As the train sped across Germany to Holland , the gradual change in landscape became evident. No mountains, no fachwerke houses, no vineyards. The Netherlands are really ‘lowlands’, and most of the country lies below sea-level. Criss-crossed by canals and rivers, this beautiful country would be submerged at high tide, if not for its dykes and dunes.
My destination was a place called Wageningen. An item in a small magazine had mentioned that many families here would be willing to host tourists from Asian countries, for a token fee. My hostess was a well-built lady in a long, red Indian caftan, who loved India .
Wageningen was half an hour’s drive from Arnhem . My introduction to the town was via a bit of history. We drove down General Foulkes road to May Square, where on 5th May 1945 , after five years of occupation, the Germans signed the articles of surrender. Presided over by Prince Bernhardt father of the present queen, Col. General Johannes Blaskowitz of the 25th German Army surrendered to Lt. Gen. Charles Foulkes of the 1st Canadian Army. The actual signing of the documents however, did not take place till the next day, as they could not find a typewriter to type the papers. The room is now enclosed within glass walls, and every stick of furniture is preserved as a historical artifact.
In the Square, is the sculpture of a naked man with arms spread out. This “little man with the bald carrot” represents all the people who were ravaged by the war. Every year on the 5th of May, there is a colorful ceremony to remind people of the dreadful consequences of war, and the triumph of good over evil.
I was accommodated in a 100 year old house that looked its age. My room was in the attic on the third floor. “We keep our guests there, just in case of flooding,” said my witty hostess. One single bath room on the first floor served the entire household, and there was no door. Only a plastic sheet that flapped in the wind. Still, “one can’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” they say, and accommodation was free. Dinner consisted of tandoori chicken and yellow rice, specially prepared in honor of the Indian tourist.
The next morning saw me on my way to The Hague . My Europass came in handy. We covered the 100 kms by train in about 40 minutes. Tram services around the Hague are convenient and cheap. A one-day ticket covers limitless travel by tram or bus around the city.
Our first stop was at the Panorama Mesdeg. It is a breathtakingly beautiful painting of an entire fishing village Schevengen, as it stood in 1881. A circular canvas 1680 meters square and 14 meters wide, is stretched around a circumference of 120 meters. It took five painters of the Hague School , four months to paint, but 10 years to have it installed. The entire picture is illuminated from sunlight streaming in through the top, and the painting changes from dark to light, depending on the brilliance of the sun. One gazes in awe at the waves breaking along the coast, the sun bathers, hawkers, military regiments, fishing trawlers. Mesdeg put The Hague School of Painting on the map, and brought the Dutch painters instant fame.
In the centre of town stands the Nordeinde Palace . It is used by the Queen as her office, and is strategically situated close to the Houses of Parliament and the ministerial offices. The Queen’s residence is at the Huis Ten Bosch Palace.
It is early autumn. The leaves have not yet turned to gold. There is just a hint of orange in the piles of leaves that litter the cobbled walk-ways. We amble along these streets taking in the sights, sounds and smells of The Hague .
And all at once the Maurits Huis looms ahead on the Hojvijver. It has a moat on the right side. This opulent mansion which was once the home of John Maurits, Count of Nassau has been converted into an Art Gallery . It is a place where one can spend hours among the works of Dutch and Flemish painters like Vermeer, Rembrandt, Jan Steen and Franz Hals. There are landscapes, still life, voluptuous maidens and bawdy revelers. Maurits is only 10 minutes away from The Hague Central Station, and trams and bus services are aplenty.
The Binnenhof is just a few yards away from here. It is the home of the Government of Netherlands – a large complex of ministerial offices, houses of Parliament and even the television studios. The Hall of Knights has a checkered history. From hunting lodge, to prison, to court, to ball room, it finally became the ceremonial Hall of Parliament in 1900. However, during World War II it was occupied by foreign troops. On the third Tuesday in September every year, when Parliament opens, the Queen rides up to the Hall in her golden coach. Though deceptively small, the hall can hold 1500 people. The architecture of the roof is quaint. It resembles the bottom of a ship, with its complicated arrangement of beams fitting into each other by wooden dowels. No nails here. But here and there among the beams are elfin faces with bat-like ears. When the Hall was used as a court, they were “eves-droppers” who could detect any lie spoken. This spurred the people to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. The different counties are represented by flags and stained glass windows.
The new Parliament House is an architectural marvel. It has a glass-topped quadrangle filtering sunlight, and represents the “Open Door” policy of Democracy. Security is tight. Not even a purse is permitted inside. Visitors are whisked off to the second floor to see the Lower House. The decor is in green and blue, blue for members’ enclosures and green for the visitors’ gallery. The wall behind the members’ chairs is lined by a layer of stainless steel for better acoustics. The reporters sit in the pit.
