Kamp Vught, revisiting Europe’s darkest days

Visiting the Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught is a sobering and surreal experience. The former Konzentrationslager Herzogenbusch camp, operated by the occupying Nazi forces between January 1943 – September 1944, is located in pretty woodlands. To reach the camp, I’d cycled through picturesque countryside and along a tranquil canal passing dog walkers and other cyclists. It’s almost unimaginable to think of the multiple horrors that were carried out in these peaceful surroundings, but Kamp Vught was the scene of barbarity that is difficult to grasp.

This was the only SS concentration camp outside of Nazi Germany and, in the eighteen months of its operations, more than 32,000 men, women and children were sent to the camp. Approximately 12,000 of these people were Jews, sent here before being sent to the death camps in Eastern Europe. The rest of Kamp Vught’s inmates were resistance fighters, political prisoners, Roma, criminals, and a variety of others whom the Nazis deemed unacceptable. As with other camps, prisoners were forced to wear coloured triangles on their prison clothes to identify their category of ‘crime’.

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Conditions at the camp were horrifying. Unlike other camps outside Germany, Kamp Vught was run exclusively by SS troops, who seemed to take pleasure in extreme punishments. The camp had three different SS commanders over its lifespan, including the notorious SS-Untersturmführer Karl Chmielewski, who came with a reputation for sadism gained at Mauthausen–Gusen concentration camp in Austria. During his time prisoners could expect overcrowded and unsanitary living quarters, appalling working conditions and severe beatings. Food was rarely more than watery soup.

It’s no surprise that hundreds of people died of starvation and disease. Others were executed by firing squad at a location deep in the surrounding woods. There is a small museum that tells the story of Kamp Vught, and there’s an excellent audio guide that explains the workings of the camp and its buildings. It also provides personal stories from some of the survivors. It’s a very moving and emotional experience, and it doesn’t pull any punches when describing the inhumanity and suffering witnessed here.

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, NetherlandsNationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Of the many incidents of barbarity, one stands out. The ‘bunker tragedy’ came about when a female inmate was sent to the camp prison (the ‘bunker’), provoking a protest by other women. Camp commander Grünewald, retaliated by forcing 74 women into cell number 115. It was tiny, with little ventilation. The screams of the women could be heard around the camp. When the cell was opened on January 16, 1944, ten women were dead. The tragedy became propaganda for the Allies, the embarrassment to the German authorities saw Grünewald sentenced to prison. A punishment later revoked by Himmler.

Equally notorious were the two ‘kinder transports’, when camp authorities transported Jewish children to death camps in the East. One of the transports left on the 5th and 6th June, 1943. The parents were told that the children were being sent to a special children’s camp. Instead, at least 1,269 Jewish children were sent to the Westerbork transit camp, also in the Netherlands. Afterwards they were deported to Sobibor in Poland, where the majority were sent to the gas chambers almost immediately upon arrival.

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

As I walked around the camp, I had to remind myself that I was still in the Netherlands. The German’s recruited local labourers to build the camp, they thought that this was simply an army barracks. It wasn’t long before trains started arriving at the nearby town of Vught though, their tragic human cargo marched through the town towards the camp. It’s impossible to imagine how the knowledge of what was happening at the camp impacted the local community, but people learned to keep their windows closed on days when the wind blew the crematorium smoke in their direction.

A surprise for me was that part of Kamp Vught was used for specialised work, including salvaging parts from crashed planes and making radios for the German war effort. The radios were made using the slave labour of former workers from the Philips factories in Eindhoven. Many of these skilled specialists were Jewish. Philips negotiated improved conditions for the prisoners who worked in the radio factory, but for Jews who worked here it was only a temporary reprieve. As the Allies got closer to liberating the camp, Jewish workers were summarily despatched to the death camps.

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

This act was committed by SS-Untersturmführer, Hans Hüttig, who was responsible for evacuating the camp before the Allies reached it. As the Allied invasion gained pace so too did the murders at Kamp Vught. Hüttig executed well over three hundred people between July and September of 1944. Days before the camp was liberated, over 3,400 jewish inmates were sent to Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen death camps. One final act of barbarity that brought this period of the camp’s history to a close.

When Allied forces finally arrived, there were only a few of people left to bare witness to what had happened in this peaceful corner of the Netherlands. It is the ordinariness of the setting that Kamp Vught occupies that is most shocking; the knowledge that this could, did, happen in the most ordinary of places. This, perhaps, is the most compelling reason why a visit to Kamp Vught today is important. We must remind ourselves of the need for constant vigilance to prevent these horrors from happening again.

