Most tourists to Holland are content with touring Amsterdam the bustling modern metropolis of ‘infinite variety’, with its exclusive shops and restaurants on one hand, and its Bohemian ambience of garbled houses overlooking a network of waterways. But a visit to the Hague reminds us that Holland is not merely windmills and tulips, polders and dykes, but is one among her modern cities, reflecting the indomitable, resilient spirit of a nation, which has been in constant conflict with the sea. An old Dutch saying says, “ God may have created the earth, but Holland was created by the Dutch.”
Perhaps as an honour to such fortitude, the Peace Palace is housed in The Hague , which is also the seat of its government. Many have stood trial before the UN War Crimes Tribunal, justifying their atrocious crimes as a natural outcome of war. A visit to the Peace Palace is something a tourist cannot miss.
This imposing building is a permanent home to the International Court of Justice, the International Court of Arbitration , The Hague Academy of International Law, and a Library of Law. One cannot wander through this awesome building, but must take a guided tour. It was built in 1903, through the largesse of Andrew Carnegie, an American millionaire. He wanted to “hasten the abolition of international war, the foulest blot upon our civilization.”
Through liberal contributions of member nations, it has acquired the beauty of a palace, with walls, floors, staircases, décor and expertise from all around the world. There was universal concurrence that the world needed a place, where disputes between nations could be solved, and world peace maintained. This ornate building was designed by a French architect Cordonnier, and inaugurated on August 28 th , 1913 , by Queen Wilhelmina and Andrew Carnegie.
Our grand tour began at the permanent Court of Arbitration, which owes its origin to Czar Nicholas II of Russia . It has a permanent bench of judges, who adjudicate disputes between nations, that cannot be settled through diplomatic channels. Their judgements are based on International Law.
The Permanent Court of International Justice was set up here after World War I, though it now exists in a changed form, after the League of Nations was succeeded by the United Nations. All members of the UN are members of the Court. There are fifteen sitting judges who are elected for a term of nine years. They live in The Hague even when the Court is not in session, and attend to their office work or spend time in the Library. A few years ago, Von Karadjeck’s trial was begun here, but for some reason, was shifted to another court in The Hague , and not so long ago, Milosevic stood there, trying to turn the tables on the NATO forces. A carpet presented by the late Shah of Iran, hangs on a wall behind the benches.
Everywhere in the building, one sees objects d’ art from different countries. Hungarian lamps on brass stands, Chinese and Japanese vases, tapestries and rugs! As one ascends the marble red-carpeted stairway to the first floor, a variation of the Statue of Justice ( a present from the USA ) greets us. She does not hold the scales of Justice, neither is she blindfolded, because she is supposed to look people in the eye when she dispenses justice. Above this statue is an ornate cupola. It is very different from the geometric ceiling designs in the rest of the palace. The story goes that when Hank Ross the artist, reached this part of the building, his eyes strayed out of the window, which had yet no stained glass. There in the courtyard, he saw a beautiful young girl landscaping the garden. Her name was Sophie, and it was love at first sight for Hank. He painted her on the ceiling of the cupola, with a babe in her arms. But love had to be put on hold, until completion of the building, and they could only get married in 1917.
Upstairs, is the fabulous Japanese room, which is also the Conference room. Every country owns a chair, embossed with its own insignia. Each chair is bought at a price of $50,000. Some countries can’t afford one.
The Academy of International Law , is the third institution in the palace, and was established in 1923. It is administered by a curatorium of 16 members, and supported by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Law graduates come here for courses in international law. There is an inscription on the floor of the entrance, which reads, SOL ISTITUAE ILLUSTRA NOS – “May the Sun of Justice enlighten us.”
The Library has hundreds of books covering every aspect of law and jurisprudence, of every country in the world. It is used by members of both Courts.
After that solemn tour, one needs a bit of fun and fresh air. Travel through the city is easy and cheap, with tram services covering every route. A visit to the fishing village of SCHEVININGEN is a must, if only to see the famous Panorama Mesdeg, a circular canvas 1680 square metres long, 14 square metres high, with a circumference of 120 metres. It is a painted panorama of the village as it was in 1881, executed by several artists of whom Hendrik Mesdeg was the chief. It took four months to paint, and 14 years to install, and is illuminated by sunlight streaming in from the top. The picture therefore changes colour according to the intensity of the sun, and marvelously brings to life, the people, the animals, and their various activities. The canvas can be viewed from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on week days, and 12 noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays.
