Madurodam, being Gulliver in a Dutch Lilliput

A sunny day in the holiday season is probably not the wisest time to visit Madurodam. I had no idea how busy it would be. After all, we live in an era of digital technology, and an open air attraction of miniature models of famous Dutch landmarks didn’t strike me as having mass appeal, particularly given the €17.50 price tag. I clearly underestimated the power of seeing the Netherlands in miniature, because Madurodam was absolutely rammed with people. Some of whom had travelled half way around the world to enjoy a form of entertainment that seems to be straight out of the 1970s.

Madurodam, The Hague, Netherlands

Madurodam, The Hague, Netherlands

Madurodam, The Hague, Netherlands

Madurodam, The Hague, Netherlands

Madurodam, The Hague, Netherlands

Madurodam, The Hague, Netherlands

In the same way that I’ve often wondered why people still go to wax museums to see dodgy statues of famous people, I found myself wondering who visits a miniature of the Netherlands when the real thing is just beyond Madurodam’s ticket booth. The answer, it seems, is everyone. Around 650,000 people visit Madurodam every year and, to be fair, it’s excellent. Even with the enormous crowds, it was hard not to suspend disbelief and become a child again.

As well as extraordinarily detailed scale models of the most famous structures in the Netherlands, both ancient and modern, there are mechanised boats sailing on canals, a functioning model of the Delta Works flood barriers, trains running around on tracks and model planes taxying to their gate at Schiphol Airport. The creative energy that has gone into making Madurodam so much fun is bewildering, and the artistry of the model makers is exceptional.

All the models are at a 1:25 scale of the originals, and bonsai trees add a further touch of realism. All of which means that you feel a bit like Gulliver in Lilliput – a giant who towers over a population of tiny people below. There are typical Dutch scenes being played out in almost every area of the park: you can see ‘people’ getting married in small churches, Alkmaar’s cheese market is watched by tourists, people read the paper sitting outside cafes in Amsterdam. All Dutch life is here, just in miniature.

The park is named after George Maduro, a Jewish member of the Dutch resistance. He was a law student at Leiden University, and a reserve officer in the Dutch cavalry, when Germany invaded the Netherlands. He fought in the battle for The Hague before being imprisoned after the Dutch capitulation. Upon his release, he joined the resistance and helped ferry allied pilots back to Britain. He was captured again and escaped, before being caught again. This time, as a Jew, he was sent to Dachau, where he died in 1945.

Madurodam, The Hague, Netherlands

Madurodam, The Hague, Netherlands

Madurodam, The Hague, Netherlands

Madurodam, The Hague, Netherlands

Madurodam, The Hague, Netherlands

Madurodam, The Hague, Netherlands

Madurodam, The Hague, Netherlands

Madurodam, The Hague, Netherlands

Madurodam, The Hague, Netherlands

Madurodam, The Hague, Netherlands

Madurodam was founded in 1952 by his parents to honour his memory. It’s privately managed by the Madurodam Foundation, which donates a sizeable share of its profits to children’s charities in the Netherlands. Maduro was from Curaçao, a model of the family home in the Caribbean can be found in the park.

We spent a fun couple of hours pottering around and counting the number of places we’d actually visited in reality. It turned out that we’d been to quite a lot of the places featured in Madurodam, but we spotted a few that hadn’t visited. Some have found their way onto the ‘to do’ list. I’d definitely visit Madurodam again, something I never thought I’d hear myself say, but it will be outside of the holiday season to avoid the crowds.

Madurodam, The Hague, Netherlands

Madurodam, The Hague, Netherlands

Madurodam, The Hague, Netherlands

Madurodam, The Hague, Netherlands

Madurodam, The Hague, Netherlands

Madurodam, The Hague, Netherlands

Madurodam, The Hague, Netherlands

Madurodam, The Hague, Netherlands

Madurodam, The Hague, Netherlands

Madurodam, The Hague, Netherlands

Madurodam, The Hague, Netherlands

Madurodam, The Hague, Netherlands

The impossibly fun Voorlinden Museum

I shouldn’t have been surprised, the Voorlinden Museum came highly recommended by several people. Even then, I can’t remember the last time I had even close to this much fun in a museum. It turns out that you can be an adult in a museum and end up feeling like a child in a candy store. The museum is owned by a wealthy Dutch industrialist and many of the works on display are from his private collection. That seemed a bit 19th century, and I was prepared to resent paying the entrance fee.

