Homage to The Hague

The Hague has been the backdrop for our lives in the Netherlands for just over four years, yet I’ve written very little about the many charms of this vastly underrated city. Although Amsterdam is the capital city, The Hague is home to the Dutch government and the Dutch monarchy, it’s where the diplomatic community is gathered, and is one of the most international cities I’ve visited. Walk the streets during the week and you’ll hear a couple of dozen languages being spoken. There are excellent museums, as well as a decent food scene, but tourism has yet to have any real impact on the city.

Except, that is, for the seaside resort of the virtually unpronounceable Scheveningen, a place name so fiendishly tricky to pronounce correctly it was said to be used to identify German spies in the Second World War. Ironically, Scheveningen’s beach is now one of the most popular places in the country for German tourists. I’m loath to encourage an upsurge in tourism, but on a recent sunny weekend I decided to spend a day wandering the city exploring some of my favourite haunts.

Binnenhof, The Hague, Netherlands

Binnenhof, The Hague, Netherlands

The Hague, Netherlands

The Hague, Netherlands

Peace Palace, The Hague, Netherlands

Peace Palace, The Hague, Netherlands

The Hague, Netherlands

The Hague, Netherlands

It’s true that The Hague lacks the wealth of historic buildings that grace other Dutch cities, and even though I live overlooking a canal, this is not a city that can rival Utrecht or Delft for quaint canals. It’s also true that the Dutch often consider The Hague to be boring, with a cultural scene that is less cutting edge than Rotterdam and less varied than Amsterdam. When I moved here, my boss suggested that since I’d lived in London I might want to work in The Hague and live somewhere more exciting.

The Dutch have a saying, “Amsterdam to party, Rotterdam to work, Den Haag to live”, and the truth is that we’ve not regretted a single day of our time spent here. Where else could you find the Mauritshuis, perhaps the most perfectly sized art gallery in the world, and also home to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. It might be the most famous piece in the former 17th century palace, but I rarely visit without marvelling at the many other Dutch masters on show: Rembrandt, Steen, Hals, Rubens, van Dyck, Dou.

The Mauritshuis sits next to the 13th century Binnenhof, which was at the centre of Dutch government during the 16th century Golden Age, and is still home to parts of the modern Dutch parliament. This historic area of the city is where you’ll find good restaurants and upmarket shopping. First though, spend an hour or two hanging out in one of the pleasant restaurants in Plein, the most perfect of all The Hague’s squares. Traffic free and with lots of outdoor seating, it’s the place to watch the world go by.

Afterwards, go for a stroll in the nearby Lange Voorhout and don’t stop until you find yourself surprisingly in the middle of the Haagse Bos woods. Here you’ll discover the Huis ten Bosch, one of the three official royal residences, and the excellent Louwman Museum. Hop on a bike and head back to town, because no visit to The Hague would be complete without seeing the utterly brilliant Panorama Mesdag, the epic creation of the city’s most famous artist.

The Hague, Netherlands

The Hague, Netherlands

The Hague, Netherlands

The Hague, Netherlands

The Hague, Netherlands

The Hague, Netherlands

The Hague, Netherlands

The Hague, Netherlands

Mesdag is most famous for his seascapes and nearby is the Zeeheldenkwartier, Sea Heroes Quarter, filled with quirky shops, and good restaurants and bars, including the Grand Café Victoria on the area’s centrepiece Prins Hendrikplein. From here it’s only a tram ride away to the beach at Scheveningen, where you can stroll the re-opened pier. There are some good eating and drinking options along the pier, including a restaurant out over the water, and the elevated position gives great views along hundreds of kilometres of golden beaches.

Walk along the beach away from the centre of the resort (like many seaside towns this is the least attractive part of the beach). Go north and find a good beach bar to sit down and watch the sun set over the North Sea. If you’re lucky, you can do this while drinking something brewed in one of the local microbreweries, Kompaan or De Prael. You can stay down on the beach until the early morning, or grab another tram back into town to sample some of that ‘boring’ Hague nightlife. I’m going to miss this city.

Fort Bourtange, a journey back to the 16th century

The Netherlands has its fair share of beautiful medieval towns that double as star forts, surrounded by defensive canals and moats, but few compare to the extraordinary star fort of Bourtange. It may be small, it takes ten minutes to walk the complete circuit of the inner defences, but it is uniquely well preserved and gives a real insight into what it would have been like to have been garrisoned here in the 16th and 17th centuries – it was built in 1580 by the Dutch in an attempt to isolate the Spanish garrison in nearby Groningen.