Heusden, a perfectly preserved medieval star fort

It’s not that Heusden is an uninviting place, it’s just that the massive fortifications of its star-shaped defences are so well preserved that you feel like you’re entering a military zone. One false step and you might be repelled by the town’s defenders. The defences of this charming little town are hugely impressive, and have seen so much history that it’s hard to stop your imagination running wild with thoughts of conquering armies and valiant townsfolk fighting to protect their homes and lives. Seen for the first time it is an incredible sight.

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

It’s a truly beautiful place, and it’s popularity probably justifies the huge reconstruction and restoration work that was carried out in the 1960s to return it to its former 17th century glory. The full fortifications and around 400 buildings were restored, in what really was a monumental undertaking that lasted over a decade. If anything, Heusden is a little too well-preserved. Its one hundred and thirty-four national monuments, pristine streets and manicured earth defences ringed by two moats and backed by the River Meuse, make it feel a like you’re walking in an open-air museum.

Located on the strategically important Meuse, at the boundary of three historic Dutch counties, there has been a fortification of some sort here from before the 9th century, which was when some Vikings made the journey up the river to burn the town down. The town played an important role in the War of Dutch Independence, not as a Dutch stronghold but as a supporter of the Spanish Empire that ruled over the Netherlands. The town’s leaders eventually saw which way the wind was blowing and switched sides to support the Prince of Orange.

In 1680, tragedy struck Heusden. Lightening hit the castle and ignited sixty thousand pounds of gunpowder, destroying it and many other buildings. The castle was never rebuilt, but some foundations are still visible. There was additional tragedy during the German occupation in the Second World War. The bridge over the River Meuse made Heusden strategically important after the Allied invasion of Europe. Following the failure of Operation Market Garden in September 1944, Canadian and British armies launched Operation Pheasant in October. Heusden lay directly in their path.

In November, Scottish troops approached the town and the German troops prepared to retreat. Fatefully, 170 of Heusden’s citizens sought shelter from artillery fire in the cellars of the town hall, where the German army had a command centre and hospital. As the German’s prepared to pull out, they mined the town hall’s 40 metre high tower, placing the charges deliberately so that it would fall on the town hall. Some 134 people were killed, of whom 74 were children. Many people consider this event to be a war crime.

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

I’d arrived in Heusden on a sunny Sunday and the town, which attracts several hundred thousand tourists every year, was buzzing with life. The main square was filled with people eating outside several restaurants, and the town’s harbour was busy with boats coming and going. I parked my bike in the town centre and went for a leisurely wander. There’s a pleasant walk along the old defences that takes you past several windmills that still sit on the walls of the town, and give you fabulous views over the town and the surrounding countryside.

It doesn’t take long to explore the walls, streets and small alleyways of Heusden, and after an hour or so I plonked myself in the main square – the former Fish Market – and had lunch. This is quite an extraordinary town, made all the more so by the banning of advertising, which gives you a different impression of a place. Lunch over, it was back on the bike and a big loop that would take me to the site of another Second World War tragedy, the Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught.

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Gelderland’s glorious Kasteel Ammersoyen

Thanks to the film, A Knight’s Tale, I actually thought the Dutch Province of Gelderland was fictitious. It turns out that not only is it a real place, but it has a variety of medieval castles worthy of the film itself. I’d ventured into this eastern Dutch province for a day of cycling – Gelderland is the largest, least populated of all Dutch provinces, and makes for good cycling. First on my list of stops was the magnificent Kasteel Ammersoyen, a classic medieval moated Dutch castle that, after extensive renovations in the late 20th century, is now considered one of the best preserved castles in the Netherlands.

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

This itself is somewhat miraculous. The castle was built in the 1350s and has managed to survive over 700 years of turbulent European history. At different time the castle was fought over by Burgundian forces in the Hundred Years’ War, Spanish armies during the Dutch struggle for independence, and Napoleon’s troops laid siege to it as well. The castle was severely damaged by fire in the 16th century, but Allied bombing raids during the Second World War – a war in which it was ill-equipped to participate – did far more damage.

Today, it sits peacefully on the edge of the small village of Ammerzoden, close to the River Meuse. The river has been a major trade route for centuries, and explains the castle’s existence.  Surrounded by water, the castle has four round defensive towers, and a central courtyard. From the outside it seems pretty compact, this is deceptive as the interior is remarkably spacious, despite all the small narrow staircases you have to navigate to access parts of the building.