That's Not Me, Rodney Graham, Voorlinden Museum, Netherlands

That’s Not Me, Rodney Graham, Voorlinden Museum, Netherlands

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Ron Mueck's Couple under an umbrella, Voorlinden Museum, Netherlands

Ron Mueck’s Couple under an umbrella, Voorlinden Museum, Netherlands

Instead, it’s probably the best €15 that I’ll spend all year. The museum is less than a year old and has already established itself in the art world of the Netherlands – not a country lacking in great art collections. There has clearly been a significant investment in the museum. The story goes that owner, Joop Van Caldenborgh, couldn’t find a suitable gallery for his collection in Rotterdam or The Hague so decided to create his own.

In a nod to the size of his bank account, he didn’t just build a gallery, he bought an estate in Wassenaar, a very affluent suburb of The Hague. For your entry fee you can walk through the grounds to nearby dunes on the coast. The building that houses the collection and temporary exhibitions is essentially a large white box, subdivided into smaller white boxes. Constructing it from the ground up has meant some of the art has been built into the fabric of the structure.

Richard Serra’s sculpture Open Ended is the largest piece in the collection. A vast steel maze-like sculpture, like Doctor Who’s Tardis it seems bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. It’s one of many pieces that are both interactive and fun. Leandro Erlich’s Swimming Pool, is another example. From above, shadowy figures move beneath the water. Downstairs, through a bright blue opening, you become the shadowy figure beneath the water. It’s a fully immersive experience, if you’ll excuse the pun.

Ron Mueck’s Couple Under an Umbrella reminded me of his extraordinary sculpture, Ghost, which I saw at the Tate in Liverpool. Both sculptures have the power to unsettle and unnerve the viewer. Ghost is an oversized teenage girl in a swimming costume, she looks self conscious and uncomfortable … and that’s how you feel looking at her. Couple Under an Umbrella is more touching, the two figures clearly loving. Yet it still makes you feel voyeuristic. The massive size and hyperrealism are a powerful combination.

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

That's Not Me, Rodney Graham, Voorlinden Museum, Netherlands

That’s Not Me, Rodney Graham, Voorlinden Museum, Netherlands

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

I’d never seen Rodney Graham’s work before, where the artist adopts various disguises and takes centre stage in giant back-lit photographic installations. In That’s Not Me he takes on various identities: a chef smoking a cigarette, a lighthouse keeper reading a book, or an artist painting. It’s not the scenarios in the photographs that are most interesting though, it’s more the technique he uses to make them. The images almost literally leap off the wall.

Amongst other fun pieces is a table filled with alarm clocks. Their soft ticking turns to a jarring cacophony of noise as alarms go off simultaneously, a reminder that our modern relationship with time is not always healthy. Elsewhere, a Buddhist statue stares at itself in a mirror, a dandelion weed grows in a crack between floor and wall, a full-sized wooden shack has water pouring through its roof. Not to forget Skyspace, a room with a hole in the roof and LED lights that change your perception of the sky outside.

A visit to Voorlinden might cost €15, but I’ll be going back.

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

That's Not Me, Rodney Graham, Voorlinden Museum, Netherlands

That’s Not Me, Rodney Graham, Voorlinden Museum, Netherlands

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Painting the town red, blue and yellow – 100 years of De Stijl

Something unusual has been happening in The Hague this year. I’m not sure when I first noticed the red, blue and yellow blocks of colour that have appeared around the city, but the whole place is covered in them. It’s a bit like state-sponsored graffiti. They can be found on the side of buildings and on mannequins in shop windows. Even the piano that sits in the middle of Den Haag Centraal train station is decorated in red, yellow and blue. It’s like a secret code written in full public view.

