Koningsdag - An Amazing Day to be in Delft, Holland


Koningsdag – An Amazing Day to be in Delft

When I booked a bike and barge trip with Cycletours I had no idea that it would end on Koningsdag in Holland. In fact I had no idea what the hell Koningsdag was. During the week we were on the barge I learned that it is, in effect, the Dutch national holiday although its probably more like our Victoria Day in Canada than Canada Day and that for over 123 years it was Koninginnedag and not Koningsdag. The difference is that a koninginne is a queen and a koning is a king and here’s why the Dutch were getting ready for the party of the century. Please join us at it.

We just wrapped up the Cycletours trip with a visit to the famous cheese town of Edam before spending the last night aboard in Amsterdam. There is one last breakfast on the Zwaan, but I sense everyone is anxious to get moving. The French couples are all staying in Amsterdam for a few more days while Marielle, Liz and Emma are going to Paris. After breakfast we say a heartfelt goodbye to the crew and the French couples – I’m now getting used to the triple cheek kiss – and Marielle, Liz, Emma and we head on foot for Central Station. Here we part company with them, promising to stay in touch if we can. Of course with modern technology we can stay in touch easily, but I’ve never been great on following up on these friendships made somewhat forcefully by being thrust together for a week in close quarters. It’s not something I fail to do deliberately or something I’m particularly proud of not doing. Others I know have made life long friendships on these type of trips. Only time will tell for us.

The Dutch have a recent history of long lived queens who have the common sense to abdicate in favour of their designated successor when the time is right (this is not a dig at our queen as most think her designated successor is a twit). So Queen Wilhelmina who celebrated the first Koninginnedag, abdicated in favour of Juliana in 1948, then she abdicated in favour of Beatrix in 1980 and then she abdicated in favour of her son Willem-Alexander on Koninginnedag 2013.  So, to cut to the chase, today is the first Koningsdag ever! How cool is that and here we are in Holland on this great date without any clue as to what to do or where to go. Actually, the latter is false – we are going to Delft today, as soon as we can get out of Amsterdam. We have been warned that by late morning the city will be a paralysis of orange with virtually no public services operating. Yesterday I bought tickets for Delft and we are prepared to leave early.

Central Station is jammed packed with revelers coming into Amsterdam from all over the country, most bedecked in orange, all very exuberant and some clearly already a little pie-eyed. However, the outbound trains are not full and we have no problem making the short trip to The Hague where we change for Delft which is only a few stops away. The station at Delft is frankly a run down dump that is in the process of being replaced by a much larger modern station. The construction makes is difficult to find the correct exit and I don’t have a map or directions to the hotel we have booked, but based on years of being in similar situations I look for the signs pointing the way to the tourist office and follow those. Taking a taxi is out of the question as the streets of Delft are jam packed.

One of the stranger things I had read about Koningsdag is that this is the one day of the year that the Dutch can sell second hand items without paying tax. Judging from what I can see as we head deeper into the old city that is exactly what just about everybody in the city is doing – either out to sell or buy something today. The sidewalks, canal crossings and any other open space has been occupied by vendors who range in age from five to at least eighty-five who have their wares spread out in front of them. Most of what I see would be classified as  junk – old clothes, bad pictures, collections of smurfs, my little ponies and teletubbies, games and jigsaw puzzles. There are even some old style tvs and computer screens that have not been serviceable since analog devices stopped working.  Nevertheless there are some sales going on particularly by those selling food items. Anything orange is especially popular.

Before long I spot a store selling maps and pop in to get one. The young girl gets out the city map and asks what I am looking for, which is the Hotel de Emauspoort which I have booked for a specific reason which I will get to. It turns out we are only a few blocks away and the girl asks if I still want to buy the map and I do – never can have enough maps. As we make our way to the hotel which is directly behind the huge Niuwe Kerk, the crowds get so thick that from the time I spot the hotel’s sign until we actually get inside is almost twenty minutes. Normally, I don’t like crowds, but this is as non-threatening a throng as you can imagine. There are a lot of couples with strollers and we have our luggage pulled behind us and between the sellers and their wares and the prospective buyers, there just isn’t any room to move other than at a patient crawl.

The reason I chose the Emauspoort was two fold – first it was highly rated on TripAdvisor which is almost always a good sign and secondly and more important, it has a room done up in tribute to the great painter Vermeer. Originally it was not available for today and we would stay in it during our second night in Delft, but I received an email from the proprietor that the room had come open for today and I grabbed it. We got to the hotel about eleven and received a warm welcome from the Dutch family who owns the hotel. They said the previous occupant’s had just left and they would have the room ready in an hour. We parked the luggage and headed out into the streets.

The first order of business was to get something orange for Alison. I had my orange Holland hat and she purchased an orange lei as her decorative flourish. As you can see even the dog has an orange collar.

Buying something orange for Koningsdag
Buying something orange for Koningsdag

While the centre of the city was impossible to move in, we found that there were lots of places to wander that were less crowded including the picturesque city gate.

City Gate, Delft
Delft City Gate

Dutch flags were flying from everywhere including this huge one from the side of a building on the Oude Delft

Huge Dutch Flag
Dutch Flag on Koningsdag

Just a note on the Dutch flag – everybody confuses it with the French tri-colour which has the same colours in the same order. The difference is the Dutch stripes are horizontal and the French vertical. The irony is that while most people associate the three colours with the French revolution, the Dutch were using it long before the French ever thought about revolting. So it is the French who copied from the Dutch and not vice versa as many people think.

