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.
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.