The Dutch War for Independence, also known as the Eighty Years’ War, was only in its infancy when Bourtange was constructed on the orders of William I, Prince of Orange. Groningen was a major city in the north of the Netherlands and depended on supplies from Germany. The fort was meant to disrupt Spanish supplies and cut Groningen off from trade routes into Germany. Today, it lies only a few kilometres from the modern German border, and to get there and back entailed crossing national boundaries a few times.

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Ironically, the fort didn’t see much action against the Spanish, perhaps its most perilous moment came in 1672, when the German Prince-Bishopric of Münster attacked and laid siege to it. By that point the defences had fallen into disrepair and the garrison consisted of only fifty men. It was repaired just in time and, thanks to the naturally marshy surroundings, the attack failed. This was to be the last time the fort would see serious action. Not too long afterwards, it was once again largely abandoned and left to decay.

Worse still, farmers started draining the surrounding swamp for land, removing one of its most important defences. The fort saw service again in the 18th century. Between 1739 and 1742 it was repaired and expanded, but this was only a temporary reprieve from its long-term decline. Military technology had advanced making the fort largely obsolete. So much so, that by the 1850s it had been dismantled and began a new life as a village. Fast forward a century to the 1960s, and the village in the former fort was also largely abandoned.

The authorities stepped in and decided to reconstruct the Bourtange of 1750, in the hope that tourism would revive its fortunes. The work to turn the fort into an open air museum wasn’t completed until 1992, but the three decade wait was well worth it. Visiting today is a remarkable experience, there were even a few people in period clothing. From the visitor’s centre, the short walk to the fortress takes you along the defensive moat – house tops, a windmill and church spire poking above the top of the earth defences.

It’s only when you walk across the drawbridge and through one of the two village gates that you really see what all the fuss is about. I strolled up a cobbled street, past lovingly restored buildings, one of which was a synagogue. In such a small place that seemed a bit strange, but by 1840 Bourtange was home to a thriving Jewish population. On the wall of the synagogue is a plaque commemorating the forty-two Jewish residents who where killed in Nazi death camps during World War Two.

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

Fort Bourtange, Netherlands

I reached the very centre of the village a few yards further on. You know you’re in the centre of the star because there’s a circle out from which village’s few streets radiate. Turn slowly through 360° and you can see the entirety of Bourtange. I strolled around, looking into some of the historic buildings that are open to the public, and which tell the fort’s story. Afterwards, I walked the star shaped defences with good views over the village roofs and surrounding countryside.

It’s a beautiful place, and you can even spend the night here, which I imagine to be very atmospheric. Sadly, I didn’t have time for that. There are a couple of places to eat in the village though, so I had a snack before heading into Germany and onwards to Berlin.

Cycling through Gelderland to Royal Buren

Not long after I arrived in the Netherlands, I heard the story of how the current Dutch King, Willem-Alexander, once competed incognito in the legendary Elfstedentocht speed skating race in 1986. The then Prince Willem-Alexander registered for the event using the name W. A. van Buren, questions of who the mysterious van Buren really was emerged only during the race. In adopting the van Buren name he was continuing a royal tradition, both Queen Wilhelmina and Queen Juliana had used ‘Buren’ to hide their true identities.

Buren, Gelderland, Netherlands

Buren, Gelderland, Netherlands

Buren, Gelderland, Netherlands

Buren, Gelderland, Netherlands

Wijk bij Duurstede, Gelderland, Netherlands

Wijk bij Duurstede, Gelderland, Netherlands

Wijk bij Duurstede, Gelderland, Netherlands

Wijk bij Duurstede, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Duurstede, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Duurstede, Gelderland, Netherlands

Wijk bij Duurstede, Gelderland, Netherlands

Wijk bij Duurstede, Gelderland, Netherlands

The name was adopted as a nod to the royal family’s historic connection to the small, picture-postcard perfect town of Buren, which sits in Gelderland countryside south of Utrecht. Buren gained its royal prestige in 1551 when the then Countess of Buren, Anna van Egmont, married William I, Prince of Orange. Known as William the Silent, he was one of the key rebels to revolt against Spanish rule of the Netherlands, and was the leading military commander in the early years of the struggle for independence. It’s a critical historic connection in the Dutch national story.

My cycle route took me from Utrecht to the town of Houten, and then past several castles, none of which are open to the public, and through small villages to the pretty little town of Wijk bij Duurstede. The town sits on the Rhine, or the Nederrijn as the river is known here, and was a critical junction in trade links across Europe. No surprise then that a castle was built here to protect trade and extract tolls. Today, it’s a ruin, although one that has a cafe inside it. It’s evocatively set in woodland and surrounded by water.

I stopped for a drink and to shelter from the sun, before exploring the town and finding my way to the small harbour. This is overshadowed by a huge windmill which straddles the road into town, acting like a gateway. Apparently, it’s considered to be the world’s only ‘drive through’ windmill. The town was decorated with Dutch flags and orange bunting to mark the day the Netherlands was liberated from German occupation in the Second World War – a recurring theme everywhere on my route.

To reach Buren meant crossing the Nederrijn. On my map it wasn’t clear if there was a bridge, and as I cycled towards the crossing I could see a ferry arriving. I speeded up so as not to miss the boat, and got there just in time. It was only when we were crossing that I realised two things: there was a €0.80 fee for bikes and I didn’t have any money. Embarrassed, I asked the boatman if I could pay with card. I could not. A cafe on the other river bank proved to be my salvation. They were happy to charge €10 for iced tea and give me the change to pay for the boat.

Buren, Gelderland, Netherlands

Buren, Gelderland, Netherlands

Gelderland, Netherlands

Gelderland, Netherlands

Buren, Gelderland, Netherlands

Buren, Gelderland, Netherlands

Sterren van Weleer, rabbit statue, Gelderland, Netherlands

Sterren van Weleer, rabbit statue, Gelderland, Netherlands

Crossing the Nederrijn, Gelderland, Netherlands

Crossing the Nederrijn, Gelderland, Netherlands

Crossing the Nederrijn, Gelderland, Netherlands

After that close escape, I cycled on tiny lanes through beautiful countryside towards Buren. I could see the steeple of the 14th century Sint-Lambertuskerk in the distance, which marked my destination. It was in this ancient church in 1551 that William the Silent married Anna van Egmont, there’s a bronze statue outside of the couple with their children. Sadly it wasn’t open when I was there, and I had to content myself with sitting in its shadow while having lunch at a nearby cafe.

The town has plenty of lovely old buildings and still retains some of the city walls that protected its inhabitants. Other than the church, Buren’s ‘major’ attraction is the early 17th century orphanage building. Bizarrely, this has been converted into a museum to the Dutch military police. Buren’s not a big place, and an hour after arriving I was on my way again, following the River De Korne to the next town over where I could get a train back to Utrecht.

Back in the big cheese, exploring Gouda

The last time I visited Gouda I’d been living in the Netherlands for less than six weeks. It’s taken nearly four years to revisit this picturesque town, but it was worth making the short trip – it’s a 20 minute journey from The Hague – if for no other reason than to visit the glorious interior of the medieval Gothic church, Sint Janskerk, world famous for its truly extraordinary stained glass windows. The seventy-two luminescent 16th century windows are the reason Sint Janskerk is an UNESCO World Heritage site, but it also claims the title of ‘longest church in the Netherlands’.

City Hall, Gouda, Netherlands

City Hall, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Historic centre, Gouda, Netherlands

Historic centre, Gouda, Netherlands

Historic centre, Gouda, Netherlands

Historic centre, Gouda, Netherlands

Cheese, Gouda, Netherlands

Cheese, Gouda, Netherlands

Cheese, Gouda, Netherlands

Cheese, Gouda, Netherlands

When I was last here in 2014 the building was closed, this time Sint Janskerk was not only open, but the winter sun was illuminating the stained glass and the vast interior space of the church. Some of the windows are 20 metres high and represent distinct phases in Dutch history, between Spanish rule and Dutch independence, and between the pre- and post-Reformation Catholic and Protestant churches. In some windows you can see Philip II of Spain, in others William of Orange. Both using the windows for their own propaganda purposes.