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

This is not the work of a very determined street artist though. Instead, it’s a cunning and eye-catching promotional campaign by the city government of the instantly recognisable work of Dutch artist, Piet Mondrian. His famous straight black lines and red, yellow and blue blocks of colour have been splashed across the city as part of a year-long celebration of De Stijl – The Style – artistic movement, which Mondrian co-founded along with several others in 1917.

The Hague’s Gemeentemuseum is displaying more than 300 artworks in a blockbuster Discovery of Mondrian exhibition; itself part of a nation-wide exploration of the artist and De Stijl, Mondrian to Dutch Design: 100 years of de Stijl. The whole city appears to be participating in the celebration, and trademark Mondrian designs can be spotted on almost every street. The most striking of which can be found on the Stadhuis towering over cyclists and pedestrians below.

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

De Stijl and Mondrian exhibition, The Hague, Netherlands

De Stijl and Mondrian exhibition, The Hague, Netherlands

De Stijl and Mondrian exhibition, The Hague, Netherlands

De Stijl and Mondrian exhibition, The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian is considered to be one of the most important modern artists, his later work capturing the zeitgeist of an era.  In the exhibition though, the most interesting thing was seeing his progression from pretty traditional figurative paintings of farms, boats on canals and Dutch landscapes, to the blinding colours of the fantastically abstract work which now adorns buildings around The Hague.

Mondrian moved to Paris in the early 20th century, where he rubbed shoulders with Picasso and was exposed to Cubism. Paris was clearly influential, but it was being stuck in the Netherlands in 1914 that proved decisive. Unable to return to Paris because of the outbreak of war, he joined other Dutch artists and designers to found one of the most important artistic movements in history, De Stijl. The movement is credited with creating what came to be considered ‘modern’. The Nazis’ considered it ‘degenerate’.

De Stijl was born not of the horror and suffering inflicted on Europe during the First World War, but instead from the peace of the neutral Netherlands. Mondrian and fellow Dutch artist, Theo van Doesburg, were the driving force behind De Stijl, which would become the first step of the abstract art revolution. The two were best friends, then they had an explosive disagreement over Doesburg’s use of diagonal lines in his paintings. Strange but true.

The exhibition (until 14 September, 2017)  shines a fascinating light on the influence of Mondrian and De Stijl, especially the influence they’ve had on architecture, graphic design, interior design and fashion. A hundred years after its founding, De Stijl is still influencing our lives. Thanks to the Mondrianisation of The Hague, reminders of it are dotted all around. It’s not exactly subtle, but it is a lot of fun.

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Here’s a good article on Mondrian and the exhibition from the BBC

Zwarte Pete, a tradition in need of change

It seems like anybody in the public eye who expresses an opinion opens the door to a firestorm of hate on social media. Your chances of being abused are increased if you’re female or a person of colour. If you’re a black woman commenting on the annual Zwarte Pete debate in the Netherlands, not only can you expect racist and misogynist abuse, you will also receive death threats. Videos showing you being lynched, Klu Klux Klan style, will be circulated online and viewed by thousands.

I always thought the Dutch an open-minded and tolerant bunch. Yet this has been the response to a well-known black Dutch TV personality who expressed an opinion on Zwarte Pete. In the three years I’ve lived here, my views on Dutch tolerance hasn’t changed much, after all they put up with me. My eyes have, though, been opened to the fact that, like in Brexit Britain and Trumpish America, there’s a sick undercurrent of xenophobia and misogyny.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete parade, The Hague, Netherlands

I know most Dutch people think Zwarte Pete is a piece of harmless fun for children. I know many say that Zwarte Pete is a positive role model, one their children want to emulate. I know a lot of Dutch people feel their culture is being judged, even threatened, by anyone who questions the ‘tradition’ of white Sinterklaas and his black sidekick, Zwarte Pete. That just seems illogical to me.