By now it was lunch time and we found ourselves in the market square of Delft which is one of the great squares (actually a rectangle) in Europe, with the huge facade and spire of Niuwe Kerk on one side and the wonderful Stadhuis on the other. Restaurants and purveyors of Delftware line the two sides. The restaurants were doing a roaring business and it was hard to find an opening, but appropriately enough we found a table at Het Konings Huys, the King’s house, where even the lions wore orange.

Even the lions wear orange on Koningsdag
Even the lions wear orange on Koningsdag

I had a dish that had fried eggs over toast with frites and Alison had chicken with a potent tomato  basil sauce – they were both very good, especially when accompanied by a freshly poured Grolsch. The weather was cooperating marvellously and everybody was in a grand mood – long live de Koning!

Returning to the Emauspoort we found not only that our room was ready, but the the proprietors had carried our luggage up the steep stairs to the room. The Vermeer room was everything I expected and more. The interior of the room was amazing. The walls were lined with copies of over half of Vermeer’s total output of thirty-seven paintings, included all the great ones. The room itself had features that can be found in various specific paintings. Have a look at this photo. First, the lighting, which what Vermeer was all about, is uncannily similar to that you would find in one of his paintings with some areas in light cast from windows and others in semi-darkness. Notice the checkered floor that features in many of his works. What I really liked was the combination of the globe which is from The Astronomer and the Persian carpet which looks to me like it is from Woman with a Water Jug.

Vermeer Room, Emauspoort Hotel, Delft
Vermeer Room, Emauspoort Hotel, Delft

The furniture was dark and much of it in period including a very old table with jug and basin atop it. My favourite feature, but one Alison as an artist didn’t like, was this half finished portrait of Girl with a Red Hat which was immediately across from the reproduction of the real thing on the opposite wall. Sure it’s amateurish, but I think the easel, brushes and canvas add a neat touch  and help complete the illusion that you are in a room that Vermeer might have painted in.

Vermeer Room's version of Girl with a Red Hat
Vermeer Room’s version of Girl with a Red Hat

One other thing I really liked was a chair with lion’s head handles that made me feel like a koning while seated in it and yes, that is The Girl with the Pearl Earring in the background.

Sittting in the Lion's head chair
Sitting in the Lion’s head chair

So that’s half the reason I immediately fell in love with this room. The other had everything to do with Koningsdag – it was happening right outside our window. The room was on the second floor on Vrouwenregt Street and overlooked the apse of the Niuwe Kerk and a canal . There was a small bridge crossing the canal leading into Kerkstraat. When I opened the double paned windows and looked down here’s what I saw. This was a vinyl disk seller who was doing a brisk business.

Koningsdag from the Vermeer Room
Koningsdag from the Vermeer Room

Looking up the street was this view. As you can see the buying and selling was going on full force.

Revellers from our room
Koningsdag from our room

We honestly felt like those lucky devils who get to watch the Mardi Gras proceedings from the wrought iron balconies of the French Quarter, above the fray, but still very much part of it. Whoever decided to cancel the room for Koningsdag I thank you very much. We hung out the window and waved to the crowd like we were Willem-Alexander and his popular queen Maxima and they waved back and yelled well wishes. Interspersed with the crowd were occasional buskers and small groups of entertainers who used the bridge directly across from our room as a staging ground. Believe it or not break dancing is still popular in Holland. These two young women put on quite a show with just a cornet and ukulele as accompaniment.

High energy dancers on Koningsdag
High energy dancers on Koningsdag

Down the street I heard the sounds of an oompah band and decided to go down into the crowd and find them for a close up picture. By the time I got to where they had been playing they were gone so I decided to do the second best thing – slip into the Cafe Het Klooster a famous Delft pub  on the corner and have a quick one. Once inside I found out where the band went – here.

The band sings on in 't Klooster
The band sings on in ‘t Klooster

They had so many followers inside with them that it was easier to just buy a beer from one of the many outside vendors who were on almost every corner. I returned to the room and resumed my catbird seat above the fray and soon heard a very familiar tune being played by the band and they were coming our way. I couldn’t place the song at first because I was thinking in terms of traditional oompah songs and then it hit me – they were playing The Sloop John B by the Beach boys, one of the greatest sing-a-long drinking songs ever written. The crowd parted before them as they approached our window.

The band plays The Sloop John B
The band plays The Sloop John B

By the time they reached the canal bridge the song was over and they began marching away, when suddenly as if on cue the band wheeled and faced our room and began a new song that I didn’t recognize, but the crowd certainly did as they began singing lustily along. In the right mood there is no such thing as a bad song played by an oompah band and we were sure in the right mood. We waved and cheered and I really did begin to think we might have been transformed into a koning and koninginne. It was another magical moment in Holland.

Koningsdag from the Vermeer Room 6
Serenaded by the band

The crowds started to abate by early evening, but the festive mood did not. Most people were now headed to the many restaurants and bars located on the public squares in Delft. We wandered from square to square and found not a seat available until I spotted an opening on a barge restaurant where we had an enjoyable meal, somewhat tempered by the fact that a number of small children seemed to be doing their best to fall in the water while their parents ignored them. Luckily none did.

Delft restaurant barge
Delft restaurant barge

We headed back to our room after a genuinely once in a lifetime day. Everyone has seen those television commercials where a couple walks around a corner in some European/Caribbean/Mexican locale and suddenly they are in the middle of some great local festival – just them and the celebrants. The natural reaction to these is – what bullshit! Well sometimes I guess it isn’t.

I went to sleep with visions of the Girl with the Pearl Earring dancing in my head.  Tomorrow we’ll explore Delft without the crowds and find out more about Vermeer’s home town. Please join us. Tot Ziens.