Leiden, South Holland, the Netherlands

June 6 – 8, 2019

Fresh off the modern glass terminal of Leiden Centraal, I turned my travel goals from a hashtag to reality. But the city did not become one of my favorite in the world solely based on that personal milestone. The first European city I walked on perfectly embodied what I imagined it would be – brimming with history and Old World charm. Leiden delivered on both counts. The old quarter had largely remained or been restored as it was centuries ago.

TTT @ Molen de Valk, Leiden
TTT @ Station Leiden Centraal

To be honest, I had not heard of Leiden before my trip to the Netherlands. It turned out to be a campus city and the home of Leiden University. Perhaps it was summer break in early June. The city in the three days I visited was mainly empty. My first leisurely Leiden walk commenced at the iconic windmill, Molen de Valk, after an Indonesian meal at Stadscafé Van der Werff occupying a brick and shingle house. Both the windmill and the restaurant ushered visitors to the old city center.

Molen de Valk @ Leiden
TTT @ Stadscafé Van der Werff, Leiden
Satay (Indonesian Meal) @ Stadscafé Van der Werff, Leiden
With Sis and Bro-in-Law @ Stadscafé Van der Werff, Leiden

Ornate gates were important historical relics in old cities. Leiden had a few still standing since the Medieval times. Visitors entered through the Morspoort, which I merely glimpsed it at the far end of Morsstraat. The domed stone gate, built in 1669, was once a prison where criminals were hanged in public view. I would make a quick 180 if I were subjected to such gruesome welcome at the gate! Was it done to deter people, not only from committing crime, but from entering the city at all? The other gate I saw, Sint Joris Gate beside a Leiden University building, had none of the violent history. Built in 1645, the sandstone gate was known for its sculpture depicting St. George defeating a dragon.

Morspoort from Morsstraat @ Leiden
My Sister Pointing at Hartebrugkerk @ Haarlemmerstraat, Leiden
Sint Joris Gate @ Leiden

Literature and architecture collaborated randomly in the city. More than a hundred poems from Shakespeare to Sappho had been scribbled on the walls of buildings. I chanced upon one, Hidden Things by Constantine P. Cavafy, written in Greek script.

Wall Poem by Cavafy @ Caeciliastraat, Leiden
An Alley with Parked Bikes @ Leiden
Leiden @ South Holland

A focal point of space was the Beestenmarkt in front of a McDonald’s outlet. The triangular square by the placid Oude Vest, one of Leiden’s many canals, was apparently a bustling space for al fresco dining; the empty tables and folded parasols, though, looked forlorn during my visit. Why was the square deserted? The place was ready for summer, but the weather was still rather chilly.

Beestenmarkt @ Leiden
Beestenmarkt @ Leiden

A little less than a hundred waterways crisscrossed the appropriately dubbed city of canals. The Galgewater, a section of the Old Rhine, cut through the city. Floating houses and wooden jetties made up the quietly quaint scene, a far cry from the origin of its name – the gallows. It was another site in the city for public executions. Such violent, even barbaric, history seemed unthinkable in this present-day photogenic views and laid-back vibes.

Galgewater @ Leiden
Galgewater @ Leiden
Turfmarktsbrug over Galgewater @ Leiden

Walking the streets of Leiden was practically a trip through time. Little had changed since the city’s most famous son, Rembrandt, walked the same streets. Though the renowned artist’s birthplace had turned into an apartment building, there were several memorials put up to celebrate him.

The Site of Rembrandt’s Childhood Home @ Weddesteeg, Leiden
Rembrandt Square @ Leiden
Rembrandt Square @ Leiden

The city carpenter, Jan Ottensz van Seyst, was likewise honored with a memorial – his own house that stood out with its gable steps and shutters painted red and white. The house-cum-workshop called the Stadstimmerhuis still sported the lion sculpture proudly perched on the top gable as described by a homegrown historian:

On the Galgewater, opposite Rembrandt’s father’s mill on the other side, since 1612 the beautiful stepped gable of the Stadstimmerhuis stood, where on top stood a sandstone lion with the Leidsche coat of arms.