Zwarte Pete is a racial stereotype that draws a straight line to the slave trade via the Scramble for Africa; a stereotype used to legitimise European superiority and rule over other peoples. Given that the Dutch played a major role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and were one of the last European countries to ban slavery, Zwarte Pete is a tradition that needs to be challenged in a modern, multicultural society.

I went to see my first Sinterklaas parade in 2014 and was shocked by people ‘blacking up’. It was like being transported back in time, and not in a good way. I skipped 2015 but, a couple of weeks ago, I decided to go to the 2016 event. I’d heard that the debate had progressed and, rather than blacking up, Zwarte Pete would become Blue Pete, Purple Pete and Orange Pete. Maybe in some parts of the Netherlands that’s true, but in The Hague we had traditional Zwarte Pete again.

Traditional Zwarte Pete is little more than a Golliwog caricature. The Golliwog is a symbol of a racist past, one I remember from my childhood in England. Created by American author Florence Kate Upton, Golliwog books sold well in Europe, including The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg. The Golliwog is described as “a horrid sight, the blackest gnome”. Later he transformed into a kind, fun and friendly character. That sounds a lot like Zwarte Pete.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete parade, The Hague, Netherlands

There is some movement towards reforming the tradition. Many in the parade had makeup that looked like soot, the story being that Pete came down a chimney, a bit like Santa Claus, and that’s the reason for his black face. There were even some dancing chimney sweeps (they were the most entertaining thing in the parade). That seems like a workable compromise between traditionalists and reformers.

Traditions can change, and some things are best left in the past. So here’s to continuing the debate, and the evolution of Zwarte Pete into something that isn’t offensive. Saying so is likely to cause offence to many who defend the Zwarte Pete tradition, so thank goodness I’m not on Twitter.

All at sea on the Vliet Canal

Strange and peculiar things happen more often that you’d imagine in the Netherlands. You go for a cycle through lovely Dutch countryside and, just when you’re on the way home, there’s a bizarre event taking place in some remote location. If I’ve learned anything since living in here, it’s that the country has a surreal events calendar, jam-packed full of quirky and eccentric activities that are barely comprehensible to outsiders.

These events are such a regular occurrence that I’ve given up being surprised by them. In the Waterland, north of Amsterdam, I came across a WW2 parade in a tiny village; I bumped, randomly, into a marching band on a country lane near Oudewater; and, not to forget, the truly odd sight of people floating homemade craft, modelled on the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, down a canal in the artists former birthplace of  ‘s-Hertogenbosch .

Vlietdagen, Voorsburg, The Hague, Netherlands

Vlietdagen, Voorsburg, The Hague, Netherlands

Vlietdagen, Voorsburg, The Hague, Netherlands

Vlietdagen, Voorsburg, The Hague, Netherlands

Vlietdagen, Voorsburg, The Hague, Netherlands

Vlietdagen, Voorsburg, The Hague, Netherlands

Vlietdagen, Voorsburg, The Hague, Netherlands

Vlietdagen, Voorsburg, The Hague, Netherlands

This time, I’d been cycling through the picturesque countryside wedged between The Hague and the satellite town of Zoetermeer. It was a glorious day of cycling under a warm sun and vast Dutch sky that had taken me through small villages, along and over lovely canals, and past a row of three old windmills that are seemingly known as the Gang of Three.

These three 17th century windmills are a striking feature amidst this flat landscape of polders and cattle. Originally they were used to pump water and drain the land for agriculture. That’s all done by an electric pump now and the windmills have been turned into family homes. Windmills are surprisingly spacious inside, and I love the idea of living in one, but the prospect of near-vertical stairs when you’re going to the bathroom in the middle of the night is a bit off-putting.

Windmills, Netherlands

Windmills, Netherlands

Windmills, Netherlands

Windmills, Netherlands

Windmills, Netherlands

Windmills, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Looping back towards the Vliet Canal and Leidschendam, I came across a flotilla of boats crewed by cartoon characters preparing to set sail down the Vliet. This was the Vlietdagen Festival, or Vliet Days festival. The two historic villages of Voorburg and Leidschendam, separated by 2km of the canal, join forces to put on a weekend of festivities. All of which seem to culminate in a bizarre Wacky Races-style boat parade heading down the Vliet.

