After my initial stop in Brussels, I was heading into the Netherlands next, another country that I hadn't visited previously. I was planning on stopping first in Delft and The Hague, before moving on the following day to Amsterdam. On this Sunday morning, I had the early morning train ride almost entirely to myself.
The tracks took me north through the flat terrain that makes up the Low Countries. Outside of Brussels, the city gave way to various small towns and long miles of farmland. After crossing the Dutch border, I was pleasantly surprised to see modern windmills scattered across the landscape, taking advantage of the nearby ocean to reap some wind power. These were certainly a lot bigger than the windmills used to grind grain in earlier centuries! I was able to grab a quick breakfast in Rotterdam, where I had to make a transfer between different trains. Rotterdam station was enormous and modern-looking, with the tracks running underneath a glass ceiling that looked like it had been built relatively recently. This would have been a fun city to explore if I had more time on my hands, but instead I had only about 15 minutes before boarding my next ride.
I made it to Delft a little after 9:00 in the morning. The Delft station was another impressive feat of modern engineering, with this bizarre ceiling design overlooking the escalators that led down to the tracks. I also noticed something uniquely Dutch near the exit: a parking garage for BIKES, not for cars! Without going inside the protected area, I could see the long rows of bikes where train commuters had left their vehicles behind before boarding the rail system. For those who haven't had the chance to visit the Netherlands, this is a nation completely obsessed with bikes, to the point where every major road has its own bike lanes, and watching for crossing bikes is often more important than watching for crossing cars. For a small country with excellent public transit, the bikes really do make a ton of sense as a mode of transportation in the Netherlands. They would be omnipresent during my next three days of travel.
The gleaming modern train station formed a sharp contrast with the rest of Delft, which has become famous as a tourist destination due to its historic buildings and canals. "Oude Delft" (Old Delft), the preserved heart of the town, was an easy walk from the train station. I spent the next hour or so wandering around the canals on the pedestrian paths, taking in the sights of this beautiful village as the residents slowly woke up on a Sunday morning. Here in July, the trees lining the canals provided shade and the flowers were in full bloom. Under a sunny sky of white puffy clouds, this was a delightful place to be exploring.
The first major sight that I came across was the Old Church, or Oude Kerk in Dutch. The building was mostly constructed in the 14th century and originally designed as a Catholic church, before being converted over to Protestantism during the Reformation. The church is most noted for its tilt, which can be clearly see in the first picture above. The central tower looks like it's about to fall over, although the building has been stabilized by modern engineering and remains quite safe. As the name indicates this is the oldest church in Delft, and one of the oldest in all of the Netherlands. The Gothic design on the exterior hints at this great age; younger Dutch churches constructed after the Reformation look significantly different in their architectural style.
This was a Sunday morning, and that was problematic from the perspective of touring historic churches because they would be holding services inside. I arrived shortly before 10:00 am, and there were dozens of patrons entering the building preparing for the weekly services. (I do wonder what it would be like to live right across the street; even I might be more willing to attend church if the local place of worship took place in a historic building like this.) The ushers at the door kindly allowed me to take a few quick pictures before the services were ready to begin, which I did as unobtrusively as possible from the back of the church. The interior of the Oude Kerk reflects a Calvinist simplicity overlaid atop the earlier Gothic design of the building. White painted walls stand on top of the stone pillars in the foundation, and there was the usual lack of ornamentation shared by many Protestant places of worship. Even the stained glass featured religious figures standing in front of simple white panels, instead of the riotous colors more common elsewhere. While I wished that I could have spent more time here, I continued moving on out of a desire to respect the church's patrons. They invited me to stay, but I wasn't keen to use up a good chunk of my limited touring time listening to a service in Dutch that I couldn't understand.
Next I headed past more canals and quaint sidestreets to the central square of Delft. At one end sits the medieval city hall building, the Stadhuis Delft. The original core of this building dates back to the early 14th century, and it has been modified many times over the following centuries. In modern times, the city hall was renovated and restored to its appearance as it looked during the Renaissance. The statue of justice on top of the hall stood out to me, along with the heraldric symbols that accompanied it. This building is still the seat of the town government, and remains in use today for civic weddings. It was closed on this day to the public, and I would have to be content with taking pictures from the outside. Even from the exterior, the overlapping building materials reflecting different periods of construction were plainly visible. The sides of the building not facing the square now house an outdoor restaurant, which opened later in the day. The whole square was full of small stores and places to eat, obviously catering to the tourist trade in summer.
At the other end of the square was the towering spire of the New Church, or Nieuwe Kerk. This was closed for the morning, and I would return later in the day to visit in more detail. The square also held the aforementioned stores, selling all of the sterotypical products associated with the Netherlands. There were several of the gimmicky tourist places selling wooden shoes in addition to postcards and cheap souvenirs, like the one with the giant shoe above. Other slightly more classy places sold huge wheels of cheese, or specialized in Delftware porcelain. I understand that a lot of the inexpensive porcelain was not actually made in Delft and came instead from China - the irony! - but it all had the characteristic blue and white look. These places were just beginning to open for the day as I passed through, and due to my need to travel light, I had no desire to purchase anything.
My next stop was to the Vermeer Center, conveniently located just off the main square in the building pictured above. This is an informational museum dedicated to the painter Johannes Vermeer, who lived and worked in Delft for most of his career. The building itself is a rebuilt version of a guild house; the museum implies that Vermeer worked here, but that's actually not the case. While he would have worked in a similar structure, it wasn't located in this particular spot. The museum holds one of the largest Vermeer collections in the world, and has a lot of useful information about the painting techniques used by the Dutch Masters of the 17th century. I am not an art historian and had only a fleeting understanding of who Vermeer was before stopping at this museum. I would rate the overall visit as a competent, solid exhibition without being anything too spectacular. Keep in mind that this is not my specialty, however, and art fans might love this place.
Still needing to kill a bit more time before the New Church would open to the public, I wandered to the east along the canals, eventually ending up at the East Gate (Oostpoort). Dating to the 15th century, this is the only remaining city gate in Delft, and serves as a remnant of the walled fortifications that encircled the town in the past. The brick structure has a fairy tale quality to it, an absurdly picturesque structure when viewed next to the surrounding canals. Amazingly, this is apparently a private residence - someone lives inside the historic gatehouse! With other pedestrians walking through the streets and little rowboats taking pleasure cruises on the canals, this was a lovely side diversion. I would encourage anyone visiting Delft to make the 15 minute walk over from the main square, if only to see some more of the delightful houses and canals en route.
I came across another church on my way back, one that hadn't been discussed as much in the tourist brochures of Delft. This was the Maria van Jessekerk, the church dedicated to the Catholic residents of the town. The design differences from the Protestant churches were immediate and obvious. This building retained a Gothic style of architecture, and it was heavily decorated with depictions of saints. Bright colors characterized the many figures running along the walls and parts of the ceiling, along with copious amounts of gilding in the areas surrounding the altar. While some Catholic churches can cross over that invisible line and come across as gaudy, this one felt more vibrant to me. Perhaps it was the noonday sunlight streaming in through the windows above, but everything inside felt bright and airy. Because this is not as famous of an attraction, the church was mostly deserted inside. With the location being just off the main square, I would recommend that visitors stop here for at least a few minutes, if only for the contrast with the Old and New Churches.
Speaking of the New Church, I was finally able to get a peek inside. There was a private function that was about to begin, and once again I was only able to slip inside for a few quick photos before needing to exit. The Nieuwe Kerk is the largest church in Delft, built over the course of the 15th century. It was originally constructed in standard Gothic style, and then radically transformed when it became a Protestant church during the Reformation. Any observer will instantly note the differences from the Maria van Jessekerk two streets over. The Nieuwe Kerk exemplifies Calvinist iconoclasm, with stark features almost entirely devoid of ornamentation. The foundations of the building are made up of simple white stones, and aside from the stained glass windows, there's almost no color on display inside. Gone are the saints and religious icons in favor of a more abstract form of worship. I have no particular preference for one style of worship over the other, but it's impossible to view these two buildings and not see the differences between the Protestant and Catholic denominations.
The Nieuwe Kerk is noted for holding the burial vault for the House of Oranje, the longtime ruling family of the Netherlands. Everyone from William the Silent to Queen Wilhelmina is buried here, their lives spanning some five centuries of Dutch history. Even Maurice of Nassau, one of the great military innovators of the early 17th century who I've taught about in my military history class, has a tomb under this church. I dearly would have liked to see the crypt, but it is not open to the public. Instead, I went outside and grabbed lunch in the square, then prepared to move on to my next destination. I was splitting this day between Delft and The Hague, since the two towns are located right next to one another, and there were still more sights to see in the afternoon.
The Hague is a larger city than Delft, and it was bustling on this day as families were out enjoying the weekend. I was impressed once again by another massive parking lot for bikes outside the train station, this one open to the air. There had to be several thousand bikes locked up there, stacked atop each other in a series of long rows. Bikers were certainly omnipresent in the city as well, passing through in the bike lanes that shared every road with motorized vehicles. There was a big shopping area off to the west of the station, and that was where I was headed next, walking through pedestrian streets that featured small stores and cafes. It was much more crowded here than in Delft, although that was likely due at least in part to the early hours I had been keeping in the former town.
I passed a number of statues to figures from Dutch history, this plinth memorializing one of the many "William of Orange"s that held command over the centuries. This particular statue is dated to 1848; based on the period costume, it appears to be a statue of William the Silent, although it could be one of the later Williams just as easily. The statue is located close to the Mauritshuis, or Maurice House, an art museum housing a famous collection of paintings from the Dutch Golden Age. The building itself dates to the 18th century, and was originally a private residence for one of the princes of Nassau before being purchased by the Dutch government and converted into a museum. Although this picture doesn't do a good job of showing it, the Mauritshuis is located right next to a small lake, and it has a beautiful location on a sunny summer day. I had planned to see the collection on my visit, only to find out that the security guards wouldn't allow me to enter with my backpack. I offered to put it in a storage locker, but to no avail. They insisted I walk back to the train station and rent a locker there for my bag. I said nuts to that and continued on my way. There would be plenty of paintings from the same artists to see in Amsterdam, my next stop.
These pictures were taken from the Binnenhof, a complex of buildings in The Hague housing several of the major government bodies of the Dutch state. Both the upper and lower houses of the States General (the Dutch Parliament) are located here, along with the official office of the Dutch prime minister. Located along the shores of the Hofvijver lake, this has been the historic location of the Dutch government for centuries. The presence of the water makes this a beautiful location to house a legislative body, and I was disappointed again to be unable to tour this complex of buildings. Understandably, they are closed on Sundays to the public. Before this trip was over, I would have to see at least European parliament building!
Next up was a stop at the Great Church (Grote Kerk), also known as St. James Church. The building was constructed during the 15th and 16th centuries, and it's known best for its six sided tower, one of the tallest in the Netherlands. Members of the Dutch royal family are also baptised here by tradition, according to the information listed in the church. The exterior of this building was defined by its brickwork, untold thousands of faded bricks broken up by tall vertical windows mostly devoid of stained glass. The interior was somewhat similar to the Nieuwe Kerk back in Delft, although this church was somewhat smaller despite the name. Once again, plain white colored walls mixed together with wooden accents gave the interior a spartan appearance. There was also a prominent tomb at the far end of the church away from the altar, this one holding 17th century Dutch mathematician Christiaan Huygens. He lived most of his life in The Hague and was buried here after his death in 1695. As far as final resting places go, this was a lovely spot.
While heading north from the Grote Kerk, I wandered past the Noordeinde Palace. That's the official-looking building behind the gated fence, one of the three official palaces of the Dutch royal family. This structure has some spacious grounds not visible in the picture above, and has often been the residence of the Dutch monarchs over the last two centuries. It is not open to the public at all, and this view through the barred gates would be the only thing that I saw of the building. (If I had known at the time that the palace gardens are open to the public, I would have circled around to the rear to take a look at them.) Afterwards, I passed the above statue of royal family, which depicts yet another William of Orange, this time from the 19th century. Because this is known as "Plein 1813", I believe that this is a monument commemorating the liberation of the Netherlands from revolutionary France. The text of the monument was all in Dutch though, so don't quote me on this.
The biggest attraction that I had come to see in The Hague was the Peace Palace (Vredespaleis). This formidable structure houses the International Court of Justice, and has been the seat of many different international efforts associated with justice or the pursuit of peace. Interestingly, the funding for this structure was provided in the early 20th century by American industrialist Andrew Carnegie, in response to a plea to establish an international court for settling disputes that crossed over sovereign borders. The building itself was a beautiful structure of Neo Renassiance design, with the clock tower on the left standing out of the most prominent feature. I was planning on taking the tour of the palace, which can be booked in advance during the weekends. Would this be one time that arriving on a Sunday worked in my favor? Unfortunately no; there was a private function taking place in the building on this day, and all public entrances were closed. The digninaries were actually reaching the palace at the same time that I did, and it was extremely obvious which people were there as tourists and which ones were dressed for a formal gala. The latter group was shepherded past the gates, while everyone else was funneled into the visitor center.
I included a few pictures of that visitor center, which was small but informative. There were small displays detailing the history of the palace, and its (mostly failed) attempts at preserving international peace in the early decades of its existence. There was also some interesting stuff about the International Court of Justice, both concerning its function and some of the settlements that it had handed down. Outside the visitor center, there's also an eternal flame dedicated to world peace. It was a very low key affair and would be easy to miss. While the inability to tour the Peace Palace was a disappointment, at least I was able to see the building itself.
It's easy to forget that The Hague is located right on the coast, and I planned to walk up there next and see the sights. That was a non-trivial walk of about three miles, which I'll skip over here for the purposes of saving time. The beachfront town next to The Hague is officially known as Scheveningen, and it shares many of the features of resort towns elsewhere. There were lots of familes with their kids who had arrived for vacation, along with all of the tacky beachfront stuff that inevitably accompanies said tourists. However, because Scheveningen has been around for a long time as a vacation destination, it also contains some classy historic buildings like the hotel above. Built initially during the Victorian period, the Grand Hotel Kurhaus had this unique design that immediately caught my eye. After walking past the hotel front desk, I passed into this lavish former ballroom, with painted walls and a glass ceiling. I imagine that this is still used for fancy cocktail parties on occasion. Most of the rest of the hotel appears to have been modernized, but this one room looks mostly unchanged from a hundred years earlier.
Just outside the back doors of the Kurhaus hotel lay the beach itself. The long sandy expanse was reminiscent of the Atlantic beaches that I had visited in Maryland and Delaware growing up. Everything was nice and flat, with minimal waves and little in the way of geographic terrain features. This was a cultivated, tamed space designed for public enjoyment. Off to my right was a pier that extended out into the water with stores and restaurants crowding its top. Back behind the beach, there was a boardwalk of sorts with more places to shop and eat. Hotels extended off in each direction as far as I could see. The beach itself was crowded, which wasn't surprising given that this was the height of the summer season. The crowds appeared to be mostly families with kids, along with a scattering of groups of older and younger visitors. I took the time to sit and rest for a little while, close to exhaustion from a full day of nonstop traveling. I had to be over ten miles of total walking by this point, between all of the wandering around I had done in Brussels, Delft, and The Hague. It was nice to put my toes in the chilly water and unwind for a half hour or so.
When it was time to go, I headed over to the pier to get some more sweeping views of the beach. The various storefronts on the pier itself weren't particularly interesting, selling mostly cheap touristy junk and various kinds of fast food. It was the height of the structure that provided the real draw, allowing me to see the colorful bouquet of umbrellas off to one side, and the little dots of swimmers off to the other side. The afternoon sun was glinting off the swells of the sea as they lazily rolled into shore, and there was a crisp, refreshing breeze that seemed to jounce about with reckless abandon. This would be my last stop along the coast until reaching Scandinavia several weeks later, and the ocean provided a stirring conclusion to this long day of travel.
Rather than trying to walk all the way back down to the city center again, I caught one of these little public transit trains to the main station in The Hague where I had arrived earlier in the day. After stopping to get some dinner, I checked into my hostel for the night. This one had a weird goat cartoon as its mascot, but otherwise was the standard fare as far as these accomodations went. There were some other guests playing loud music and it was a small, narrow place; those are the main things that I can remember. I went to sleep early again as usual, prepared to be up before the sun rose the next morning. I was heading to Amsterdam next, and I had another long list of things to see there.