There is a fantastic self-guided audio tour of the church – if you visit definitely take the audio tour – which recounts both the history behind the windows and the meaning of the stained glass. Anticipating the beginning of the Second World War, the windows were removed and placed into storage in 1939. Not all of the originals have managed to make it to the 21st century and there are some modern windows, including one celebrating the liberation of the Netherlands in 1945.

We went for a wander around Gouda’s historic streets. It’s a pretty place with plenty of old buildings, including the very ornate town hall, the old cheese weighing building and numerous canals lined with merchant houses. It was Saturday and there was a market in the main square, which was a little disappointing but did at least have several cheese stalls. On a bitterly cold day, we mooched around for a couple of hours through narrow streets and along the town’s canals, until we came across the De Roode Leeuw, the Red Lion windmill, which still produces its own flour.

Ringed by an outer canal, which began life as the town’s defensive moat, the historic part of town isn’t very big and, even with a visit to the town museum, half a day pretty much covers Gouda. We made our way back to the town centre for lunch in one of the restaurants surrounding the main square. Almost every Dutch town has a square like this, and almost every square has a collection of restaurants serving up traditional Dutch fare. In Gouda that included a dish I’d never eaten before, cheese soup. Tasty and warming on a winter’s day.

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Kaaswaag, Gouda, Netherlands

Kaaswaag, Gouda, Netherlands

Historic centre, Gouda, Netherlands

Historic centre, Gouda, Netherlands

Afterwards we popped into the historic Kaaswaag, the cheese weighing building, now the tourist information office and a cheese shop that offer a variety of cheese tastings. We passed up the opportunity to sample yet more Dutch cheese, instead we found another cheese shop, ‘t Kaaswinkeltje, which was serving some weird and wonderful cheeses, including a blue cheese and a black cheese. Call it heresy in this most Dutch of cheese towns, but we left with three different French cheeses.

The oldest tree in the Netherlands, Doorwerth Castle

It’s said that, while looking at a painting during a visit to Kasteel Doorwerth, a woman suddenly felt “cold and very scared”. This terrifying ordeal is now claimed to have been an encounter with the supernatural, and it’s not the only time ghostly activities have been experienced within the walls of this castle on the banks of the Rhine, in the Dutch province of Gelderland. Such is the paralysis-inducing fear people have been subjected to, a British paranormal psychologist (whatever that is) came to the Netherlands to investigate. He’s said to have witnessed the horrifying sight of two “vapour-like mists”.

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

People seem to love a ghost story and, even on the freezing cold day I visited, the castle was busy with visitors. Given Kasteel Doorwerth’s dramatic location close to the Rhine and backed by woodlands, and a violent history stretching back to the 13th century, it hardly seems worthwhile trying to add the extra drama of supernatural goings-on. As I cycled along the banks of the Rhine I could see the castle in the distance. It looked very peaceful sat in the Gelderland landscape, but looks can be deceiving. This castle has seen a lot of action.

During Operation Market Garden and the Battle for Arnhem in September 1944, the castle was heavily bombed. Medieval building techniques were no match for modern warfare, and it was reduced to a tragic pile of rubble. It took 37 years, but the castle was fully restored to its former glory and reopened to the public in 1983. This wasn’t the first time the castle had been destroyed though. The first recorded mention of it comes in 1260, when it was besieged by the Bishop of Utrecht, who ordered it to be burnt to the ground.

At that time it was mainly a wooden building, when it was rebuilt they took the sensible precaution of using bricks. A huge defensive tower was added, as was the moat that still surrounds the castle today. I walked across the drawbridge over the moat into the lovely courtyard, in the centre of which is an ancient tree said by many to be the oldest in the Netherlands. It struck me that the tree might have been the inspiration for the  white tree of Gondor from the Lord of the Rings.

The tree, an acacia, was planted in the late 16th or early 17th century, and has a very impressive circumference of around seven meters. It’s clearly famous as people were taking selfies in front of it. After enduring sub-zero temperatures on the way to the castle, the courtyard was sheltered from the freezing wind and bathed in winter sun. I sat on a bench and warmed up a little before going inside. Oddly for the Netherlands, there was only information in Dutch, but some rooms had people in period costumes explaining things.

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

The castle’s not large and I was back in the courtyard in less than an hour. I got back on the bike and headed to Arnhem. It was only afterwards, sat in a cafe eating a warming bowl of erwtensoep, that I discovered a bizarre link between Doorwerth Castle and Kirkby Lonsdale, the small market town where I went to school in northern England. I was part of Bentinck House at school, named after Lord Henry Cavendish-Bentinck, a large landowner in the area.