I’d arrived early, too early for the castle to be open, but luckily for me there was other entertainment on offer. The somewhat odd sight of a couple of dozen people dressed in medieval clothing and playing period instruments. This, it turned out, was a troupe of performers who do medieval recreations around the country, and who’d be practicing various crafts, musical recitals and combat techniques during the day. First though the troupe was warming up with a group photo in front of the castle. They stay in character during the visit, so I think I can forgive them the pre-opening use of a camera.

It was an entertaining visit, especially when I was co-opted into trying out replicas of a medieval mace and sword. I spent some time listening to some traditional music in the kitchens, before exploring the rest of the castle. A tour which I assume took me into a room in one of the towers that is reputedly haunted by a Lady in Blue. Several people have made claims that they have seen or ‘felt’ her presence, including a couple of the castle’s staff. One person has described feeling ‘uncomfortable’ in the room where the ghost is supposed to live.

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Who am I to doubt the claims of someone who felt  uncomfortable in a room, but this paranormal activity seems based on little historical evidence. No one I asked knew who the Lady in Blue was, I put the sightings down to wild imaginings of fanciful minds. Still, after this close encounter with the spirit world, I hopped back on my bike and set off for my next destination, the lovely medieval town of Heusden. There was a ferry across the River Meuse, which turned out to be free, as I crossed the midway point in the river I left Gelderland and entered North Brabant. Soon I’d arrived at the fortified outskirts of Heusden…

Unearthing The Hague’s secrets, Open House Weekend

This post could equally be titled “The Secret Life of Hofjes”. These reclusive courtyard communities of former almshouses date back to medieval Europe, and were an early form of privately funded social housing, often for the old or for women. There are still a lot of Hofjes in the Netherlands, and several in The Hague, but they are rarely open to the public and you’d have to know a resident to get a glimpse of life behind their walls. The one exception to this is during Open House Weekend when several Hofjes are open for visits.

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

't Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

‘t Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

Hofjes were founded by wealthy citizens who were trying to secure their eternal place in Heaven. In medieval Europe, Christian beliefs and practices were influenced by the need to redeem your soul through works of mercy. There were seven works of mercy, including feeding the hungry, sheltering travellers and comforting the sick. It’s not a surprise that many Hofjes were founded as hospitals. Often they were reserved for the poor, or for single women, but also came with restrictions such as religious affiliation, or a minimum qualifying age of 50 years.

Many old Hofjes still have these restrictions in place, but modern Hofjes are being built without such medieval restrictions. I can understand why there is a modern revival of the Hofjes, they are picturesque places, calm and serene. Walking through the gateway into one is a little like entering a different world, like opening the doors of a wardrobe and ending up in Narnia. One of the most pleasant things about Hofjes is that they are centred around a community garden, often for growing vegetables and herbs. Some of them retain this feature and even sell chutney and honey to visitors.

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

Hofje "Rusthof", The Hague, Netherlands

Hofje “Rusthof”, The Hague, Netherlands

't Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

‘t Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

't Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

‘t Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

't Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

‘t Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

We visited three Hofjes, all with a very distinctive feel to them, and very picturesque. First on the list was De Hof van Wouw, founded in 1647 by Cornelia van Wouw with the purpose of housing single women. Rules he set out in his will still govern who is able to live there. It’s a beautiful place, with red painted window shutters and lovely garden, and larger than I’d expected. Nearby is the ‘t Hooftshofje, founded by Angenis Hooft in 1755. She stipulated in her will that only ‘elderly women or widows who profess the Reformed religion’ were allowed to live there.

‘t Hooftshofje, has eight houses and you’d never guess from the street that there was a double courtyard lying behind the facade. It is much more enclosed that De Hof van Wouw, but no less attractive. Our final visit was to the hidden away Hofje “Rusthof”, next to Sint-Jacobus de Meerderekerk Catholic church. Founded in 1841 by Elisabeth Groen van Prinsterer for women over 55 years of age, who have Protestant Christian religious convictions, the same age rules still apply today. Something I discovered when asking one of the residents if it would be possible for me to live there.

Hofje "Rusthof", The Hague, Netherlands

Hofje “Rusthof”, The Hague, Netherlands

Hofje "Rusthof", The Hague, Netherlands

Hofje “Rusthof”, The Hague, Netherlands

't Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

‘t Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

Sint-Jacobus de Meerderekerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Sint-Jacobus de Meerderekerk, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

In what would become something of an unintentional religiously themed day, we went back into town, popping into someone’s house to have a look around (all part of Open House), before discovering the Brothers of St. John monastery on Oude Molstraat was open to the public as well. I knew about the Brothers because they make (and sell) a couple of very good beers that can be bought locally. We wandered in and were guided up a flight of stairs to the most extraordinary little chapel on the top floor.

