Royal The Hague, Den Haag in Dutch, is a fairly sleepy place. Despite being the centre of government, seat of the royal family, site of the International Criminal Court and home to the international diplomatic corps, The Hague has the feel of a small and provincial town. Those of my Dutch and non-Dutch acquaintances who live in either Amsterdam or Rotterdam think The Hague is a little ‘dull’, and frequently say so, while trying to convince me that I’d be happier living in either of those two cities.
Living here has its uses though. Recently, the daughter of one of my oldest friends was tasked by her primary school teacher to find out as much as she could about The Hague without using the internet. Subsequently, I received a dozen questions by email – which I think is technically using the internet, and therefore cheating – forcing me to do some research of my own. I didn’t use the internet either, instead I went to The Hague Beer Festival. Amazing what you can learn at a beer festival.
While trying to decide which of the 44 festival beers to sample, we got chatting to a man who appeared to have tried most of them. He was an investor in the Bronckhorster brewery and had clearly been partaking of some of his investments. He was happy to chat while we tasted some of the delicious Bronckhorster beers. I now feel like something of an authority on Bronckhorster beer, which is run by a Yorkshireman who has lived in the Netherlands for thirty years. If you enjoy craft beer I’d recommend a tour of the brewery.
As the beer flowed, so did the conversation about why we’d chosen to live in The Hague. Everyone, it turns out, has an opinion about The Hague; and The Hague, it turns out, is a bundle of contradictions, rolled into a paradox and topped by an enigma. All of which make the modern city fascinating.
This is the home of the government, parliament and the royal family, but Amsterdam is the Dutch capital. The Hague is considered to be a city, and is home to over half a million people. Yet, due to an administrative error in the Middle Ages, The Hague never received a city charter. This gives The Hague the right to call itself the ‘world’s largest village’. A title many of its detractors might claim to be well deserved.
When it comes to city status in this part of Europe, money talks. During the Medieval period when members of the nobility wanted to raise cash for yet another magnificent castle, they sold various ‘city rights’ to villages large and small. These gave them legal and trading privileges over other villages. For some reason The Hague never bought the right to call itself a city.
The absurdity of a village of over half a million people is matched only by the fact that the Netherlands has a city of only 40 people. Staverden received city status in 1298, presumably when they had ambitious expansion plans which never quite came to fruition. The mayor of The Hague visited Staverden a few years ago to plant a tree in recognition that the huge village and the tiny city had much in common – at least at an existential level where meaning and experience combine to form an absurd whole.
If all this wasn’t odd enough, this tale was told to me at a beer festival being held in a church. Not just any old church, but the very old and historic Grote Kerk. In a conservative culture with strong Calvinist undertones, you have to admire the Dutch approach to sin.
Still, you don’t need to visit a beer festival in a church to come across the unusual in Den Haag. Walking the typically upmarket streets provides plenty of opportunities to uncover a less serious, more subversive side to the city that is a village. The fact that you can walk down a street with a mermaid chalked onto the pavement by children, only to turn the corner and come across a gratuitously graphic piece of street art, or discover an advert in a window for a new range of fetish clothing, only adds to the joy of living here.
It has been nearly three months since we moved to The Hague and the city is starting to grow on me. It may have its critics, but the world’s largest village has a lot to recommend it.