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Thursday, November 7, 2013
Travelblog 7: More to Holland than Amsterdam: den Haag
When most people think of the Netherlands they see images of tulips and windmills. Then they think about Amsterdam, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Most visitors to Holland concentrate a good amount of their energies on that fabulous city, but there is more to Holland than Amsterdam, or windmills, or tulips. A prime example is the seat of government, den Haag (the Hague). Den Haag not only houses the Dutch parliament in the Binnehof, it also serves as home for the World Court of the United Nations. Beyond that, the city is a treasure trove of Dutch history and art.
In an earlier blog I talked about the Grote Kerk (Great Church), where three of the Huygens family are buried. The building is a masterpiece of engineering and construction on a par with every major church in every major city in Europe. Having been allowed inside when the church was totally empty, not just of people but of pews, I had the chance to see how really huge the building is. The Mauritshuis would fit inside it, I think. The Mauritshuis is one of the most enjoyable art museums in the world. Three stories tall, the Mauritshuis was build in the 1630’s by Jacob van Campen for Johan Maurits of Nassau, cousin to Prince of Orange Frederick Henry. Constantijn Huygens oversaw the building while Maurits was on expedition to Brazil. Huygens built his own house right next door, but that home no longer stands. The Mauritshuis is the permanent home for Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring.,” plus a treasure trove of great works in an up close and personal setting seldom possible in larger museums.
The Mauritshuis serves as a focal point for the city. The Binnehof (Parliament Building) is right next door. The central shopping district is a short walk away. Den Haag’s centrum is as nice as any in Holland. A large plaza stretches from the back of the Mauritshuis to the first street of the central area. Restaurants line the plaza, with outdoor seating in good weather. The plaza itself is often crowded with some sort of fair or event. On this last trip the square was covered with book dealers selling old books. At one corner of the plaza, the centrum really begins. From pizza to Surinamese food, from the latest fashion to the most expensive fountain pen, den Haag has it all, right there, right now.
Not far away, Constantijn Huygens built a summer home, a retreat from the rigors of court. He designed it to look like a man when seen from above. The small house sits on the edge of a large pond, forming a head and hair. Carefully positioned groves of trees make up the rest of the shape – neck, torso, arms and legs. Unfortunately, half the land has given way to city growth, but the home, called Hofwijck, remains. The word “Hofwijck” translates as “Avoid Court.” Huygens, a composer and poet as well as diplomat and art patron, obviously had a sense of humor. His second son, Christiaan, was one of the greatest scientists of the age. A working model of his pendulum clock ticks away on the second floor at Hofwijck.
Two other tourist-friendly vacation destinations are within minutes of central den Haag. The beach resort Scheveningen is den Haag’s summer playhouse, with long beaches and a pier that juts out a goodly distance into the North Sea. There is a yearly sand castle contest that tests the limits of what sand can build. The theme for the one we saw was “The Lion King.” The castles were actually statues, including one of a grinning Elton John replete with very wide sunglasses playing and singing wildly at the piano. Then there is another major attraction, Madurodam, nothing less than a miniature of Holland itself. The artists of Madurodam are so precise that their buildings will reflect any ongoing re-construction on the actual building in real time. From windmills to Schiphol Airport to tiny masterworks inside the halls of a minute Rijksmuseum, the highlights of the Netherlands are right there in precise detail.
It is amazing to me that there is so much to see and enjoy in one municipality, let alone so small a country. My brother likes to point out that there is much more to Europe than just the Netherlands. I know he’s right, but I haven’t seen all of the Netherlands yet.
I was born in Holland in 1950. My parents immigrated to the US when I was two. I have many close friends and family on both continents. My wife Diane and I have been happily married since 1974. I have four children and one grandchild (two more are on the way). I love writing and sharing what I wrote most of all..