It felt like the chapel was a secret, hidden away from public sight, which explains why there is absolutely no indication of its existence from street level. The monastery is part of a new movement of monastic life begun in 1975 in  France, and has spread to many corners of the world. It has gone out of its way to appeal to young people and to try to attract them to the ‘modern’ monastic life. There have been some accusations that they operate like a cult. All of which I’d still be unaware of but for Open House Weekend.

Open House Weekend, The Hague, Netherlands

Open House Weekend, The Hague, Netherlands

Open House Weekend, The Hague, Netherlands

Open House Weekend, The Hague, Netherlands

Brothers of St. John monastery, The Hague, Netherlands

Brothers of St. John monastery, The Hague, Netherlands

Brothers of St. John monastery, The Hague, Netherlands

Brothers of St. John monastery, The Hague, Netherlands

Every dream I have ever dreamed*, historic Breda

Breda has a long and distinguished history, a history that you can still see today packed into the compact city centre. It was granted city status as early as 1252, but its Golden Age came in the years after it passed into the hands of the House of Nassau-Orange in the 14th century. It was the heir of this Franco-German aristocratic family, William I of Orange, or William the Silent as he’s also known, who would lead the revolt against Spanish rule and lay the foundations for an independent Dutch state. Breda would be centre stage throughout.

Breda’s relationship with the House of Nassau-Orange made it a royal city, bringing it wealth and prestige. It also brought it a whole heap of trouble during the Eighty Years’ War, known in the Netherlands as the Dutch War of Independence. The city saw much fighting and, in 1581, it was captured by the Spanish. Despite Spanish promises, their troops massacred over 500 people and plundered the town. It would take a decade for the Dutch to recapture Breda.

As the name suggests, the Eighty Years’ War was only just getting started, and Breda’s strategic position meant it would see plenty of fighting. In 1625, the Spanish were once more in control after a brutal 10-month siege. It took until 1537 for Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange, to recapture it. Breda became Dutch permanently only at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1548. Over a century later, in 1660, it played a starring role in the history of England.

It was in Breda that the exiled Stuart monarchs took refuge after the English Civil War. The Declaration of Breda in 1660 saw Charles II of England accept the conditions for his return to England, and to reclaim his throne. Ironically, a few years later the Treaty of Breda would end the Second Anglo-Dutch War, which Charles II fought against his former protectors. This turbulent history would be hard to guess at today, were it not for the impressive Breda Castle. Still an active military base it’s sadly not open to the public.

We reached the castle by passing through the lovely and peaceful Valkenberg Park, home to a large number of free range chickens, before making our way towards the town’s most dominant feature, the Onze Lieve Vrouwe Kerk. The Church of Our Lady towers over the Grote Markt central square, which is ringed by cafes and restaurants. At 10am the Grote Markt still felt like it was sleeping off the festivities of the night before. We wandered off to explore the historic centre.

Breda, Netherlands

Breda, Netherlands

Breda, Netherlands

Breda, Netherlands

Breda, Netherlands

Breda, Netherlands

Grote Kerk, Breda, Netherlands

Grote Kerk, Breda, Netherlands

Grote Kerk, Breda, Netherlands

Grote Kerk, Breda, Netherlands

Grote Kerk, Breda, Netherlands

Grote Kerk, Breda, Netherlands

This did not take very long. Breda, it’s fair to say, has a small centre even if it’s home to 180,000 people. We found ourselves back in the Grote Markt less than an hour after setting off, only this time something was different. It wasn’t that cafes were now open and tables were filled with people sipping lattes; no, it was more the fact that there was a Scottish bagpipe player entertaining a crowd of people, all of whom were wearing green and had red hair.

Unbeknownst to us, we’d stumbled upon Redhead Day 2017, a gathering of thousands of people with red hair. Apparently, this celebration of all things red hair has been going on in Breda for over a decade. With somewhat greying hair I didn’t really fit in, but the impact of so many red heads in one place is quite amazing. We had lunch in a small, pleasant square just off the Grote Markt and watched the crowds of redheads.

