Seeing one’s hometown as a tourist is one of those postponable laters…
Then suddenly it is nearing too late and the opportunity arose so I went for it. Time to see the city with a different set of eyes, and not only mine but in the company of a dozen cheery ladies.
As the long awaited spring was knocking on the door and luring tree buds out of their shells the group assembled in a narrow alley in the city center. After relocating to the warming sun on nearby Buitenhof our guide Raymond gives us a short introduction. He tells us that his current day job is as a bus driver but that with the success of “Cycle and the City” one day he hopes to just do it by bike. A bit about safety and he urge us to pay attention throughout the afternoon as there is a photoshoot to be won for the one who answers the most of his questions correct.
With tires pumped and saddle heights adjusted the dozen roll out of the alley and we are off on golden bikes. After maneuvering amongst pedestrians and tram tacks the first stop is by the Grote Kerk (the Great Church) where we gaze upwards towards the spire at what was back in 1420 by far the tallest building in the city. Being it a church one could expect a cross at the top, however squinting into the sunrays one can make out the contours of a bird at the top. Peculiar place to land one could surmise but this gilded stork (Ooievaar) have permanently settled atop of the church and befittingly so as the white stork is a symbol of the city.
The dozen dames move along into Westeinde and through a massive 17th century gate to end up in the Spaansche Hof (Spanish court yard). There with the façade of a Catholic church as backdrop Raymond cast two ladies and dresses them in bling and an oversized crown. It is time to reenact a bit of history in the era of the eighty year war with Spain and he tells tales of love and ghosts.
From history to horses and the Royal stables at the Paleistuin (Palace Garden). It is in the stables (which are closed to the public) where the Gouden Koets (Golden carriage) is normally parked. The legendary horse drawn carriage is used by King Willem Alexander when he on Prinsjesdag (Princes day - in September) ceremoniously travels from the Noordeinde Palace to open the Parliamentary season at Binnenhof. The color of the carriage has become the color of the bikes. We move on under spurting spring foliage to the back of the Palace, through a narrow passage to stop at a door. A knock and we are allowed through back into the hustle and bustle of the old city. On the narrow brick covered streets we bike under Dutch flags in Hoofdkwartier. As there is little room for (bicycle) street parking our golden uni-chariots are parked in a communal and secure bike parking garage (Biesieklette).
Pounding the pavement
At the city’s oldest bakery ‘t Bakkertje dating back to 1838 the bread is fresh and a sample of Hageneese sweets and liquor is offered. From food to faith at the monks of Broeders van Sint Jan (Brothers of St John). After a short stop in their small shop selling crafts, food, spices and pottery we head through a narrow stairs and lower our voices before opening the door to a well-hidden chapel. Brick walls and tile floor is softly lit through colorful stain glass windows. Back on the street a few doors down lie the for a foreigner oddly named pub and restaurant Monfer de Mol (Monfer the Mole). Monfer is a sunglass wearing, cigar smoking, muttering character from a 1970ies Dutch children’s puppet TV show. The pub is awarded as one of the best in the nation. We are ushered into the back to what appears like a 19th century parlor. Corks pop and the well chilled Kloosterbier brewed in a micro-brewery by the Broeders we just visited are poured. With the true craft beer in glass we cheer and let the aromatic sweetish dark beer cool our throats.
The sampler is not enough to preclude further wheel borne transportation and the bikes are picked up to take us to the front of the Palace. There under a large chestnut tree the hidden message in the statue of Willem of Orange’s (or William the Silent) horse is explained. Why does it have two legs in the air? Nobody has the answer but Raymond shares the secret. We are like Willem sworn to silence.
Along a busy city street where trams, buses and trucks rumble along an unremarkable door open up to an oasis just meters off the street. It is what the Dutch call a Hofje (Court yard) in which’s center lies a well tendered small park with flower beds, bushes and trees. Surrounding the communal garden two story houses all occupied by ladies aged sixty and above. There are no noisy neighbors but just peace, serenity and an absence of traffic noises. One lady comes out to greet and convince us that laughing yoga prolongs life. She certainly seems to benefit from her own convictions.
