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.

_____________________________________________________________________

* 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

The Realm of a Thousand Islands

The Netherlands’ capacity for surprise never ceases to amaze. For a small country, it has a fascinating history … and a lot of it. I’d read about the extraordinary history of the area north of Alkmaar, known as the Realm of a Thousand Islands, but it has taken me three years to get around to visiting the region, and the lovely Broeker Veiling Museum in the tiny village of Broek op Langedijk.

The Broeker Veiling Museum tells the story of the region and its people. The first thing I learned was that the Realm of a Thousand Islands should really be called the Realm of Fifteen Thousand Islands. That is the remarkable number of patches of land, known as polders, that were reclaimed from the marshland by digging canals and building dikes. The sludge from the canals was used to create raised areas of dry land.

Windmills near Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Windmills near Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Realm of a Thousand Islands, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Realm of a Thousand Islands, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Realm of a Thousand Islands, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Realm of a Thousand Islands, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Realm of a Thousand Islands, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Realm of a Thousand Islands, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

The soil proved extremely fertile and, despite the hardships of farming in such difficult terrain, this soon became one of the Netherlands’ most productive agricultural areas. Here, amongst the tiny plots of land, incredible numbers of cabbages, onions, carrots and potatoes were grown. In a single year, it produced around seven million cabbages, red and white. Unsurprisingly, the area became famous for its sauerkraut production – and the smell of rotting cabbage leaves in the canals was overwhelming.

All those vegetables had to be sold to someone. Until the late 19th century, farmers sold directly to traders on the canals. In 1887 though, the world’s first sail-through vegetable market and auction opened in Broek op Langedijk. Originally open air, eventually a market building was constructed over open water. Boats sailed in, buyers would check the goods, and then the boats would go into the auction house for a Dutch Auction – where the price starts high and gets lower until someone bids.

The area was particularly famous for its potatoes, which thanks to a microclimate grew quicker than elsewhere. The harvest of the first potatoes, the Langedijker Eersteling, was announced on the radio and was celebrated around the country. The farmer who harvested the first potatoes was rewarded with cigars and his name in the local paper. Make no doubt about it though, farming here was very hard work.

The area got the nickname of the Realm of Hard Work for good reason. Farmers not only had to travel by boat between their plots of land, which were often long distances from each other, but virtually all the farming had to be done by hand. The plots were too small for mechanisation, and the tough labour in the fields was added to by the fact that the canals had to be regularly dredged (by hand) to stop the area becoming marsh again.

Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Auction House, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Auction House, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Auction House, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Auction House, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Market, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Market, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

I started my visit with a tour of the museum and a walk around the gardens, followed by visiting the indoor floating market. Inside were boats, some with ‘produce’ in them. It’s a big space and as you walk around there are recordings telling you the history of the market. The market connects by water to the auction house, where once a day there’s an auction of local vegetables to tourists – it’s fun, even if understanding the Dutch commentary is challenging.

After you’ve visited everything a boat ride takes you on a trip through what remains of the Realm of a Thousand Islands. It’s a fascinating ancient man-made landscape. As the area became uncompetitive in the 20th century, most of the original plots were lost to other development. The small area that remains is cultivated by hobby farmers who are growing traditional and non-traditional crops. The produce is still sold, but these days it has to be organic.

Market, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Market, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Market, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Market, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Market, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Market, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Auction House, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Auction House, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Cycling on water, crossing the Houtribdijk

It’s not every day that you get to cycle across one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World – even if it’s only one of the Seven Wonders according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. That though is what I found myself doing as I cycled along the Houtribdijk, a 30km-long dike that connects the new Dutch town of Lelystad to the ancient Dutch town of Enkhuizen just to the north of Amsterdam.

The Houtribdijk forms part of the immense Zuiderzee Works, a series of dams, dikes, locks and sluices begun in 1932 with the construction of the Afsluitdijk. Intended to protect the Netherlands from floods that periodically devastated the country, the Afsluitdijk transformed the Zuiderzee from a large saltwater inlet of the North Sea into a freshwater lake, the IJsselmeer. It also began a large-scale land reclamation programme that added an extra 1,650km2 of dry land to the Netherlands.

