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Traveling in Europe: Den Bosch Part II–Cathedrals and Culture

Europe 2011: Den Bosch

Click on the top picture if you wish to see more of Den Bosch.

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The interior has many sculptures of the saints.

I spent two days hanging around Den Bosch, and really I could have spent longer. It’s a beautiful pastoral town with many interesting shops, a town market square and the best gothic cathedral (in Brabantian style) I saw in Holland. St. John’s Cathedral (Sint Jan’s Kathedraal) began its life in 1220, and unlike the churches of northern Holland, it never fell under the hand of the Protestant Reformation. Thus it is covered in statuary on the exterior, as well as a plethora of saints on the inside.

I was told I was lucky because the church had been under scaffolding for the last ten years as they did major repairs. There was an educational display inside that depicted some of the restoration techniques used to preserve and shore up the water porous stone. These endeavors are extremely expensive, can take years of work and will be needed again in decades to come. I’m sure it’s not the biggest cathedral in Europe by St. John’s was picturesque.

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Angel with a cell phone

The exterior is festooned in angels, gargoyles and workers. Each flying buttress has  craftsmen sitting on the struts all the way up. Every pinnacle has a saint or an angel and one angel, replacing one of a few that fell to disrepair, is, when you look closely, standing in pants with a pouch/purse on her hip. She is holding something to her ear and I was told that they asked permission of the bishop to put up a modern angel. She holds a cell phone, but there is only one number because it’s a direct line to heaven.

The interior has some very good triptychs, and some are unusual in that they are part panel paintings and part carved panels. The stained glass sheds rainbows of light on the interior walls and many of those are still painted in frescos. Others have been renovated to bear the painting of centuries past and the use of color on the stone walls is something I had never considered in a cathedral before. The effect is quite stunning.

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A Boschian delight on the canal

Besides the cathedral, which is well worth a few visits, I went to the Hieronymus Bosch museum. it’s in a church that I think was designed in the 1800s but was never completed due to lack of funding. It was taken over to house information and displays on Den Bosch’s most famous son. His “Garden of Earthly Delights” is probably one of the more bizarre paintings of the Middle Ages. Bosch was fervently religious but his creatures and depictions of events and sins were right out of a drugged up fever dream. What an imagination. Interestingly, there is not one Bosch painting in Holland. They all reside in Spain. At the time Holland (or that part that has Bosch’s paintings) was under Spanish occupation and the Spanish loved his works well enough to transport them back to the homeland. Therefore there are replicas of his paintings but with informative displays as well as the sculptures.

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Inside the Hieronymus Bosch museum

I also realize now that I lost some pictures because there was an art show on the main floor by a contemporary artist inspired by Bosch. In the basement was a setup of what the artist’s life might have been like, along with displays and mannequins. There were interesting shops and lovely cobblestoned streets. The market on the weekend was jam packed with goods to buy from food to clothing. It was hard to walk through because there were so many people and it was a lovely day. I can see why people would get away to Den Bosch and if I’m in Holland again, I’m definitely coming back.

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Traveling in Europe: Den Bosch Part I–Canals & Countryside

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Den Bosch's ramparts and river served as a nearly impregnable fortress.

My last stop of four cities in Holland was Den Bosch. The full name is ‘s-Hertogenbosch and I think you have to be Dutch to pronounce it. Most people call it Den Bosch now and pronunciation seemed to differ between “den bos” and “den bosh”. Den Bosch is south of Utrecht and north of Eindhoven. It’s not large but considered a place to get away “to”. I probably would have missed it completely if it wasn’t that speculative writer and editor Jetse de Vries lives there and I emailed him to meet up.

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Boschenballen; worthy of making a stop in Den Bosch

Once I started reading about Den Bosch it sounded interesting enough that I stayed for two nights, couch surfing with Will. Jetse and I played a bit of tag at the train station, trying to find each other. Once we met I put my luggage in a locker and off we went to a cafe where Jetse introduced me to Den Bosch’s own claim to fame, the Boschenballen. If you’ve ever seen a profiterole (cream puff), imagine one bigger than your fist, covered in yummy dark chocolate and inflated with creamy goodness.  I wasn’t sure I could eat the whole thing (and shhh, but I’m allergic to dairy) but I took a bite and another and somehow managed to polish it off. I certainly didn’t need lunch till much later.

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A very larg cannon is housed in the structure atop the walls built in the 15th century.

By the 1500s it turns out Den Bosch was once the true mercantile center of Holland, with three rivers (Dommel, Aa and Maas) converging nearby. The Dutch are also masters of the water ways and trade came and went by land and water. It was second in population only to Utrecht. ‘S-Hertogenbosch means Duke’s Forest and the original Duke was Henry I, Duke of Brabant. Over the centuries, with fortifications increasing, Den Bosch was considered impregnable and nicknamed the Marsh Dragon. They had built a moat from the rivers and water ways; if invading forces came near, they flooded the lands around. Too deep to walk through and too shallow to put a ship on, the city’s defense’s held strong.

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To get over one of the many bodies of water, there is a hand crank raft to take people across.

That is, until 1629 when Frederik Hendrik of Orange, using Dutch ingenuity and a goodly portion of purloined coins from a Spanish armada, built a dyke around the city with windmills and then pumped out all of the water. He managed to break through the one weak spot in the wall’s defenses and then rebuilt that section making it stronger. The ramparts still stand and are integral to holding back the waters. Den Bosch is considered one of the better fortress cities in Holland. A nature reserve now borders one side of the town, giving great pastoral views and nature walks.

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The underground canal tours are lovely and a great way to see the city.

Jetse had booked a canal tour and Den Bosch’s canals are unique in Holland because they’re mostly covered, unlike the open canals elsewhere. While the tour was in Dutch, Jetse was able to tell me much about the rich history of this small town. It seems people were not allowed to build outside the wall and as the city became more crowded they actually built over the canals. At one point the city was going to pave over the canals but instead the government made it a protected townscape, preserving the historical ramparts and the canals.

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Boschian fun on the canal.

The weather was perfect in late September, around 25-27 degrees Celsius. The tour went under the city and then outside around the ramparts. It ended with ducking into a darkened alcove where they showed a short film on Hieronymus Bosch, the city’s most famous painted. The water level was relatively high so we really did have to duck. And along the canals were large sculptures of some of Bosch’s strange creations.

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Den Bosch's canals were very beautiful.

Even without understanding Dutch the tour was worth it for the sheer beauty and scenery. The following day I took a walk outside the city walls and got to see Den Bosch from afar. Of the cities I visited Den Bosch definitely felt the most pastoral, because of the flat fields and the winding river around it. In my next post I’ll talk more about the cathedral and other aspects but it was definitely worth the visit. I’ll also have the full album posted once Picassa stops being persnickety.

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