Begijnhof Museum, Breda, Netherlands

Begijnhof Museum, Breda, Netherlands

Begijnhof Museum, Breda, Netherlands

Begijnhof Museum, Breda, Netherlands

Begijnhof Museum, Breda, Netherlands

Begijnhof Museum, Breda, Netherlands

Begijnhof Museum, Breda, Netherlands

Begijnhof Museum, Breda, Netherlands

Breda, Netherlands

Breda, Netherlands

We made a visit to the church to see the tombs of the house of Nassau-Orange, before calling at the Begijnhof Museum on our way to the train station. A ‘hof’ is a walled garden with houses around the outside, often a form of medieval social housing like Alms houses. The Begijnhof Museum is what is left of a former religious community of independent lay women known as the Beguines. I’d never heard of them before but the small museum had a great video telling their story.

Breda’s last Beguine died only in 1990 by which time the community had existed for over 700 years. They dressed like nuns but didn’t take vows, and as ‘independent’ women they were often viewed with suspicion by the Catholic Church. Not because they could leave any time they liked and kept their own possessions, but because they were often viewed as heretics. Today, the houses of Breda’s Begijnhof are reserved for single women … continuing an honourable tradition.

Breda, Netherlands

Breda, Netherlands

Breda, Netherlands

Breda, Netherlands

Breda, Netherlands

Breda, Netherlands

Breda, Netherlands

Breda, Netherlands

* An Elvis quote seen on a window in Breda

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

Alkmaar, the cheesiest tourist experience in the Netherlands?

My favourite Dutch cheese anecdote involves Edam, home of the eponymously named round balls of wax-covered rubber masquerading as cheese. In the 17th century, when they were competing with England and France for mastery of the seas, Dutch ships would carry Edam on board. The wax covering kept it fresh for months, and it was used for food or traded for spices in the Far East. In desperate times, balls of Edam were also used as makeshift cannonballs when Dutch ships ran out of ammunition in battle.

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Edam is a small relaxed town, proud of its cheese history, but not consumed by it. The Friday morning cheese market in Alkmaar, less than 30km away, is a very different story. It may be an authentic representation of the cheese market that’s been present in the town’s main square for over four centuries, but it also counts as one of the most touristy things you can do in the Netherlands. It’s almost as if the town descends into an act of collective cheese-related madness for half a day each week.

The cheesy experience begins almost as soon as you step off the train. A signpost to the market was embedded in a block of concrete painted to look like cheese. I followed the stream of people heading in that direction, but got a little distracted by some of the town’s incredible historic buildings. This would prove fateful for my chances of getting a good view of the cheese market. When I arrived the seating area was full, and at the barriers the crowds were standing two or three deep.

Luckily, most of the tourists weren’t Dutch. The last people you want to stand behind when trying to see something are citizens of the tallest nation on earth. I took up my spot and waited. People in traditional costume wandered around placing big rounds of wax-coated Gouda cheese on the floor, until the ancient Waagplein was covered in orange circles. Still nothing happened. Finally it was 10am, someone rang a bell and cheese carriers, cheese tasters, cheese officials and tourist cameras sprang into action.

The market was interesting and fun, but it felt a little like being in a cheese circus, everyone performing for the tourists. If it wasn’t for the tourist value that the market brings to Alkmaar, I imagine people would be buying and selling cheese in a modern air conditioned building and not running around under a hot sun in a shadeless square. At least the cheese bearers had cheerful hats to protect them from the sun. Some of us weren’t so lucky.

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Soon the cheese carriers were in full flow. Eight rounds of cheese are loaded onto each wooden barrow, which are then carried by two people on leather straps to be weighed in the Waag building. The shape and weight (120kg) of the barrow give the carriers a peculiar ‘waddle’ as they trot/run with their loads. They seem to have a lot of fun in the process, but a few of the cheese carriers looked like they’d eaten one cheese too many. As the hot sun bore down, I began to feel a little concerned for their welfare.

Once weighed, the cheese is ‘sold’ and taken to wheel barrows for transportation out of the square. To keep the crowds entertained, cheese tasters come around offering tastings and women dressed in clogs and splendid hats sell their cheesy wares for €10 a bag. All the while, the cheese carriers are running around in the background. The market lasts for two and a half hours, but after an hour I wandered off to explore Alkmaar’s lovely streets.

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Cheese-related sights can be found around the town, including men punting cheese-filled boats on the town’s canals, and there’s a wealth of history to explore. On a market day though, it’s too crowded to fully enjoy. I decided to come back when there were fewer people. I did pop into the cheese museum, which was small and offered an insight into Dutch cheese making. They give you a plastic-wrapped piece of rubbery cheese that, when eaten, will make you thankful that the French also make cheese.