Boats on the Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Boats on the Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Boats on the Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Boats on the Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk, Lelystad, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk, Lelystad, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The city of Lelystad, my start point, was built in the 1960s on land reclaimed from the water. Today it’s home to 75,000 people, and sits about 3 metres below sea level. It would be fair to say that Lelystad’s very existence depends on the Afsluitdijk keeping out the waters of the North Sea. The Houtribdijk was built at the same time as the city. When it opened in 1975 it sliced the IJsselmeer in two, creating a new lake to the south, the Markermeer.

The original plan had been to drain the Markermeer and reclaim another 700km2 of new land. That was derailed by growing financial and environmental concerns in the 1980s, so the Markermeer remained a lake and has become a vital recreational area and wetland habitat. As you cycle along this enormous hydraulic engineering project, the vast expanse of grey-blue water seems to stretch forever, merging seamlessly with the horizon.

Replica 17th century Dutch Ship, Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Replica 17th century Dutch Ship, Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Replica Noah's Ark, Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Replica Noah’s Ark, Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The IJsselmeer, Netherlands

The IJsselmeer, Netherlands

I cycled from Lelystad’s train station to the shore of the Markermeer where fishing boats and pleasure boats mingle along the shoreline. Improbably, in the harbour was a 70m long ‘replica’ of Noah’s Ark – I’m not sure how you can have a replica of something no one has ever seen. The Ark is billed as the first floating biblical theme park. It’s spent the last five years touring Europe, but is now back in the Netherlands.

Leaving that absurdity behind, I passed an actual replica of a 17th-century Dutch East India Company ship, the De 7 Provincien. In the background was the magnificent Anthony Gormley sculpture, Exposure, of a crouching man looking out over the water next to the Houtribdijk. I was soon on top of the lock system that allows boats to transfer between the two halves of the lake, and I could see the dike snaking into the distance.

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The IJsselmeer, Netherlands

The IJsselmeer, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

The cycle lane starts alongside the N302 main road, but soon drops down below the road so that you’re cycling alongside the water, and the 8,500 vehicles that pass along the dike each day are several metres above you. It’s quite strange, but very peaceful as you can’t see or really hear the traffic. Boats pass by as you cycle along, and after a couple of bends in the road the route becomes arrow straight.

I reached Trintelhaven, an ‘island’ in the middle of the dike with a small harbour, car park and restaurant. It also has a small beach. Carrying straight on I finally popped back up onto the top of the dike and I could see my destination, the beautiful medieval town of Enkhuizen. I didn’t have long in Enkhuisen before jumping on a train towards the equally attractive town of Hoorn.

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Dutch springtime, a festival of flowers

Just south of Leiden lies one of the prime flower and bulb growing regions in the Netherlands. It’s an area filled with daffodils, hyacinths, irises and the most famous of all, tulips. If you’re lucky enough to fly over this region when your plane comes in to land at Schiphol Airport, it looks like a giant patchwork quilt of brilliant reds, purples, pinks, yellows, oranges and whites. It’s a magnificent sight, and one so famous that it draws people from around the world to see it.

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

It’s equally impressive seen from the seat of a bicycle as you travel from village to village through the region. Over the last few weeks I’ve been regularly cycling through this area as part of my training for a cycling sportive. It’s been lovely to cycle through the flower fields, passing vibrant blocks of colour as different types of flowers arrive and then disappear only to be replaced by another variety.

There’s something appropriate about the arrival of the flowers, a multicoloured marker of the end of winter and the onset of summer – a welcome explosion of vibrant colour after a long winter of grey skies and brown fields. The splash of colour lasts only a few weeks, during which millions of flowers are cut and exported around the world. Surprisingly, many flowers are not sold, but simply discarded in favour of harvesting the bulbs.

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

These days, flowers and bulbs account for a significant portion of Dutch agricultural exports. To put that into context, Dutch flower, bulb and other plant exports make up around two-thirds of total global exports. Not bad for a country with a tiny amount of agricultural land, most of which is below sea level. It’s a trade that has transformed the Dutch landscape, and although you get flowers year-round, April is ‘Peak Flower’.

