tower an elevator whisks you upwards at 4 metres per second, to a height of slightly over 100m; a few stairs then carry you up to the departure point of a rotating capsule which carries you up the Space Tower for another 85m, all the while giving you 360 degree panoramas over the city. It’s magnificent, although the person operating the rotating capsule had clearly seen it too many times – rather than drinking in the views he chose to read a book.

Views over Rotterdam from the Euromast, Netherlands

Views over Rotterdam from the Euromast, Netherlands

In the shadow of the Euromast, Rotterdam, Netherlands

In the shadow of the Euromast, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Views towards The Hague from the Euromast, Netherlands

Views towards The Hague from the Euromast, Netherlands

These days the Euromast is itself dwarfed by other, taller buildings around the world. The Beijing Radio and TV tower at over 400 metres has a restaurant higher than the Euromast; while, at 828 metres high, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai really does redefine penis envy. That said, the Euromast still sits in ‘heady’ company. While exploring the cityscape of Rotterdam from 185 metres in the air, I discovered the Euromast is a member of The World Federation of Great Towers.

If you’re not a member of that exclusive club you’re no one in the tower world…

The rotating viewing platform ascends, Euromast, Rotterdam, Netherlands

The rotating viewing platform ascends, Euromast, Rotterdam, Netherlands

On the waterfront…in Rotterdam

“Amsterdam, just without the tourists”, as one popular saying about Rotterdam goes. If true, it is also an Amsterdam where the historic buildings have been replaced by a futuristic city-scape. In truth, Rotterdam doesn’t feel anything like its more illustrious counterpart, Amsterdam’s narrow streets replaced by light-filled open spaces dotted with public art and modern skyscrapers.

Rotterdam is unofficially known as the ‘City of Architects’ and they’ve certainly been busy. It is also a green city, boasting more parks than any other in the Netherlands, which makes walking around a pleasure.

Witte House by Oude Haven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Witte House by Oude Haven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Oude Haven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Oude Haven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Oude Haven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Oude Haven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

A stroll around Rotterdam will, likely-as-not, bring you to the waterfront and the Nieuwe Maas river, which dominates the city’s history and continues to play a major role in daily life. Rotterdam’s story, like so much of the Netherlands, is intimately (and literally) linked to water. The building of a dam on the Rotte River towards the end of the 13th Century gave birth to Rotterdam; it developed into a fishing village in the 14th Century, but grew until it became the world’s busiest port in the 20th Century.

Oude Haven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Oude Haven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Wijnhaven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Wijnhaven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Rotterdam remains one of the largest ports in the world, and is still the biggest and busiest in Europe, with a whopping 440,000 tons of cargo, or approximately 12 million of those ubiquitous metal containers, passing through every year. Not that you’d guess it while admiring the tranquil scene from one the restaurants on the former wharfs overlooking the Oudehaven (Old Port).

Graffiti, Wijnhaven Rotterdam, Netherlands

Graffiti, Wijnhaven Rotterdam, Netherlands

Even though most of Rotterdam’s historic buildings were flattened between 1940 and 1945 – some 30,000 buildings were destroyed – down by the old docks its possible to get a sense of the 800 years of history that have flowed through the city. Even then, Oudehaven rubs shoulders with the modern and the innovative. Just behind the port lies the Blaak district, home to towering modernity and the pioneering Structuralism of architect Piet Blom’s Cube Houses. The old and the new seem to get along just fine.

Rederijhaven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Rederijhaven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Rederijhaven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Rederijhaven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Leaving Oudehaven behind, you can trace more of Rotterdam’s maritime history along a series of inner harbours and connecting canals between the city’s two famous bridges, Willemsbrug and Erasmusbrug. It is hard to imagine now, but this entire area was little more than a wasteland in 1945. Only the Witte Huis (Whitehouse) office building remained standing amidst the rubble. Somehow that seems fitting, the Witte Huis was Europe’s first skyscraper.

