Beyond Amsterdam to Leiden and The Hague

amsterdam3There’s more to Holland than Amsterdam, as we discovered on our recent visit to the Netherlands. Arriving from Greece with no reservation on August 2, we were stunned to learn that almost all hotel rooms in and around Amsterdam were booked. The reason: the huge influx of visitors for the annual Gay Pride Parade. The helpful and friendly hotel association agent could only find us a room at the airport Sheraton, which we reluctantly accepted to the tune of $238. The room was lavish.

We departed refreshed next morning for our first real stop in nearby Leiden, as recommended by Dutch friends. What a gorgeous town! It was a Sunday and groups of families and friends were boating on the many canals that crisscross the town and contribute to its natural beauty and charm.

We ended up at the Mayflower Hotel in the main square, so named because the pilgrims to the USA left from here. Because the room was expensive at $125, we decided to do our supermarket thing — a pleasure in Holland, where wonderful, small portions of cheeses, fish spreads and cold cuts are readily available and fun to eat while sitting on the grass in the sunshine, facing one of the many canals.

The thrill of being in Leiden is that it is virtually pollution-free, not poisoned by carbon dioxide fumes from cars: people of all ages ride by on their sturdy bicycles or sail by in boats along the canals toting picnic lunches, babies, and family pets.

To our delight, we discovered that every location in Holland is accessible by train at all hours and at a reasonable cost. For example, we paid $12 from the airport train station to Leiden, one way.

After 24 hours in Leiden, we took the train to The Hague, another gorgeous city, albeit much larger, that is only 20 minutes away. Seat of the International Court of Justice, embassies and many other important international organizations, The Hague combines modern architecture with well-preserved old homes and shops, canals, and tree-lined boulevards.

amsterdam11At the exclusive Hotel des Indes, unopened bottles of Veuve Cliquot Champagne sit on outdoor tables awaiting apéritif customers. We, however, dined at the Asian Supermarket takeout and fish takeout emporium, both of which are located in the old Jewish quarter, now Chinatown. A memorial there, in Hebrew and Dutch, calls on people “to never forget what happened during the Holocaust.”

Unfortunately, we chose the rather uncomfortable, which was far from easy. With check in at 3pm and check out at 10am, we had to leave our bags in the paid lockers. We walked many miles, visited two wonderful museums and one remarkable miniature display of the best of Holland.

We walked two kilometers along a canal to reach Madurodam, an outdoor exhibition highlighting Holland’s architecture through the ages in miniature, from airports to canals, medieval castles, palaces and churches. You can walk along its sidewalks and view the intricacies of its scale models. The place was full of families with children enchanted and mystified by the tiny moving cars, ships, people, trains and airplanes.

We then took a tram back to the city center and explored the Escher Museum, one of Barbara’s favourite sights due to her mathematician father and uncle being enamoured with this artist, who uncannily mastered mathematical design and geometry.

Earlier that day, we toured the Museum of Dutch Old Masters, an exhibition at the Mauritshuis Museum including Girl with a Pearl Earring by Vermeer and, of course, Rembrandt himself in old age, which brought tears to Barbara’s eyes as she remembered the first time she saw it in Amsterdam when she was 18 in 1968. Brueghel was as always mystifying in his depiction of the tiny faces of peasants and gentry alike, so tiny that it seems impossible that any human could have used a brush to paint them. The light is the most incredible feature of Girl with a Pearl Earring and other Vermeer treasures. Photos of the painting are allowed as long as you turn off your flash.

After a long and rewarding day in The Hague, which included some of the best sashimi we’ve ever feasted on at the outdoor fish resto, we walked the long kilometer back to our hotel to retrieve our bags and then another to the train station where we boarded our train for Gouda, a 15-minute ride. Why did we choose Gouda? We wanted the small town atmosphere of Leiden combined with the Old City architecture that Gouda offered, with its enthralling town hall in the middle of its majestic and enchanting square, which we will tell you all about next time.

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