Originally from Germany, Bentinck’s were Counts of the Holy Roman Empire. Through marriage they inherited lands in the Netherlands, including Kasteel Doorwerth. The family also had an English branch, started by Captain John Albert Bentinck in the 18th century. Despite his Dutch and German parentage, his grandfather was the British Earl of Portland and he inherited lands in England. The Cavendish-Bentinck after which my school house was named, was a halfbrother of the Duke of Portland. The connected history of Europe’s aristocracy never ceases to amaze.

A bridge too far, remembering the Battle for Arnhem

The history of Operation Market Garden and the Battle for Arnhem during September 1944, is something every British person of a certain age knows. The epic film, A Bridge Too Far, recounts the story and features a stellar cast. So visiting the sites of the battle, and cycling over Arnhem’s all important road bridge, held a lot of meaning for me. The road bridge, and the nearby railway bridge, were deemed so critical to Allied plans for the invasion of Germany that 35,000 Allied troops were committed to the operation.

Airborne memorial, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Airborne memorial, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Had it succeeded the war might have been shortened by a year. After the successful D-Day invasion and rapid success in France and Belgium, the Allies had run out of steam. The plan was to flank German defences and attack from the Netherlands. The British chose to ignore intelligence reports that two German tank divisions were stationed near Arnhem. Airborne troops were ill equipped to fight tanks and support from ground troops took too long to arrive. Hoped for victory turned to tragic defeat.

I started the day with a visit to the excellent Airborne Museum at Oosterbeek, a small village outside Arnhem where much of the fighting was concentrated, and where British troops would form a defensive pocket before being overrun by German forces. The museum is based at the former Hotel Hartenstein, which was used as the British HQ. The top floors recount the backdrop of the battle, including original film footage and photographs, as well as recorded testimonies from civilians and soldiers, from all sides. It’s well done and incredibly poignant.

John Frost Bridge, Arnhem, Netherlands

John Frost Bridge, Arnhem, Netherlands

Old Church, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Old Church, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Airborne memorial, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Airborne memorial, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Old Church, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Old Church, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Airborne memorial, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Airborne memorial, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

On the lower floors, the museum has recreated realistic battle scenes from the streets of Arnhem and the trenches around Oosterbeek. After the museum I visited the Allied cemetery where many of those who died were buried after the war. It’s a tranquil spot. I cycled through the village to Oosterbeek’s old church, which was the scene of intense fighting. The church suffered significant damage, as did many of the village’s buildings. It’s a sleepy, prosperous looking place today, the events of 1944 were devastating.

My route along the banks of the Rhine took me away from Arnhem before crossing over a modern road bridge and returning me along the other bank of the river back towards the legendary Arnhem bridge. This involved cycling 20km into a headwind in sub-zero temperatures. By the time I crossed it my feet were little more than blocks of ice, the side of my face most exposed to the vicious wind was numb, my nose ran and my eyes streamed. In the town are more reminders and memorials to the battle that took place here.

The offensive that might have ended the war a year earlier, ended in failure. Allied troops would be pushed back, the Germans would launch their counter-offensive in the Ardenne, and the people of the Netherlands would be forced to endure a brutal occupation for another eight months. The consequences of defeat would be severe. Swathes of Arnhem were destroyed and hundreds of Dutch families were refugees in their own country.

Dutch civilians, under German occupation for four years, had greeted the paratroopers ecstatically, believing this was the start of their liberation. The reality afterwards was extremely bitter. The German command extracted reprisals against the Dutch with impunity and, during a harsh and unforgiving winter, Germany blocked food shipments to the occupied parts of the Netherlands. Dutch civilians were deliberately starved.

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

This became known as the Hongerwinter, the “Hunger winter” or the Dutch Famine of 1944-45. Starvation and malnutrition were widespread, with an estimated 22,000 people dying before the country was liberated in May 1945. Many of the soldiers who took part in Operation Market Garden blamed themselves for inflicting these horrors on the people of the Netherlands. The memorial outside the Airborne Museum pays testimony not only to this, but to the fact that the Dutch never held them responsible:

50 years ago British and Polish Airborne soldiers fought here against overwhelming odds to open the way into Germany and bring the war to an early end. Instead we brought death and destruction for which you have never blamed us. This stone marks our admiration for your great courage, remembering especially the women who tended our wounded. In the long winter that followed your families risked death by hiding Allied soldiers and airmen while members of the Resistance helped many to safety.