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Down the Vliet with the Pilgrim Fathers

The Netherlands never ceases to amaze. For such a small country it has a lot of history. History that has had enormous influence on the world. The calm and attractive Vliet Canal is one of those pieces of a much larger historical puzzle. The canal connects Leiden to Delft, where it meets another canal that links it to the Nieuwe Maas river at Delfshaven. From there it is just a short journey to the open sea.

The Vliet Canal was dug in 47AD, when this area was part of the Roman Empire. In nearly 2,000 years of existence, many boats have sailed on it, none more important for Western Civilisation than the Dutch barges that sailed from Leiden to Delfshaven in July 1620. On board these boats were the men and women who would travel across the Atlantic on board the Mayflower, and go on to found Plymouth Colony.

The Hofwijck on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

The Hofwijck on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Voorburg on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Voorburg on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

These English religious dissidents would become known to posterity as the Pilgrim Fathers (were their no women?). They’d been living in Leiden for eleven years after fleeing what they saw as religious persecution. When they left Leiden on their way to establish what would become Massachusetts, they sailed down the Vliet Canal to Delfshaven, before boarding the Speedwell to England and then on to the New World.

I doubt any of the Pilgrims thought it a significant moment in history, and no one seems to make much of a fuss about it today either. Cycling along the Vliet, past grand houses and lovely polder landscapes, there is hardly any mention of this history other than a small statue in Leiden. It’s a lovely cycle though. Starting in Voorburg, a historic suburb of The Hague, I followed the canal all the way to Leiden.

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

I stopped in Voorburg to admire the Hofwijck, former home of Constantijn Huygens, a renowned 17th century Dutch politician, and of his son, Christiaan Huygens, whose study of the Rings of Saturn led him to discover Titan. A few kilometres further along the Vliet is the small village-cum-suburb of Leidschendam, which has a picturesque centre next to some locks on the canal.

Leidschendam has a human history that dates back to the Romans, but it was the canal that made it a prosperous place in the medieval period. Several windmills were built near here, and the 17th century Salamander windmill still sits on the banks of the Vliet. The Salamander was a sawmill, you can tell by the elongated building that forms its base – long enough to get a tree inside.

The Salamander windmill, Leidschendam, Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

The Salamander windmill, Leidschendam, Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

The Salamander windmill, Leidschendam, Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

The Salamander windmill, Leidschendam, Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Next to the locks in Leidschendam is a very odd sculpture. I don’t know what it’s supposed to represent, but one of the three figures has a dog on his arm, another a sail boat, the third has a misshaped globe on his head. Either that or a potato. Try as I might, I’ve not been able to discover anything about this entertaining trio. If anyone knows anything about it, send me a message.

The rest of the 10 or 12 kilometres to Leiden is along the canal, you don’t pass through any more villages but you do pass lots of boats and through some attractive Dutch countryside. It’s not a long journey, but it is calm and peaceful, and right on my doorstep.

Sculpture in Leidschendam, The Netherlands

Sculpture in Leidschendam, The Netherlands

Sculpture in Leidschendam, The Netherlands

Sculpture in Leidschendam, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Beer, beer everywhere … and quite a lot to drink

I have to admit to being a fan of beer festivals. Hardly a revelation, I’m from the British Isles where, if beer drinking were an Olympic sport, we’d be a nation of medal winners. These are heady days to be a beer devotee though. There has been a flourishing of innovation and creativity in beer making over the last decade or so, with dozens of ‘micro-breweries’ breaking into a market place desperate for variety and quality.

In the Netherlands, where for centuries they’ve had to endure the sneers of Belgian beer makers, the uninspiring market leaders, Heineken, are giving way to a new breed of brewers with a different vision of Dutch beer. These are great days to be a beer drinker in the Netherlands.