The Nordeinde Palace is in the centre of the city, close to the Houses of parliament. The palace was built in 1533, and was furnished by the widow of William of Orange. It is now the office of Queen Beatrix. She resides in another palace called Huis ten Bosch. From here, it is a pleasant walk through cobbled streets, to the centre of town.
Maurits Haus is the museum. It is just a10-minute walk from the Hague Central Station. It was once the opulent mansion of John Maurits , the Count of Nassau-Seigan. Today it is home to brilliant masterpieces of the Dutch Golden Age. The works of Vermeer, Rembrandt, Jan Steen, Franz Hals, landscapes, still life, voluptuous maidens, and bawdy revelers, are there for all to feast their eyes on.
Next to Maurits Huis is the Binnenhof, seat of the Government of Netherlands. This is an entire complex of Parliament and Ministerial offices. Among them all, is the House of Knights, which steals the show. Since the time it was built 700 years ago, it has passed through many avatars, from a banquet hall, to a Count’s lodge, to a stable, and has a chequered history. But when the Netherlands became a Constitutional Monarchy, the hall was restored to its original style, and since 1904, it is the Hall of Parliament (Upper House.) However, during World War II, Parliament was suspended, and foreign troops occupied the entire Binnenhof. Though deceptively small, the Hall can accommodate 1500 people. The roof looks like the bottom of a ship, with its complicated beams fitting into each other by wooden “dowels” (no nails here.) And peeping down between the beams, are painted elfin faces with large pointed ears. This was once a court, and the elves were “eaves droppers,” who could detect any lie that was told. They were supposed to warn people to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth.
On the third Tuesday of September every year, the Queen rides up to the Hall, in her golden coach. She then ascends the throne, to deliver her speech to Parliament. The canopy of her throne is in gold décor, with her initial ‘B’ embossed on the back. Flags of different counties, adorn the walls, and stained-glass windows bear their Coat of Arms.
The Lower House of Parliament meets on the second floor of a completely modern structure. Amidst high security, visitors are whisked past the first floor. The new building has a glass-topped quadrangle that depicts the open-door policy of democracy. Small enclosures called “chatter boxes” are available for Ministers, to talk to their party members.
The décor inside the House is green and blue – blue for members’ seats, and green for visitors. The Council of Ministers have blue chairs with embossed white crests. The acoustics in the room is supposed to be excellent, as aluminum is incorporated in the back wall.
The City hall is built in a new style, with glass for vaulting. It gives light, and the illusion of space. Because it was designed by an American architect, the Dutch architects do not like it. By the side of this building, is the Theatre and Dance hall, in black glass.
In The Hague , an Indonesian meal is a must. The Hotel Garuda gives one a view of the city, and also dishes up the best in Indonesian cuisine. The waiters are mostly University students working part time.
The last halt is at Madurodam, a miniature Holland on a scale of 1:25 . The Mayoress of this city, is Queen Beatrix herself. The governing body is the Youth Town Council, made up of student representatives of 30 schools. The collections go to the Dutch Youth Organization. Madurodam was opened in 1952, and named after a war hero George Maduro. He was betrayed and imprisoned in Dachau camp, and died in 1945. The commemoration plaque says, “ In him, Holland honours its heroes.”
In the same complex, is the Sand Stone Exhibition opened in 1996. In this underground cavern, which is 1000 square metres long, 900 tonnes of sand have been used for sculptures. From Neanderthal Man to Medieval man, there are five panoramas relating the history of the Netherlands . Sand sculpting of this nature, is an innovate method to teach ‘team building.’
S.J Bourma the architect of Madurodam said, “This is a little town where people can be happy, where everything is beautiful, in short, a dream town, where people can feel like children again, and can see the world through a child’s eyes.”
The Hague is full of History and Art. The high spots can be covered in one day. Trains converge on the city, from all parts of Holland . Trams and buses are affordable too, and the people are friendly. The best months for a visit, are May and June.
ALIVE October 2003