It makes for quite an unusual tourist experience. Thousands of people flood into countryside which, for the rest of the year, is completely devoid of tourism. It’s an entirely new form of ‘tulip mania’, although these days tulips don’t cost the same as a house in Amsterdam. As you cycle around you can spot people crouching amongst the flower fields having photos taken, while nearby farmers are spraying, harvesting or checking their flowers.

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Many tourists visit the (admittedly extraordinary) Keukenhof gardens, which are home to over 7 million flowers. Keukenhof tends to get extremely busy, and a more relaxed, interesting and free way of getting to see the flowers and the communities that grow them, is to hop on a bike and meander between this region’s villages. If you’re lucky, you may come across flower-related festivals taking place, or flower mosaics that are entered into local competitions.

On a good day, and the weather at this time of year can be very hit-and-miss, the fields are almost luminous, lending an other-worldly feel to the Dutch landscape. It’s an experience to which photographs don’t really do justice so, if you have the chance, it’s well worth making the effort to see the flowers up close and personal.

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Canal-side chic, a sunny day in beautiful Leiden

Leiden is one of my favourite Dutch cities, and one of the most energetic and vibrant in the Netherlands. Much of the vibrancy comes from the presence of Leiden University’s 23,000 students – in a city of only 122,000 people, they make their presence felt. On a late Spring day, when the sun shines and the cold winter temperatures finally give way to some warmth, the city really comes to life. Boats take to the canals, people gather in canal-side restaurants, and the streets fill with cyclists and walkers.

It’s easy to dismiss Leiden as a smaller, less touristy version of Amsterdam, but that is to underestimate its appeal. For a small city, it punches well above its weight, and has played an outsized role throughout Dutch history. This is a city that witnessed the birth of Rembrandt; was home to the Pilgrim Fathers before they sailed for New England in the Mayflower; was one of the earliest and most important printing centres in Europe; and the university played a major role in the development of modern medicine.

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

As you walk around town, it’s hard to miss the role the university still plays in city life. It’s one of the oldest and most prestigious in Europe, with a history stretching back to the 16th century. Its array of alumni is as diverse as 17th century French philosopher, René Descartes; 19th century President of the United States, John Quincy Adams; and 20th century genius, Albert Einstein. University buildings are clustered around the city centre.

The university was founded in 1575 to reward the city for withstanding the Siege of Leiden – the bleakest period in the town’s history. As the most economically valuable town in the southern Netherlands, Leiden’s decision to side with the Dutch rebellion against Spanish rule resulted in an all too predictable and brutal siege. The siege lasted over a year and caused famine and widespread suffering. The lifting of the siege on October 3rd, 1574, is still celebrated today.

The university’s illustrious history is matched by that of the city itself, which stretches back to around 50 AD and the Roman Empire. Today though, it is the extraordinary economic, cultural and artistic flourishing of the Dutch Golden Age that is the most striking feature of Leiden. This period of history is reflected in the picturesque canals lined with 17th and 18th century buildings, ancient churches, medieval alms houses and several surviving windmills.

We arrived in the morning and made our way to the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, a fabulous offshoot of Amsterdam’s world famous Rijksmuseum. The Leiden branch is home to one of the world’s most important collections from ancient Egypt, and has recently been reopened after being remodelled. We spent a couple of hours in the museum before walking through Leiden’s canal belt and settling down for lunch on the Oude Rijn canal.

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

The weather was so warm we decided to spend a bit more time strolling around the city. We popped into the Hortus Botanicus, one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world, and the place where tulips were first grown in Europe after being smuggled out of Turkey in the 16th century. Afterwards, we wandered through the Van der Werfpark, a popular green space that hides a tremendous tragedy.

Until 1807 Werfpark was all houses, but in January of that year a consignment of gunpowder exploded, killing at least 160 people, injuring thousands and destroying dozens of buildings. We passed by the magnificent Pieterskerk, and wove our way through the narrow surrounding streets before heading back to the train station – a satisfying day of exploration complete.

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands