The Hague – Holland’s Most Under Appreciated City
Yesterday we wrapped up our stay in Delft by visiting its two famous churches, the Oude Kerk and the Nieuwe Kerk. After climbing down from the fabulous view point over the city from the Nieuwe Kerk spire we checked out of our hotel and headed for our final destination on what has been an extraordinary tour of Holland by bike, barge, rail and now taxi. Don’t ask me why, but I’ve always thought of The Hague as rather a dull place. Where Amsterdam has its canals, coffee houses and great museums, Leiden its famous university and Delft its distinctive pottery, what is The Hague known for – a place where people gather to discuss weighty matters of great international import like justice and world peace. What’s that compared to the red light district? The reason we are headed there now in a Mercedes taxi from Delft, is largely on the recommendation of Canadian Holland rep Henny Groenendijk and Albert our bike and barge guide from Cycletours. Both told us that it is a place worth visiting. Also there’s the minor matter that Alison and I are both lawyers and The Hague is to law what Las Vegas is to gambling.
Yesterday I booked a room at the Carlton Ambassador hotel which seems to be located within walking distance of the Palais du Justice and the Mezdag, as well as half way between the Scheveningen seashore area and the Binnenhof where the Houses of Parliament and other attractions are located. Taking a taxi was definitely the right call as we are at the hotel within twenty minutes of leaving the Emauspoort in Delft – cost € 30. Despite the fact that it was not yet noon, we are checked in with usual Dutch friendliness and efficiency. The room is a delight with a large balcony that overlooks a chestnut tree in full bloom. The bathroom appears to be brand new with both a shower and a separate bathtub. The overall theme seems to be based on Wedgewood colours as you can see. There are English prints both inside the room and on the halls outside. A quick check confirms the Wi-fi is working fast and that the fridge is cold – my only two ‘musts’ for a modern hotel room.
After parking our bags we return to the lobby and I buy a 24 hour transit pass at the reception desk after being told that The Hague has a tram and bus system as good as Amsterdam’s. Walking out into a beautiful spring day we spot the Canadian Embassy directly across the street. I imagine this would be a pretty plum posting.
The No. 1 tram stops nearby and we decide to let serendipity guide us and hop on the first one, whether its going to the Binnenhof or the other way. Turns out it is going to Scheveningen. Don’t ask me how to pronounce it, that could be dangerous. Apparently during the war German spies were outed by asking them to pronounce the name of the place and due to some inherent difference between Dutch and German, couldn’t say it right and were promptly shot. All I know is that it is a on the ocean and has a beach. Looking out the window of the tram The Hague seems a very leafy city with lots of trees, parks and open space interspersed with neighbourhoods that are clearly well off. Traveling a distance of about two miles I don’t see a single run down property or place I wouldn’t want to live. As we near the oceanfront area I do see a transition from what I would call residential neighbourhoods to holiday properties. The Hague as a seaside resort – who knew? Well lots of people as I soon discover – Scheveningen is the number one resort area in all of Holland.
After passing a modern casino we get off at the second last stop in front of a huge hotel, the Kurhaus. Originally built in 1886 it is now part of the the Dutch Amrath chain and it fairly reeks of gilded age luxury. We go inside to see the ornate interior, but I am immediately struck by something more modern and interesting, at least to a child of the sixties. Adorning the walls are very good black and white photographs of the very young Rolling Stones. Reading the captions it appears that they actually played in this most un-Stone’s like venue in 1964. A quick check of the internet reveals that this was their very first appearance outside of Britain and the performance caused a riot that led to to serious damage to the place. Here is a YouTube tape of part of the performance and I think you’ll agree that the Stones energy comes through loud and clear. I still love rock and roll and wonder if I’ll be told to turn down the music in the old folks home when I’m ninety – assuming I get that far. Mick will probably be singing and gyrating at 100. The irony is that you can be sure that the management of the Kurhaus was probably pretty pissed after the show, but is mighty glad now to showcase these classic photographs. Good for them.