On the first floor are little cubicles called “chatter boxes” where ministers can talk to guests or members of their parties.
The Peace Palace is the highlight of a visit to The Hague . In 1903, the American millionaire Andrew Carnegie donated $1,500,0000 for construction of a palace, to house the Permanent Court of Arbitration. It was named Peace Palace to emphasize its purpose of maintaining world peace. Almost every major country has contributed towards this edifice – walls, floors, staircases, ornaments, or expertise. This unique palace exudes beauty, harmony and peace. It was designed by a French architect Cordonnier, and amended by Dutchman Van Der Steur. It was declared open by Queen Wilhemina in the presence of Andrew Carnegie, and houses the Permanent Court of Arbitration, The International Court of Justice, Carnegie Foundation Library with the best books on Law, and the Hague Academy of International Law.
Despite its formidable job of dispensing international justice, arbitration and law, the palace is a thing of rare beauty. Its marble, its tapestries, its object d’ Art are priceless. As one mounts the staircase to the first floor, an unusual version of the Statue of Justice confronts the visitor. She is neither blindfolded, nor does she carry the scales of justice. She is supposed to look people straight in the eye when she metes out justice.
Above the statue is a cupola. It differs from the geometrical designs of the ceiling in other parts of the palace. The story goes that when Hank Rosse the artist, reached this part of the ceiling, his eyes strayed through the windows that yet had no panes, and rested on a beautiful girl called Sophie who was working in the garden. It was love at first sight, and he painted her on the cupola with a babe in her arms. After his contract with the palace expired, he married Sophie and migrated to England where they lived happily ever after.
Upstairs in the Japanese room, each country is represented by a chair with its own embossed insignia. Several member countries don’t own a chair because the price is as high as $50000 .
As one descends, the inscription on the floor, rises up to stare us in the eye. It says
“SOL IUSTITIAE ILLUSTRA NOS” which means “May the sun of justice enlighten us.”
In The Hague , one must hog on Indonesian food. The Hotel Garuda turned out a delicious menu of crispy fried pork, sauted beef with chillies, winged bean salad, baby corn with chicken, and a coconut milk ice cream to top it.
Our last stop for the day was at Madurodam, a miniature Holland on a scale of 1:25 . This miniature city has a Royal Mayoress – Queen Beatrix. Named after the war hero George Maduro who led the battle of Hinze Dorrepal in1940, and died in Dachau in 1945, the commemoration plaque reads “In him, Holland honors its heroes.” It takes two hours to wander around Madurodam, and is best seen under illumination.
In one corner of Madurodam, is the Sand Sculpture exhibition, an underground cavern 1000 square meters long. 900 tonnes of sand have gone into the sculpting of five panoramas, which depict history from Neanderthal to Modern Man. There is also a small training program in ‘team building’ for managerial staff, who learn how to function in team work. The Madurodam town council has 30 student representatives. It is a place where ” people can be happy, and see the world through a child’s eyes.” The collection money goes to a Dutch Youth organization.
The next day was spent driving through countryside as yet untouched by pollution, where canals and waterways criss-crossed under quaint wooden bridges; where the verdant greenery of field and forest blended with the riotous color of flowers; where stately manors surrounded by moats, and gabled cedar wood cottages merged with the scenery. A painter’s paradise, a poet’s haven!
“We’re off to Den Bosch,” says an old Dutch ditty, and our first stop was ‘S-Hertogen Bosch. It was market day in town and the stalls were a pageant of flowers. Tulips, hyacinths, daffodils, all arranged in a blaze of carefully arranged colors. There was even a magenta colored anthorium. It was a town out of a fairy tale – narrow winding streets, food stalls, fish merchants, amusement parks. An organ grinder churned out some old favorites. Even his collection box was an antique, which was a brass shoe shaped like an Alladin’s lamp.
The Church of St. John (Sint Jin) beckoned. An 812 year old cathedral, part Norman , part Gothic in style, it houses a miraculous statue of Mary. It claims to have been visited by the Queen and her family, and even by the Pope, and has some association with the Knights of the Golden Fleece. Roman Catholic to the core, there were icons and candle light in every niche, with the devoted genuflecting everywhere.
After such a solemn experience, we needed some earthly sustenance, and what better than Bossche Bollen, a cream-filled bun coated with chocolate, a specialty of this town and yummy till the last crumb.
A round trip through Alblasser Waard was an education in itself. This is where the polders are. These are small areas of land surrounded by dykes, and canals with artificially controlled water levels – a veritable maze of waterways, with footbridges connecting houses to the roads. The mode of transport between farms is usually by boat.