We next park our bikes in the shade of another large tree at the end of Noordeinde. As a canal boat pass by on Noord Singelsgracht Raymond explain the difference between a Hagenaar and a Hagenese and the significance of the green and yellow colors in the city’s crest. He also tells the story of Dutch labor shortages in the late 1960ies and how that void was filled by Italians. With the 1973 oil crisis it all came to an end but some of the Italians stayed put to open eateries. That is how pizza came to Northern Europe. We meet Italian hospitality in person at family owned Da Lina’s where plates of antipasti and chilled Limoncello is served.
City of Peace and Justice
The best known building in The Hague the “City of Peace and Justice” is the Peace palace with its towering bell tower and lush expansive grounds. However what lays behind the ornamented black fence it is accessible only for those who work at the International Court of Arbitration and the International Court of Justice. The rest of us including the busloads of tourists visiting from abroad have to settle for a group selfie outside the fence. The tangible peace concept was a pipe dream of Tsar Nicolas II dating back to 1899. The Hague was chosen and the construction was completed in 1913 a year before WW I broke out. Global Peace as a concept is kept alive like the eternal flame burning within a ring of stones from all over the world. With a dose of Dutch pragmatic humor Raymond express a hope that there will be peace on earth before the Dutch gas from the fracking fields up North, which fuels the fire, run out.
Another prominent Russian, Anna Paulowna (Pavlovna in Russian), gave name to a street nearby. She was a Russian Grand Duchess who married into the Dutch Royalty. With today’s standards she might have been called a douche as her marriage was stormy in part due to her dissatisfaction of the size of the palace at Kneuterdijk, the lack of separation of nobility from the populace, her husband’s alleged affairs and debts. Here amongst café tables filled with sun seekers she sits lifeless in bronze on a bench. This is where the promised photo shoot takes place and it is Ineke who today turn an even decade (never ask a lady her age) is sat down for the picture. She is soon joined by the other eleven as Raymond gets the picture.
From Italian to Russian we move on to the Indonesian influences. Before entering the pub we are briefed to nod a silent greeting at the moustache clad man sitting by the door as he is the current proprietor of the generational family business. We are all welcome into what would classify as a “bruin café” in Dutch. As such it has dark walls perhaps in times past stained by tobacco smoke but now painted and filled with signs and historic tools. Soon lavish plates of peanut sauce dripping sate (satay) and real frietjes (French fries) are washed down with wine, beer or water as Spanish football is played on the TV screens.
For desert there is Florencia a real Italian gelateria serving up several dozen flavors with or without alcohol (Amaretto anyone?). It is a concept in The Hague and have a few ambulating stands prominently placed around town as well. We however will add to the 6000 cups of coffee served up weekly. Over the black or white brew Raymond divulge the meaning of the colloquial terms “besguitstuiter with salluf” and a “Haags bakkie”. The latter meaning a half full cup of coffee, referring to (the former) frugality of the city’s inhabitants, a notion well known throughout the Netherlands. However Italian tradition dictates otherwise and Florencia’s cups are filled to the brim with steaming Italian coffee.
All things The Hague
We are now firmly in Haganees territory and one of the promotors of the dialect is the overweight; sneaker clad “Haagse Harry” (Harry from The Hague). Weighing in at over 3000 kilo his ceramic body adopted from a cartoon figure stands firmly on top of the tram tunnel under Grote Markt, a square surrounded by bars and restaurants.
After four hours there is one last stop, it is where the first stone were laid in the 13th century for the country estate that is today the center of the Dutch Government. In the shadow of the imposing Ridderzaal (where the king ceremoniously arrives in September to outline the annual budget) Raymond opens a metal can and shares a last culinary delight from The Hague along the story of its birth. The newly re-gilded fountain on Binnenhof (Inner courtyard) becomes the backdrop for one more group picture before the golden bicycles roll through the gate and back to café/bar “vroeger was je anders” where the tour began. The name means “before you were different” and I could not agree more as with the insights and the places we visited during the afternoon I am different and experiences richer, thanks to Raymond and Sylvester of Cycle and the City.
If you think you’ve heard it all let me be the first to tell you that you are wrong. I can under no circumstances tell their stories, convey the smells, tastes and fun on offer. If nothing else you have probably never ridden a golden bicycle. Give it a try, let the good times roll
Cycle and the City
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