Walking through the Kurhaus and coming out on the ocean side we were greeted with a truly unexpected view – a huge sandy beach with all the trappings of a classic seaside resort. Here is the view of the Kurhaus from the ocean side. With the Dutch flags streaming, the semi-Oriental architecture and the setting it looks veritably gay in the sense that that word was once used, as in “The Gay Nineties”.
And here is the view of the beach. As you can see the beach is very wide and the building in the centre a bit reminiscent of the spaceship from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. All those pilings look like tractor beams from a distance.
There is also a boardwalk with restaurants and other attractions lining both sides.
By this time it’s well past lunch time and we are stuck with that ridiculous dilemma that seems to strike whenever there is a surfeit of choices. We go looking for the one restaurant that looks the most popular, but they all seem to have the same number of people at each one. It takes us a bloody hour of walking back and forth before settling on El Nino, a Spanish tapas place. If there were only one or two choices we would have eaten an hour ago. Anyway, El Nino is fine as I am sure most other choices would have been. After lunch we head toward the lighthouse which looks to be about a mile away and come upon these absolutely wonderful and whimsical group of sculptures by American artist Tom Ottermess that are part of the Museum Beelden aan Zee. Each is meant to represent a well-known fairy tale. This one is called Eat a Herring which extols the virtues of keeping a promise.
This is Moby Dick, although the last time I checked it was a novel by Herman Melville and not a fairytale, but it has all the moral elements of one.
This third one is called The Crying Giant and it reminded me of was Victor, the Just for Laughs comedy festival mascot who puts his head in his hands and says”Mommy it’s over!” at the end of each show. That’s me, the crying midget, realizing that our own Dutch fairy tale is almost over.
Recovering my composure we continue along the boardwalk until we come across this very ominous looking apparition. I have seen pictures of it or something similar before, but seeing it in person it has a power that few sculptures achieve. It is viewed from below so that the sky and the grassy foreground are as important as the sculpture itself.
Eventually we arrived at the lighthouse which is actually situated right in the middle of village that has seemingly grown up around it.
If we had more time I definitely would have liked to explore the harbour area of Scheveningen with its fishing fleet and working waterfront, but the afternoon was waning and the Binnenhof beckoned. We grabbed a tram not far from the lighthouse and enjoyed the ride back to the heart of The Hague alighting at the Central Station. The Binnenhof is actually a series of buildings that front on the Hofvijver, a small lake in the centre of the city. Collectively these buildings represent the Dutch houses of parliament including the upper house Senate and the lower house House of Representatives. Unlike what you would expect to see in Canada and certainly the U.S. there was no outward appearance of security as we ambled through an archway into the interior court of the Binnenhof. It was obvious that many people used the courtyard as a shortcut between the Central Station and the many government buildings in this area. There is nothing ostentatious about the Binnenhof and certainly no overt show of state power; in fact, unless you knew it in advance I doubt that anyone passing through the courtyard would know they were in the seat of the Dutch government. Once again the Dutch show that understatement is not a sign of weakness or insecurity, quite the opposite. The most popular item in the courtyard was this neo-Gothic fountain with King Willem II on top. Look closely and you will see the readily identifiable yellow panniers of Cycletours on the background. The fellow in green was one of the guides on the two larger barges that had been on the Super Tulip tour the week before – talk about a small world!
Exiting the courtyard through the other archway we walked to the other side of the Hofvijver from where we could get a good look at the Houses of Parliament. Alison has always had a strong interest in constitutional law so it was only appropriate that she should be photoed in front of these gracious buildings – notice how, like the English House of Parliament, they go straight up to the waterfront.