We stopped at Gaudrian beside one such canal, with a windmill in the background. It was Saturday afternoon, and a canoe race was in progress. There were several boats speeding down the canals at break-neck speed, its occupants suddenly lying flat, as the boats negotiated the low bridges. The entire village was out to watch the fun.
Simultaneously with the boat races, were cyclists racing along the river. The Rhine is called Lek in these parts. We motored through villages with names like Groot Ames, Streefkerk, Nieuport, until we arrived at Kinderdijk, a wind- mill landscape, which is supposed to be the only one in the world.
We counted 19 windmills in a row. They were built between 1738 and 1761. The wingspan of the sails is about 28 meters. They are situated in the drainage district of the Alblasser waard. As the polders, all residential areas, are well below the level of the rivers, excess water in the canals surrounding them, must be drained off periodically to prevent inundation. This group of windmills drains water into a common reservoir, which is connected by sluices to the river. This is an incredible engineering feat, but for which Holland would have been under the North Sea . The row of windmills is called Molengang. An old Dutch saying goes, “God created all the world, but the Dutch created Holland .” Nevertheless, the threat of the sea is always there and cannot be taken lightly.
Kinderdijk owes its name to a legend, which took place in 1421. On St. Elizabeth’s night, during the terrible floods, a baby floated past in a cradle, with a cat to keep the cradle from toppling. Both were rescued at this place, and a plaque on the wall of a house, marks the house where the baby was kept.
There was a time when windmills were the centre of the community, and the miller was the man who communicated or received news. Windmills had a language of their own. If there was a celebration, the miller stopped the vane before it reached the highest peak. This was called “coming”, and indicated a joyful event like a birth or a marriage. If the vane was stopped past the highest point, it was called “going”, and conveyed the news of a death, or that the miller was in mourning. If the sails were stopped like a plus sign + the miller was resting. If it was a cross over like an X he was resting for a longer time. Mills were also used to send confidential messages. During World War II, messages were relayed through pre-arranged signals, which warned people of raids.
The polders are tiny patches of land in a labyrinth of waterways. Their vulnerability struck home in 1953, when 47000 homes, 500 dykes, and 200,000 hectares of land were submerged. This gave birth to the Delta Hydraulic Engineering project at Rotherdam, a singular engineering feat consisting of seven storm-surge barriers built across the estuaries. But there is still no fool-proof protection against flooding of rivers.
We drove along the Alblasser Dam, once again, through pretty villages, where we saw several wooden houses belonging to the 17th century and still very much lived in. They were quaint brown cottages with tiled roofs, and windows painted in red and white geometrical designs. From Gaudrian, we took the ferry to Schoonhaven, the city of clock works and silver smiths.
On my last day, there was still much to see at Wageningen. The historical Grebberberg is situated on a hill. On one side of the road is the War Memorial. A plaque says, “I speak for all those who were killed.” The bell in this peace column is made up of 2,400,000 cents.
Across the road, is a beautifully laid out grave-yard. Headstones in neat rows bear the names of 400 soldiers and 100 voluntary servers who were killed in action. Twice during the war, Wageningen had to be evacuated. It was a bitter winter in 1944. Because of Dutch non-cooperation and sabotaging of trains, the Germans froze food supplies. There is a room in the cemetery where one can watch a video, on the part played by Dutch soldiers during the war.
At the gate of the cemetery, stands a large cross, mounted on a pedestal, with the Dutch national anthem inscribed on it. On either side of the cross, are two lions, one facing forwards, and the other, backwards.
The “Bridge too Far” is in ruins, but a new bridge in its place, now spans the Rhine ,
The Airborne Museum at Oosterbeek was my last place of call. It is housed in the palace of Hartenstein , and was the centre of British activity during the Battle of Arnhem. The museum was founded in 1949, and is a tribute to British and Polish troops in that battle that was lost by the Allies. Through photographs, newspaper cuttings, original weapons and equipment, the entire course of the battle is brought to life in the rooms. And in the cellar below, First aid posts, British Signal posts, Street scenes in Osterbeek during the war, Command posts, the entire diorama is displayed with life-size models.
On the 6th of September every year, an annual Peace walk starts here and moves to a maidan near Arnhem . There is a simulation of the scene, which took place in 1944, when the British Pegasus Airborne paratroopers landed here. An old paratrooper from the war days, now well into his seventies, takes part in this exercise unfailingly.
It was “Good Bye” to Holland after three days of fun. A little history and a lot of environment, and plenty of old fashioned hospitality.
VOYAGE October 2000