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Love Beer, Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Love Beer, Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

To celebrate this revolution in drinking habits, The Hague is the venue for an annual Dutch Beer Tasting Festival – I think they add the word ‘tasting’ to give it an air of class, as if beer drinkers are just misguided wine aficionados. One of the highlights of the festival isn’t beer-related though, it’s the venue itself. It’s one of the few times of the year when The Hague’s Grote Kerk opens its doors to the great unwashed.

The Grote Kerk is no longer used for worship except, that is, for three days of beer idolatry every year. Still, holding a beer festival inside a 15th century church that has hosted royal weddings, and even the baptism of the current King of the Netherlands, is a bit surprising. King Willem-Alexander would probably approve though, he had a reputation for hard drinking and wild partying before he took the throne.

The problem, as always when offered a large number of choices, is how you’re going to rationalise which beers to sample. Should you approach it by brewery, style, strength or, my particular favourite, by name. The latter being something of a lucky dip and not really approved of by beer connoisseurs. With over 200 beers on offer from forty-four different breweries, this was never going to be easy.

The organisers had handily grouped all beers by style: Saison, Blond, Zwaar Blond, Meibock, Pale Ale, Licht Donker, Dubbel Bock, Gerstewijn and Houtgelagerd, to name just some of the bewildering options. Some of the more outlandish beer names included Sergeant Pepper, Pussycat, Pulp Fiction, Storm & Bliksem and Greatefull Deaf Queill. This confirmed for me that the culture of modern beer drinking has evolved its own language.

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

There were even half a dozen alcohol free beers, which an amusing poster in the venue implied was for pregnant women – pregnant women who clearly couldn’t face missing out on a beer festival even if they weren’t drinking alcohol. I can’t imagine anything worse than being sober at a beer festival, having to listen to the exaggerated stories of the drinkers.

The Hague has some great breweries, including the Kompaan, Brouwerij Kwartje, Animal Army Brewery and Brouwerij Scheveningen, from The Hague’s beachside district, all of which were represented. More interesting though, was to try some breweries from further afield that don’t have a market in The Hague.

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

There were big breweries like Heineken at the festival, as well as some tiny, one man band operations. It meant some variability in the quality, but it was great to try beers from as far afield as Bierbrouwerij Maallust near Groningen in the north; the Duits & Lauret Brouwerij from a tiny village near Utrecht; Trappistenbrouwerij Zundert near the Belgian border; and Brouwerij De Blauwe IJsbeer from the banks of the De Lek river … all providing reasons for a few trips over the summer.

Voorburg and the discovery of Titan

Voorburg. Hardly a place with global recognition. A place, until recently, I knew only as a railway station on the outskirts of The Hague, at which Dutch intercity trains don’t stop. I’ve passed through Voorburg a few times and, if seated on the appropriate side of the train, occasionally wondered about the historic house that sits in a moat right next to the train line.

The Hofwijck, Voorburg, Netherlands

The Hofwijck, Voorburg, Netherlands

The Hofwijck, Voorburg, Netherlands

The Hofwijck, Voorburg, Netherlands

Wondering about it never translated into finding out about it until one Friday afternoon. Chatting to a couple of colleagues about plans for the weekend, one mentioned a picturesque cycle ride between Voorburg and Leiden down the Vliet canal. At this point I had to admit that I didn’t know anything about Voorburg, a confession greeted by raised eyebrows.

The next day I set off on the short cycle ride to discover what I’d been missing. Voorburg is a beautiful hamlet, now absorbed into The Hague, with an extraordinary place in the history of science. It’s also one of the oldest human settlements in the Netherlands. The town had been a Roman outpost long before the Emperor Hadrian visited in 121AD and had a Forum constructed here.