Rederijhaven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Rederijhaven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Boat on the Nieuwe Maas, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Boat on the Nieuwe Maas, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Erasmusbrug from the Nieuwe Maas river, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Erasmusbrug from the Nieuwe Maas river, Rotterdam, Netherlands

The Nieuwe Maas river is still plied by thousands of boats every year. If you want to see what the city looks like from the river, there are water taxis shuttling back and forth from one bank to the other, or to outlying suburbs and towns. Its worth the effort to see the city from the river, after all its the way most people have arrived here for hundreds of years.

Rotterdam from the Nieuwe Maas river, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Rotterdam from the Nieuwe Maas river, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Willemsbrug from the Nieuwe Maas river, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Willemsbrug from the Nieuwe Maas river, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Weird and wonderful, Rotterdam

Rotterdam comes as a pleasant surprise. The moment you step out of its futuristic Centraal Station (you could be stepping out of a spacecraft), you know you’re in a different kind of Netherlands. A walk through its interesting neighbourhoods only confirms that this is a city worth getting to know. Rotterdam receives a lot of negative press, and only a fraction of the tourism that Amsterdam and other Dutch cities get, largely because it doesn’t posses many of the beautiful traditional buildings that are such an iconic feature of the country.

Centraal Station, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Centraal Station, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Centraal Station, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Centraal Station, Rotterdam, Netherlands

This wasn’t always the case. There was a time when Rotterdam, the major industrial, shipping and commercial centre of the Netherlands, was full of beautiful and historic buildings. The city’s crowning glory was its Medieval centre. Sadly for Rotterdam, those attributes made it target number one for the German Luftwaffe at the outbreak of World War II. Refusing to surrender, the German airforce bombed military targets, the port, residential areas and the Medieval centre alike. The resulting firestorm did even more damage.

Not that things improved much for Rotterdam afterwards. Occupied by the German military it became a target for Allied bombing. One-hundred and twenty-eight bombing raids were carried out on the city’s port area, but quite often civilian areas were hit as well. In total the American and British airforces killed almost as many civilians as the Luftwaffe, and made just as many homeless.

Public art, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Public art, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Shop window Rotterdam, Netherlands

Shop window Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Rotterdam, Netherlands

This terrible history has left an indelible mark on the city, and turned it into a paradise for architects. Presented with a clean slate – and aerial photos make it clear, it was a very clean slate – Rotterdam chose to innovate rather than recreate the past. An attitude that values creativity in urban planning has given Rotterdam some extraordinary buildings. It has also bequeathed the city a wealth of public and street art (including the triptych of female forms above) and an edgy feel that is unique in the Netherlands.

Santa Claus with buttplug, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Santa Claus with buttplug, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Loekie Goes Loose, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Loekie Goes Loose, Rotterdam, Netherlands

A walk through the lively city streets towards WIlliamsbrug, one of the two famous bridges to cross the Nieuwe Maas river, took us down busy streets, past entertaining artworks (including the infamous Santa with buttplug) and eventually brought us to the legendary Kubuswoningen (Cube Houses to everyone who isn’t Dutch). A creation of the 1980s, elevated on poles the Cube Houses represent a ‘village within the city’, but they are also grouped and arranged like trees in a wood.

Cube House, Kubuswoningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Cube House, Kubuswoningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Cube House, Kubuswoningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Cube House, Kubuswoningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands

The houses are strangely beautiful from outside. Thanks to an enterprising inhabitant you can visit one of them and get a first hand view of life inside the Cube. These are definitely not homes for people with vertigo; some of the windows look straight down, creating a sense of falling that is deeply unsettling.

Cube House, Kubuswoningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Cube House, Kubuswoningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Cube House, Kubuswoningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Cube House, Kubuswoningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Deciding we needed to recover from the experience, we headed to the nearby Oudehaven, Old Port, where some outdoor cafes overlooked the water. As if to underline Rotterdam’s determination to make an impression – and to reinforce it’s reputation for the offbeat – we had barely taken our seats when an opera singer on a balcony above us burst into song.

Opera singer, Oudehaven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Opera singer, Oudehaven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

In the natural amphitheatre by the port it was glorious; it was then that I knew that phoenix-like Rotterdam was a place to which I was going to enjoy returning, time-and-again.