The Hofvijver area of The Hague was very busy with many nice outdoor cafes and upscale stores along with the occasional McD’s and other American chains, but the atmosphere was decidedly Dutch and not overwhelmed by the foreign intruders. We grabbed a seat at one of the cafes and I enjoyed the last Dutch beer I would have on this trip, just watching people go about their business and listening to the sounds coming from a nearby midway that was set up just across the Hofvijver from the Binnenhof. The screams of young children as they had their first encounter with a Tilt-a-Whirl or the Octopus combined with the calliope music, brought back memories of my own childhood and I realized how quickly my life was rushing by. While I was wistful, I was not sad; rather happy that I had been able to get to The Hague to see what a fine city it is. We decided to walk back to the hotel via a route that would take us by the Noordeinde Palace official workplace of the King and Queen. I was hoping for an invite, but as you can see they locked me out.
Back at the hotel, the amount of walking and climbing we had done today really hit us and we decided to have our evening meal at the Henricus Restaurant where we sat on the outdoor terrace and watched our final Dutch sunset while dining in style. We were both asleep by 9:30. Continuing our trend of early to bed, early to rise, I am still healthy, not wealthy and a little bit wise.
Today is our last day in Holland. We are bound for Frankfurt airport at noon, but there are two more places I absolutely have to see in The Hague before boarding that train. The first is the Mesdag Panorama, something I freely admit to being totally ignorant of until Albert and Henny both said it was one of the ‘must sees’ in The Hague. My internet research this morning over coffee in the room indicates that it is a huge 360 º panorama painting of the Scheveningen beach area done over one hundred years ago by artist Hendrick Mesdag along with a few collaborators. He had the prescience to know that such a beautiful area would not be able to resist the pressures of development and wanted to preserve it for future generations. Reading this I am struck by how lucky we were that yesterday’s tram car was headed to the Scheveningen, otherwise we would really have no clue about what this painting was all about.
We got there at opening hour and headed straight through the intro galleries to a set of spiral staircases and emerged in the middle of a painting that surrounds you on all sides. It is mind blowing! What makes it so special is that in the foreground is real sand and driftwood that gradually melds into the painting although it is very difficult to say where the real sand ends and the painted sand begins. The perspective in the painting is simply brilliant and look as you may you will not find one of the thousands of objects in the painting out of place proportionally. Equally brilliant is the lighting in the painting which changes from the brightness of the area that is in full sun to the areas that would be in partial sun to those that would have a cloudy sky. A few landmarks we saw yesterday like the lighthouse and Kurhaus are recognizable, but otherwise it is a totally different scene. Here are three photos, but you really need video to capture the essence of this great work.
An added bonus after we tear ourselves away from the panorama is the current exhibit of works by Patrick Hughes which are simply eye-popping. These are works that follow in the tradition of Escher and Magritte. They are meant to fool the eye into thinking they are something they are not. By using three dimensions Hughes is able to make the paintings appear to change before your eyes as you move across the room. They are not meant to be viewed straight on as is most art. Once your eyes have bought into the illusion and you walk up to the paintings and see them for what they are it is like snapping out of a hypnotic trance and something happens in your head that is very weird. I’ve not experienced anything like it before. For example here is the same work viewed from two different angles.
We spent an hour at the Mesdag and the clock was ticking down as we hurried to our final Dutch venue, the Peace Palace. This is the home to the International Court of Justice which theoretically at least, is the highest court on this little planet. Here disputes between countries are settled according to the international law that Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius, who we met in Delft, first articulated in the 1600’s. It also where odious monsters like Slobodan Milosevic have been brought to justice before the International Criminal Court. The Peace Palace is a beautiful looking building and I was disappointed to find that it is not open to the general public, so we had to content ourselves with a view from behind the gates.
Although we couldn’t get inside the gates there were some interesting things outside including this tree where we posted a message of peace along with thousands who had gone before us.
Very fittingly the last monument we visit in Holland is the World Peace Flame just outside the gates of the Palais du Justice. It was dedicated in 2002 and is the first of many around the world. Every country in the world sent some type of native mineral to form a circular base for the flame, even North Korea, but when I looked closely that stone had been removed. Did the North Koreans take it back because they weren’t interested in world peace or was it removed by other hands?
There is probably no better place for me to sign off on this final Holland entry than from this hallowed ground. I wish you peace.