Travel: Dutch experience

A trip to Leiden reveals a surprising Juneau connection

Posted: Thursday, December 23, 2004

Early last spring, after the first week or our 2004 PFD trip to the Netherlands, my husband, Don, and I finally saw Dutch fields of pink, red and purple beginning to bloom.

We admired the rainbow colored fields of tulips and narcissi from the train on our way to Leiden, one of the Dutch towns where the Pilgrims lived in the early 1600s to escape persecution in England.

Leiden is a university town that is busy, crowded and rather dirty. Cars are parked everywhere. However, bicycles far out number cars. Bike lanes are as wide as car lanes, and I think biking keeps the Dutch slim because their diet seems to consist mostly of bread, cheese, ham, cold cuts, eggs and beer.

The first tourist site we visited was the privately owned Leiden American Pilgrims Museum. Although none of the American Pilgrims lived in the Pilgrims Museum house, it is the oldest residence in Leiden and is similar to and about the same age as the houses where the Pilgrims lived.

The man who owns the museum is Jeremy Bangs. He is not only a passionate restorer and knowledgeable historian, but he also has a Juneau connection. His uncle and aunt, Dwight and Florence Nash, bought a dairy farm in Juneau in 1950, and he has a cousin who still lives in the area.

Bangs has restored the house and decorated it with period furnishings. Houses in the 16th and 17th centuries were small. In this house, children slept in the attic while parents slept in a built-in box bed in the main room, which also was the kitchen, dining and living room as well as a place of business. The basement was once the main floor, but centuries ago a dike was put up and the street raised, causing the living quarters to be shifted up.

The next morning we made our pilgrimage to Delft, because of my love of blue and white porcelain. The Dutch have loved Delftware for centuries, and the tiles can be seen everywhere. For example, in Amsterdam, one train platform's plaque was made of tile and read "2b or not 2b." (As a retired English teacher, I enjoyed the joke.) Building and house addresses are also made of tiles.

By the way, delf means "to dig" as in to dig canals. The "t" was added at a later time.

From the train station, we went directly to Aardewerk de Candelaer, where artists hand-decorate pieces of Delftware. Hand-painted Delftware is expensive. We found that the smaller pieces were cheaper and easier to pack safely in our suitcases. Just a friendly warning, most of the Delftware in the tourist shops is made in China and not really "Delft."

From Aardewerk de Candelaer, we explored the Centrum. The Oude Kerk (Old Church) has a noticeably leaning tower. The church's brochure explains that the tower, built between 1325 and 1350, leans because it may have been built on a filled-in canal. For centuries folks have worried that the tower might topple over, but it still stands and leans. The Dutch royal family worships in Nieuwe (New) Kerk, built between 1396 and 1510.

We admired the ornate Town Hall. We were quite jealous when we arrived at the Oostport (South Gate) and discovered that the old gatehouse is a private residence. On the Beesten Markt square, we ate a delicious Mediterranean chicken salad at one of the eight restaurants that had outside seating on the former cattle market square.

After lunch, Don went to the Legermuseum (weaponry museum), and I went to the Museum Lambert van Meerten, which is a house museum as well as a showcase for Delft tile and porcelain. The house itself is quite young; it was built in 1897. However, the tiles are quite old, with many dating from the 1600s.

From the house museum, I walked the short distance to tour the Oude Kerk. The painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) is buried in the Oude Kerk. These days Vermeer's most famous painting is "The Girl with the Pearl Earring" because of the novel and the movie of the same title. Even though Vermeer was born, raised, lived and buried in Delft, none of his original paintings are in the town. To make up for the lack of original Vermeer paintings, about eight different historical plaques on different street corners display a copy of one of his paintings and discuss some aspect of his life and art.

We spent most of our last day in Leiden at the Rijksmuseum (National Museum). The museum's collections include artifacts of the Netherlands from pre-history (which includes a Dutch boomerang), Roman times and the Medieval Ages, as well as large collections of Greek, Etruscan, Roman and Near East artifacts. In the late afternoon, we explored De Valk, the windmill museum.

The next day, we took the train from Leiden to Maastricht to be close to the Sunday Antique Market just across the border in Tongeren, Belgium. (The trains are crowded on weekends.) Maastricht tourist information booked us into a reasonably priced, four-star hotel that was formerly a movie theater. The Hotel MABI is decorated with movie memorabilia, including autographed photos of Marilyn Monroe, a Katherine Hepburn-signed handkerchief and old movie cameras and projectors. The hotel's favorite actor is Charlie Chaplin.

We planned to go by train to the Tongeren Sunday Antique Market, but when we arrived at the Maastricht train station on Sunday morning, the ticket clerk told us it would take us three hours by train. Our faces fell. She followed up, "But the bus will get you to Tongeren in an hour."

The bus route was through the Maastricht suburbs and small towns and villages. The driver knew most of the people he picked up, and he was our driver when we returned in the late afternoon. We almost felt like locals. Tongeren is just 18 kilometers from Maastricht.

We spent about two hours looking at the antiques, mostly crystal chandeliers, furniture and bric-a-brac. From the outdoor market, we followed the signs to an antique shop in a 1600s house that looked original inside and out. From the shop, we followed the old streets and admired old houses and buildings until we came to the huge Onze Lieve Vrouwebasiliek (Flemish for the Basilica of Our Lady). A church has been on this spot for 1,200 years. At the front of the basilica are the ruins of a 2nd Century Roman villa and the ruins of medieval buildings.

On our way to the basilica and Roman ruins, we had noticed a restaurant that appeared to be quite popular with the locals. The Herberg De Pelgrim was in a steep-gabled, brick building. The waiters spoke some English but could not tell us what some of the menu items were in English. We can read a bit of French, however, we were not sure what we ordered. The white fish and lamb ribs were excellent.

On this portion of our PFD trip to the Old World, we saw many of the sights for which the Netherlands is famous: windmills, tulips, Delftware, the Pilgrims Museum and Johannes Vermeer's hometown of Delft.

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