Tag Archives: the Netherlands

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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Traveling in Europe: Den Haag

Europe 2011: Den Haag

Known as The Hague to us Westerners, I prefer the Dutch version of Den Haag. While staying in Delft, I decided to go to Den Haag, thinking I’d need to catch a train but from my B&B in Delft it was an easy 20-minute tram ride. Very convenient. The weather, for late September, was off and on rainy but overall very nice and warm. I arrived close enough to the Binnenhof, the seat of the Dutch parliament to walk around the central area.

I’m not sure how interested I would have been in the Binnenhof’s interior but as it was there were no tours that day.

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The Binnenhof neogothic fountain

There was a lovely and ornately wrought iron and gilt fountain and the details on the buildings, some of the dating to the 15th century. Mauritshuis was close by and I took it in. Here is where you would see Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring among others. In fact the building was full of paintings in various rooms. Once the home of Prince John-Maurice, there are four major rooms on two floors and each has a fireplace and paintings on all walls, There are works by Holbein, Potter, Brueghal, Rembrandt, Steen , Hals and many others. Of course in all the best galleries you can’t take pictures so you absorb as much as you can and hope you can retain some of it. The benefit of seeing the actual painting as opposed to a picture in a book is that you can appreciate how the light actually works with the paint, as well as its thickness, the texture and the details. The Dutch were masters of shipping and masters of the painted canvas in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Besides wandering around the Binnenhof’s courtyard, staring at the buildings and going to Mauritshuis, I had time to go to the Prison Gate (just) called Gevangenpoort. This is the jail, which was in use for over 400 years before it became a museum in the 1400s. It was dark and thick-walled, and thick barred. I couldn’t use a flash and the tour was in Dutch so I only gleaned a bit. Though the guide was willing to answer some of my questions in English I didn’t want to ask during his descriptions in case I asked

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The Binnenhof and the Court Pond

for something he had just said. It seems that there were different types of torture and only some of it was actually considered torture. This was done in the lower cells, where as the room depicted in my pictures was for those who were either to be executed or have information extricated from them. There was a gallery of art too so it was a rather full day of paintings.

This took up my day in The Hague and I went back to Delft for dinner and to wander along the pretty canals. So in truth I saw a very small section of Den Haag, which only took up a few blocks. Still, that was rather enough for one day.

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Traveling in Europe: Amsterdam

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Bikes are everywhere in Amsterdam

Amsterdam was a place of contradictions. It was large, in terms of things to see and do, and small in terms of area, though I still managed to walk a good seven hours one day, getting lost on the wrong side of canals. It was cosmopolitan but kind of dirty because of so many people, the sidewalks and streets sporting numerous stains and dead gum and just general grime. I find that cities of this size end up with the group mentality issue. Like mob mentality, this massive city entity is one of mindless automatons, people all trying to get to where they’re going, without willing to move or adapt or politely let someone by. I cannot stand crowds for this reason; not because there are a lot of people but because there are a lot of people being mindless and self-absorbed and not trying to work with the whole. Drives me nuts.

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One of Amsterdam’s trams

But…I maneuvered through the flight to the train and from the train station to the tram, even though the police gave me the wrong directions. There are plenty of trams and buses, and getting around is easy, as long as you watch out for bike lanes. I did blunder twice into a bike lane and nearly got smeared. Even so, the Dutch never swore at me (that I understood) and moved out of the way and I apologized profusely. Holland is the land of bicyclists, probably only second to China. At train and tram stations I saw thousands of bikes parked in racks. On the narrow, medieval cobblestoned streets there are often trams, cars, scooters, bikes and pedestrians. A sidewalk might exist and might also be very narrow. A painted line in most cases is all that separates the bike lane from the sidewalk or road. And sometimes you just have to scoot around a parked car or someone moving items in and out of a building.

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Dutch buildings are tall, narrow and lean

The buildings, ranging in years from four-five centuries to recent, are narrow and tall. The windows are likewise very high. It seems back in the 16-17th centuries people were taxed by the width of their houses so they built up. Of course they were probably taxed on width because the land was reclaimed foot by painstaking foot from the sea, and most of Holland is below sea level. In fact, if I ever wanted to build anything near or on water I would hire a Dutch hydraulic engineer; they’ve been doing this for centuries.

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A good example of fancy gabling and the hook for moving items in through windows.

As all the buildings are high and thin, it means there are many many narrow stairs, in fact too narrow to move furniture up. So they built hooks on the top end of the buildings by which to pulley items into the structure, and they’re still used to this day. Because of this way of moving furniture  the buildings indeed lean out into the streets,because a perfectly perpendicular building would have its windows and facade smashed in a move. The buildings have several different types of gables, (step, bottle, etc.) which were popular for distinction as well as design at the top window. Before street numbers, shops had plaques that differentiated them or what they did or sold.

And of course, everywhere there are canals. Before coming to Holland when I thought of canals I thought of Venice. How was I so ignorant? Holland is truly the land of canals, everywhere. Some areas have more than others but they are like the veins of the land. The land between the agricultural canals is called a polder and the Dutch manipulated every aspect of building below sea level. Not only do the canals provide irrigation, they also work as routes for delivery and transportation as well as being a way to maintain the land. Theywork as a bleed-off when the water levels rise and save many structures from flooding. Truly amazing when you think about it. Now days, sewage is not dumped directly into the canals and they are pleasant, with numerous boat tours or houseboats.

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One of many picturesque canals

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This building sat all by itself.

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These houseboats are often 100 years old.

The streets are a mixture of cobblestones and modern paving, just as the buildings go from modern to five centuries old. There is not grid in a medieval aged city as the streets grew organically out of the center. In this case the Amstel River played a role in forming Amsterdam’s streets, which horseshoe out. Wandering up and down these streets and canals and just looking at the buildings that people take for granted was as interesting to me as going into a historic cathedral or a museum. Canada’s oldest buildings might only be one and a half centuries old (especially the west coast), established by people moving into natural geographic areas and planning out their towns. The sheer age of European cities gives a much more organic and haphazard growth.

There is actually enough to talk about with Amsterdam that I’ll do a second post on some of the other historic aspects.

Europe 2011: Amsterdam

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