Lovely Leiden

Okay, so the language sounds like gargling and the regional food is inedible. Those are good reasons for avoiding a whole country for the entirety of one’s existence, right? Wrong. Dead wrong. How could I be so stupid? Based on my single experience (three days) in one city (Leiden) during a celestial stretch of warm dry sunny weather, the new conclusion is – the Netherlands are great! Incredible! Amazing! Just avoid the mushrooms in Amsterdam, according to one Hamburg cabbie.

My sister D had the chance to come to Europe for the first time ever (yay!) so she met me in Berlin and we spent a couple days there before moving to Hamburg and thence to Leiden. The choice of location was a shot in the dark for me, but I was looking for a place I could use as a base to explore this part of the world, and this little city, a historic university town, seemed as good as any. In addition, we were fortunate in our selection of hotel, the delightful Boutique Hotel d’Oude Morsch in a converted barracks (just go). But I just hadn’t quite clued into how lucky we were going to be.

Historic overview: Leiden began around 860, and like most of Europe, has been subject to all manner of indignities including a sacking by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III in 1047, a massive canon attack by John of Bavaria in 1420, and a two-month siege by the Spanish in 1574 which has resulted in an annual holiday where the inhabitants eat raw fish and bread in honor of the resistance. But things really began to get interesting in the 17th century when Leiden, along with the rest of the country, entered their turbo-charged Golden Age.

For starters, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born in Leiden on July 15, 1606, the ninth child in his family (ultimate total unknown). His birth home has fallen to the wrecking balls of history, but several plaques and a lovely garden commemorate the spot in the alley directly to the left of this building where he drew his first breath:

Although Rembrandt only lived in Leiden until around the age of 25, he studied there in a Latin school (still standing) and the University of Leiden as well as began his own painting school. But by 1631 he had moved to Amsterdam, following, as it were, the money that was rapidly being generated there. And for the rest, see the Rembrandt House museum website

At roughly the same time, though, Leiden welcomed a band of English Calvinists. Famous for its textile industry at the time, Leiden was known as well for religious tolerance, and it was for this reason that these pilgrims, soon known as The Pilgrims, perched there from roughly 1609 to when they set forth to the New World in the Mayflower in 1620. The Pieterskerk, a huge Gothic pile dating from roughly 1100 and now a busy community and concert venue, houses a lovely small exhibit honoring these brave souls.

Fascinating to me was learning that no fewer than nine presidents of the US can trace their antecedents directly back to this intrepid group of 100 travelers. Among them are John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses Grant, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, both George Bushes…and Barack Obama, a direct descendant of Thomas Blossom. Ya gotta love those DNA tests….

The third cool 17th century miracle for Leiden was…tulips, of course. Although the first bulbs and seeds were were sent to Vienna from the Ottoman Empire in 1554, the effort was greatly aided by the Leiden botanist Carolus Clusius (1525-1609) who established the Hotus Botanicus, one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world. At his urging, the Dutch East India Company brought back plant samples from their contacts in their colonial empire resulting in a extensive and international plant collection nearly unrivaled at the time, and only recently so. Wiki tells us, “By 1636 the tulip bulb became the fourth leading export product of the Netherlands, after gin, herrings and cheese. The price of tulips skyrocketed because of speculation in tulip futures among people who never saw the bulbs. Many men made and lost fortunes overnight.” Sic transit gloria…tulipi…

So you really think D and I spent all our time on the history channel? No way. In truth, we spent many happy hours in sybaritic pleasures, among which we could count one truly glorious canal boat ride:

We had a terrific bi-lingual tour guide who helped us enjoy a lot of the wonderful scenery and history, as well as gave us the chance to capture pictures like this. Ya know you’re not in Kansas anymore:

Yup, this is all real, and we enjoyed a full hour of it, pausing only to duck our heads under the lowest of 88 bridges in town (yes, and 28 kilometers of canals, second only to Am-dam). I was particularly amused by the *artistic* rendition of some previous inhabitants:

…and happy not to have met these four-legged citizens in person, we enjoyed watching the antics of some of the live two-legged variety:

But mostly we did a good bit of this….and for the record, Heineken draft beats the bottles/cans any day of the week, as does the other local brand, named, helpfully, Brand:

But all good things must end and today I had to kiss D off at the airport into the hands of her waiting posse, off to Bruges for some wedding shenanigans. Sister trips – highly recommended. I heart you, D.


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3 Responses to Lovely Leiden


    Great blog, great people, great experience!

  2. Enjoyed it muchly! I sending an email with more comments than will fit here.

  3. Jay Rogers says:

    Guess I better make it to Leiden!

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