The Hofwijck, Voorburg, Netherlands

The Hofwijck, Voorburg, Netherlands

The Hofwijck, Voorburg, Netherlands

The Hofwijck, Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Bridge into Voorburg, Netherlands

Bridge into Voorburg, Netherlands

The real draw at Voorburg isn’t Roman though, of which there is very little evidence left. The main attraction is Hofwijck, the historic house surrounded by a moat that you can see from the train. This was the home of Constantijn Huygens, a renowned 17th century Dutch politician and trusted adviser to the Princes of Orange during the Dutch Golden Age.

Hofwijck was built as a summer house. It became unbearably cold in winter and was impossible to heat, the family Huygens would relocate to The Hague in winter. It had glorious formal gardens that were more than double the size of the current gardens; when the railway was built in the 19th century though, the town of Voorburg gave away the gardens for the railway’s construction.

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

They did so on the condition that intercity trains would stop at the station. The ability for denizens of Voorburg to board intercity trains seems little reward for an act of cultural vandalism, one that saw the destruction of a piece of Dutch history. Intercity trains stopped calling at Voorburg in 2006 and the gardens of Hofwijck are still buried under the railway. No one wins, apparently.

While Constantijn Huygens was the original owner of the house, its most famous occupant was his son, mathematician and scientist, Christiaan Huygens. It was the younger Huygens’ fascination with astronomy that drove his desire to understand and build telescopes. He was famous across Europe for making pioneering optics, and corresponded with none less that Descartes on the subject.

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Cork bike, Voorburg, Netherlands

Cork bike, Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

It was this fascination that led Huygens to make his most famous discovery. In 1655, while studying the Rings of Saturn, he discovered Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, using a telescope he’d made himself. He did have help, he constructed his often massive telescopes, including ones without a metal tube, with his elder brother, named Constantijn after their father.

The house itself is tiny, really just one room on each floor. I suspect the interior might not have been so interesting but for the fact that it had a lot of items on loan from a museum in Leiden, including an original Huygens telescope and many of his letters corresponding with virtually every famous scientist and man of letters of the era: Newton, Descartes, Locke, Spinoza, Leibniz to name but a few.

Sheep in the churchyard, Voorburg, Netherlands

Sheep in the churchyard, Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

When I arrived at Hofwijck it was closed – it only opens at midday on a Saturday. This allowed me the opportunity to take a leisurely stroll around the historic centre of Voorburg. Like much of the Netherlands, the preservation of this historic place is quite amazing. There are over 250 historic buildings in this tiny place, some dating from the 13th century. I can’t imagine why it has taken me so long to discover it.

Strange but true: Voorburg has an internationally approved cricket ground where One Day Internationals are played.

Demolition Art

I love street art. At least I love the sort of street art that I love. There is something magical about seeing good art in unexpected places. It can cheer up a walk to the tram stop, or bring a smile to your face when on the way home with the shopping. For many years I lived in London’s Old Street area, where the formerly notorious, now acclaimed, Banksy did much of his early work.

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

I’ll never forget the ecstasy-faced police on a nearby railway bridge; or the white line of paint that ran along the street and down an alley to where a policeman, on hands and knees, was snorting it through a rolled-up banknote. Better still, the rat in Smithfield carrying a placard saying “Go back to bed”; or the gang of rats carrying a rocket launcher, stencilled onto the Embankment opposite the Houses of Parliament.

I watched, saddened, as council contractors blasted that particular gem off the wall with a high pressure hose.

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

So, with that in mind, I’m not sure it’s in the nature of street art to be approved by, or done in partnership with those who are responsible for making sure the walls of civilisation are kept free of spray paint.

The anti-authority, illicit-verging-on-illegal nature of street art means it comes free from official approval, right? In The Hague there is an established relationship between street artists, the city authorities and local museums, The Hague Graffiti Platform; and also the Straat Expo, which is responsible for numerous street art projects around the city. 

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

In exchange for 2000 square metres of wall space, the city hopes to prevent ‘illegal’ graffiti and ‘vandalism’. The aim being to make the city a “cleaner, safer and more colourful environment for residents”.