That doesn’t prevent the average Dutch person eating 19kg of the stuff each and every year; or the rest of the world buying 650 million kilos of Dutch cheese annually. There’s no accounting for taste!

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Hanseatic glories in ancient Elburg

Medieval Elburg is unlike anywhere else I’ve visited in the Netherlands. Sitting on the shores of the former Zuiderzee, it was a prosperous fishing village when, in 1390, it was redesigned along a grid system and surrounded by defensive walls and moat. The straight cobbled streets and narrow lanes are reminiscent of modern Manhattan*, only in miniature. At first glance, it’s presence in the middle of the Dutch countryside is a bit of a mystery, but this was cutting edge urban design in 14th century Europe and Elburg was major trading town thanks to its role in the Hanseatic League.

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

Cycling through peaceful Dutch countryside along the shores of the former Zuiderzee, I arrived in Elburg on a sunny Sunday morning. The Netherlands is not the busiest place on Sunday mornings but, even by Dutch standards, Elburg was unnaturally quiet. As I walked the beautiful, deserted streets, I marvelled at the tranquility and did begin to wonder where everyone was – it was a bit too quiet, like a zombie apocalypse may have happened. Then the church doors opened and – excuse the inappropriate pun – all Hell broke loose.

This is traditional Netherlands, a place as far removed from the dubious delights of Amsterdam only an hour away by car. In another nod to the similarities with the United States, this part of the Netherlands is De Bijbelgordel, the Bible Belt, an area populated by a higher than average percentage of conservative Dutch Calvinists. Elburg is right in the middle of De Bijbelgordel and on a Sunday morning it shows.

Hundreds of people flooded onto the streets. Friendly chatter shattered the peace, as whole families in their ‘Sunday Best’ poured into the town centre in a scene that has been played out in this historic town for centuries. Dozens of people cycled past, and small traffic jams formed as cars and bikes crammed into the streets at the same time. As luck would have it, I was standing near the Reformed Dutch Grote Kerk, the largest church in Elburg and epicentre of all this action.

As the crowds dispersed, I wandered into the church and a vicar (if that’s what they’re called in the Netherlands) told me that I had five minutes before they closed. It wasn’t long before one of the congregation had started chatting to me though, and the vicar joined us to discuss the history of the church and town. Outside, the hubbub had died down, the good people of Elburg had vanished again. I set off to explore the once more empty streets and to uncover the town’s interesting history.

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

Unfortunately, Sunday may not be the best time to visit Elburg. It has a town museum and, intriguingly, a Jewish museum. None were open, because in De Bijbelgordel very little is open on a Sunday – not even the Jewish museum. That was a shame because Elburg once had a small but thriving Jewish community, that traced its origins back to the mid-17th century arrival of Ashkhazian Jews from Eastern Europe. Their story is fascinating.

Different from the earlier migration of Sefardian Jews who came from Portugal and Spain and settled in cities, the Ashkhazian Jews were often poor and settled in rural areas. By the mid-18th century the Jewish community was fully integrated into the life of Elburg. The Second World War saw most of Elburg’s Jewish population rounded up and sent first to Westerbork transit camp and then to Auschwitz. Only one member of the community who was transported to the death camps survived the war.

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

Countryside around Elburg, Netherlands

Countryside around Elburg, Netherlands

Countryside around Elburg, Netherlands

Countryside around Elburg, Netherlands

Disappointed that I couldn’t visit the museums, I had a snack in a cafe and walked down to the old harbour passing through the only remaining city gate, the 16th century Vischpoort (Fish Gate). As part of the Hanseatic League, a confederation of towns and guilds trading across Europe, it was from here that Elburg’s boats made the town rich from trade across Europe. This was Elburg’s peak of influence, before it became a sleepy backwater.

The town saw little 19th century industrialisation and the railway, which provided a big boost to neighbouring towns, bypassed Elburg. From its once mighty position in the Hanseatic League, the town came to depend upon fishing for its living. While Elburg has had some rough times, it feels prosperous again today. Seemingly little changed from medieval times, it now attracts increasing numbers of tourists – just don’t visit on a Sunday if you want to visit any museums.

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* The very fact of the existence of a Dutch-inspired grid system, lends extra weight to my theory that the Dutch have left a far greater imprint on the modern United States than anyone might imagine. New York was first New Amsterdam, before the turbulent 17th century wars in Europe saw it ceded to the English. Two centuries of English rule did little to undo early Dutch influence, apparently. While we’re on the subject, if you think apple pie is an All-American treat, think again.

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