2017, a year of travel in the rear view mirror

One exception not withstanding, 2017 has been a European year. It’s been a lot of fun exploring new destinations – Burgundy in France, Fruska Gora in Serbia and Granada’s Islamic heritage in Spain; but it’s been even more fun revisiting places I last visited many years ago – the Czech Republic’s Prague, Sweden’s glorious Stockholm, not to mention that one exception, Argentina. In between there have been trips to England and Scotland, as well as around the Netherlands – a country that really punches above its weight.

It’s been a fun year, thanks for joining me on the journey, and I wish you all the best of travels for 2018.

The cheesiest of Dutch towns, Alkmaar

Alkmaar is an attractive and historic town that has thrived on cheese production. The town’s famed cheese market has been around for over 400 years and, provided there’s a steady supply of tourists, it seems unlikely to end any time soon. It’s definitely one of the more touristy things you can do in the Netherlands, but a little bit of ‘cheese’ never did anyone any harm.

Summer and Winter in the English Lake District

I headed across the North Sea with my bike for company to take take part in the Fred Whitton Cycle Sportive in May, and took the opportunity to hike the Vale of Grasmere while the Bluebells were in full bloom. More recently, winter hikes across frozen winter landscapes have included The Old Man of Coniston and Crinkle Crags. Proof that the Lake District is best at any time of year.

Revisiting the delights of Stockholm

It’s taken me over a decade to make the short journey to Stockholm. One long weekend later and all I could think was “Why?” This is, without any doubt, one of Europe’s finest cities. Built across several islands and surrounded by water on all side, crossing from one neighbourhood to another feels like you’re entering a different city. Once famed for high prices, the costs no longer seem so prohibitive and the food has been through a revolution.

Prague, a glorious city blighted by modern tourism

I loved Prague when I first ventured here a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is still one of the great cities of Europe, but the toll modern tourism is taking on the historic city centre and the Prague Castle area is eye-wateringly painful to observe. There are still pockets of calm away from the tour groups, but this visit clashed badly with my trip 25-years earlier.

Ghiga and Arran, Island hopping in Scotland

At 9.5 kilometres long and 2.5 kilometres wide, Gigha was a huge surprise. Rugged and wild, with a peculiarly warm microclimate that makes it very hospitable, I’d never even heard of it before going to a friends wedding on the island. Afterwards we explored the much bigger Arran Isle with it’s wealth of ancient history. The weather was even good, well until the final day.

Wine tasting along the Grand Cru Routes of Burgundy

France is an extraordinary country for many different reasons, none more so that the sheer diversity of its regions. We made a couple of trips to France this year, including to the marvellous cathedral town of Reims, but it was the beautiful and historic Burgundy, and its magnificent capital, Dijon, that really captivated us – the wine was just an added benefit.

Painting the town red, yellow and blue for De Stijl

To mark the anniversary of the De Stijl art movement, the best known proponent of which was Dutch artist, Piet Mondrian, The Hague transformed itself into  an open air gallery that saw entire buildings become huge canvases for the familiar red, yellow and blue Mondrian designs. Even the piano in Central Station got a makeover.

Going back in time in Serbia’s Fruska Gora National Park

Serbia has a long and troubled history, no more so than in recent years after the fall of communism, but it is a surprising, fascinating and friendly country that deserves more international tourists. I visited the historic city of Novi Sad, but it was the landscape and cultural history of the nearby Fruska Gora National Park that made the trip special.

Seville, the beating heart of Andalusia

Spain is one of my favourite countries to visit, Andalusia one of my favourite regions and Seville my absolute favourite town (well, maybe tied for first place with Madrid). It’s almost cliche to say Seville is one of the most vibrant cities in Europe, but there’s no denying there is something going on. A vast wealth of history, coupled with a fabulous cultural heritage and some of Spain’s best food. What’s not to love?