It seems to work – there is very little graffiti on city walls, trams or trains – and there are some brilliant pieces of street art dotted around the city at officially sanctioned spots. Much of the space given over to street artists is found on electricity sub-stations, and other city infrastructure, and is more-or-less permanent. Recently, however, a housing project near The Hague Market has provided a larger canvas for artists.

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

I was fortunate enough to be cycling past the area where several blocks of apartments have been demolished, ready for redevelopment. One, however, remains and is covered in street art – the work of Straat Expo. Even more fortunate, there were some people painting a new work onto the building.

Which is how I know that they contacted the housing association to ask if they could spray over the wooden boards in the windows of the condemned building; and how, because it proved to be so popular with local residents, they were given permission to spray art on to the whole building.

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, The Hague, Netherlands

As we chatted it occurred to me that even though street art is at best temporary, spending time, energy and money creating art on walls that would literally be demolished in a few weeks was an extraordinary act of hopefulness. Either that or an act of artistic nihilism. Ironic, I suppose, that my photos preserve the illusion beyond its expiry date.

The Herring Eater a Fairytale Sculpture by the Sea

Tom Otterness’ extraordinary public sculpture, ‘SprookjesBeelden aan Zee’, or Fairytales by the Sea, is a major landmark along the glorious coastline of The Hague. In reality, not one but a series of twenty-three interrelated sculptures that, at first glance, seem like harmless fun. Yet these amusing characters hide a grim secret.

The Herring Eater, Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

The Herring Eater, Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

The Herring Eater, Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

The Herring Eater, Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

The Herring Eater, Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

The Herring Eater, Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Look closer at the sculptures and it’s as if Hoffmann’s terrifying Struwwelpeter children’s tales have come to life. The sculptures are based on Dutch and international stories, and are a big hit with children (and not a few adults). Yet beneath the fun-filled veneer there is something disturbing at work. This may not come as a surprise, Otterness is no stranger to controversy.

Some characters are bound around the legs and arms, some incarcerated in cages; one goes to the hangman’s noose, another sits, head in hands, in despair; a captured bear is tied up with rope. This not a terribly pleasant children’s playground, and underscores the not very nice message of many children’s tales.

Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Oh Lars, my boy. Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Oh Lars, my boy. Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Oh Lars, my boy. Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Oh Lars, my boy. Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Hansel and Gretel are found in a cage; a sculpture of Swedish fairytale ‘Oh Lars, my boy’ features the hangman’s noose and scaffold; ‘Crying Giant’, despair personified, is meant to represent the United States after 9/11; Moby Dick eats a human-being as Captain Ahab flails around on the whale’s back; Gepetto and Pinocchio add some normality to the scene. What could be more normal than a wooden boy with an extendable nose?

All this weirdness is interspersed with (mythical) heroes like Hans Brinker, the ‘little boy who put his finger in the dyke’, and Humpty Dumpty sitting on his wall. On second thoughts, that didn’t exactly end well. Not for Humpty at least. The Three Wise Monkeys make an appearance, although in Otterness’ style they become Three Wise Cube and Cone Shaped People. All-in-all, the picture is a bleak one.

Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Gulliver, Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Gulliver, Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

The sculptures come in all shapes and sizes, from the tiny people clinging to the other sculptures, to the Crying Giant. Overshadowing all though, is the centrepiece of the whole thing, The Herring Eater.

Anyone who has spent time in the company of Dutch people, will know the relationship with the herring runs deep – the national comfort food. Dutch people happily gulp down raw herring in a white bread bun topped with chopped onion any time of day or night. Many will wax lyrical about its virtues given the chance.

Crying Giant, Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Crying Giant, Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Hans Brinker, Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Hans Brinker, Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Moby Dick, Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Moby Dick, Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Three Wise Sculptures, Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

Three Wise Sculptures, Fairytales by the Sea, Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

The herring trade made the Netherlands wealthy, and Scheveningen was one of the major ports for the Dutch herring fleet. It’s this history that is celebrated by The Herring Eater, which is essentially a sculpture of your average Dutch person – exceptionally tall with a taste for raw fish. If you’re in The Hague, don’t miss Scheveningen’s Fairytales by the Sea.