Petrus Johannes Blok
Stadstimmerhuis @ Stadstimmerwerf, Leiden
TTT @ Stadstimmerhuis, Leiden
Stadstimmerhuis @ Stadstimmerwerf, Leiden

I found the inner city to be the historic heart of Leiden comprised of almost 3,000 monumental structures of various kinds – traditional houses, ramparts, windmills, churches and city gates – restored and preserved for the present and future generations. In its heart of hearts stood the magnificent Pieterskerk, named after St. Peter who was depicted all over Leiden to be carrying the keys of the city. Near the 1315 church also stood the Gravensteen, yet another building that was once a prison. Its prominent needle spire was its oldest feature built in the 13th century. The building had been incorporated by Leiden University of late.

Pieterskerk @ Leiden
TTT @ Pieterskerk, Leiden
Gravensteen @ Leiden

A plaque made my jaw drop twice. I never expected to find Obama’s heritage in this city, more so to learn that he was related to George Bush. Across from Pieterskerk, the Jean Pesijns Almshouse was established in 1655 as a home for widows or the poor until the present day. The American connection came from Pilgrim Fathers pastor and English separatist John Robinson who lived in the house until 1625. A memorial stone counted Thomas Blossom and wife as occupants of the almshouse. The Blossoms were the ancestors of both American Presidents George Bush (Sr. and Jr.) and Barack Obama. Who knew they shared heritage despite the political and racial divide? At least I didn’t. Some things I could only learn from my travels.

Jean Pesijns Almshouse @ Leiden
TTT @ Jean Pesijns Almshouse, Leiden

The richly designed Leiden City Hall, dating from 1595, had been an imposing presence on Breestraat since the early Middle Ages. It was face-lifted with a Renaissance façade in 1595 to show off the city’s newfound prosperity. A fire in 1929 destroyed that building, sadly, but it had since been rebuilt.

TTT @ Leiden City Hall
Leiden City Hall
TTT @ Leiden City Hall

Finally, I entered the Burcht van Leiden, an ancient circular citadel built atop an artificial hill in the 11th century. Its strategic location straddled the converging bend of the two parts of the Rhine, the Oude Rijn and the Nieuwe Rijn. The Burcht, rising 20 meters from the city center, was actually built on an even more ancient Roman fortification. It offered a 360-degree panorama of Leiden and beyond. The commanding view served present-day tourists well, but it would have been a formidable defense against the Spanish. My country could relate. How they could build a hill of turf and clay a thousand years ago was truly a feat. The citadel boasted of walls six meters high. It was privately owned for centuries; visitors could only walk around it. It had since become city property and members of the public could enter for free.

Burcht van Leiden
TTT @ Burcht van Leiden
Burcht van Leiden

Archaeological excavations showed that the Burcht was probably a emergency refuge for Leiden citizens than a permanent residence of feudal lords. By the 14th century, the fort lost its military function. A well in the middle of the walled enclosure was legendary in itself. It was believed that a herring was once caught in it as the well was deep enough to receive water from the North Sea around eight kilometers away.

Leiden Castle Well @ Burcht van Leiden
View of Leiden from Burcht van Leiden
Hooglandse Kerk (Highland Church) @ Leiden

Strangely enough, Leiden was unique in the Netherlands for not having a town square. But I saw many quaintly cobbled market spaces, such as the one with the Koornbrug. Back in the day, corn was traded and stored on the fixed stone bridge, thus a 19th-century roof was built to protect the merchandise. The roof displayed the city coat of arms, the Leiden keys, surrounded by ears of corn.

Leidse Markt @ Leiden
Koornbrug @ Leiden

It was impossible to miss the key designs on walls and streets all over the city. The ubiquitous twin keys, usually red, were crossed together. For this reason, Leiden got the nickname, City of Keys. Historically, the symbol arose from the city seal of wax in 1293 depicting St. Peter carrying a key. I noticed the keys balanced the many prison structures and execution sites in the city. In more ways than one, the Leiden keys unlocked the city’s charms and freed it from its violent past. And I had Ms. O, my hostess with the mostest, to thank for turning the Leiden key and leading me to discover the wonders of this Dutch city.

Leiden Keys
Ms. O @ Leiden

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