The gorgeous medieval town of Cesky Kumlov

I loved my travels in the Czech Republic, but the remarkably well-preserved town of Cesky Kumlov was a real highlight. Nestled between bends of the Vltava River, the town feels like it hasn’t changed much since the 15th century. It also boasts a dramatic castle, and is home to lots of good hotels and restaurants.

Exploring fjords from historic Bergen

Bergen is a gloriously historic town set in the most picturesque landscape imaginable. Venture outside the town and you can quickly find yourself walking on the roof of the world with vast panoramas over the surrounding mountains and fjords. Or, take a train, a bus and a boat, and another two trains, to explore the magical Nærøyfjord and the Flam railway.

Into the Andes, the Argentinian Lake District

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Argentina a few times now, but had never been to the renowned Lake District region. A visit to San Martin de los Andes and Bariloche made up for that oversight, and opened our eyes to this truly magnificent region. A broken big toe prevented much hiking but our tiny hire car took us to extraordinary places all the same.

The musical Santas of Dordrecht Xmas Market

It wouldn’t be the festive season without at least one trip to an Xmas market. Normally these are disappointing experiences, overly commercial and lacking atmosphere, only made bearable by the consumption of glühwein, or bisschopswijn as it’s known in the Netherlands. I didn’t hold out much hope for the Dordrecht Xmas Market, but life is full of surprises, and a collection of musical Santa Claus’s and a nativity with real animals made it an entertaining day. I don’t recall there being a llama and a load of goats in the stable in Bethlehem, but what do I know, I wasn’t there.

Dordrecht is a lovely town, with a wealth of history and historic buildings that make a visit worthwhile regardless of whether there’s an Xmas Market or not. The city itself, particularly the picturesque area around the old harbour and Grote Kerk, formed an impressive backdrop for the festivities. As we walked down from the railway station, a small throng of people were headed in the same direction. Before too long the first market stalls made an appearance and the smell of glühwein was enticingly wafting through the air.

Musical Santas at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

Musical Santas at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

Musical Santas at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

Musical Santas at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

Stilt walker at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

Stilt walker at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

Musical Santas at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

Musical Santas at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

Musical Santas at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

Musical Santas at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

The Xmas markets I’ve visited in the Netherlands over the last four years all merge with each other in my mind. With the exception of Deventer’s exceptional Dicken’s Festival, none of them really stand out from the crowd. Dordrecht promised much though, its website even claimed that for an ‘authentic’ experience you no longer needed to visit Cologne or Dusseldorf. I wouldn’t go that far, but the roaming musical Santa’s make it one to remember.

It was a chilly day, and we stopped in the Stadhuisplein for a glass of glühwein. A Santa band was warming up on the stage. A crowd gathered and they launched into a series of upbeat seasonal songs in which assorted reindeer featured heavily. I was hoping for some traditional Dutch tunes but the set was entirely in English. Our spirits raised, and ‘Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer’ firmly lodged in our heads, we set off to see what the market had to offer. There were a large number of stalls selling pork-based products.

I’d like to say that this is a Dutch tradition but, honestly, there are processed pork products available everywhere, at all times of the year. Putting some holly around a few sausages isn’t going to make them any more festive. A little disappointed, we set off again and wandered into the Grotekerkstuin, where there was the promise of a ‘living’ Nativity scene. I wasn’t sure if we’d be forced to watch an unfortunate person giving birth in the square (this is the Netherlands, anything can happen), but whatever was going on had drawn a large crowd of excited onlookers. We made our way over.

Safely behind a fence (probably for the animal’s welfare rather than ours) a couple of disconsolate looking shepherds were taking care of a bizarre menagerie of creatures. These included the aforementioned llama, some donkeys, geese, chickens, sheep, goats and, the undoubted star of the show, a camel. I’m pretty sure it was the wrong type of camel for Palestine, even two thousand years ago, but when there’s a South American llama wandering around it seems churlish to quibble over the variety of camel they’d managed to acquire.

Nativity at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

Nativity at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

Nativity at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

Nativity at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

Nativity at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

Nativity at Dordrecht Xmas Market, Netherlands

We managed another glass of glühwein before heading off again through the streets. Occasionally, there was a band playing and there were more stalls, but it was pretty busy and we were quite glad when we finally emerged at the end of the walking route. Ignoring the urge to have yet another glass of warm wine, we made our way back to the station, pondering as we went whether singing Santa’s, a camel and a misplaced llama could really rival the festive markets of Germany?

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