Leiden, South Holland, the Netherlands
June 7 – 8, 2019
Not Venice. Not even Amsterdam. My first city of canals was not as famous as either by any measure but no less charming. For starters, Leiden had none of the crowds choking the aforementioned cities. It defined laid-back and complemented my chill pace and personality quite nicely. The bar was set high up even centuries ago when it was already hailed as “the most beautiful city in the most beautiful country in Europe.” I came not only to the right place but to the best place in my first visit to the continent.
Leiden delivered in spades by way of architectural heritage and historical sites, but its unique charm lay on the network of canals and bridges that went as far back as the 17th century. The city was only next to Amsterdam in water volume. These tree-lined canals were dug, not only for transportation, but more so for protection. They served as a moat surrounding the city.
The iconic windmill, Molen de Valk, cast its reflection on Rijnsburgersingel, the canal leading to the old city. Though rather chilly in the early days of summer, a rowdy group of young people – perhaps university students as Leiden was a campus city – were jumping into the water and swimming to the opposite shore as if on a dare. Elsewhere along the canal was more tranquil. An old couple was enjoying the peace and quiet standing behind the bronze statue of a lady holding a branch, appropriately solemn for a WW2 memorial.
Rapenburg / Steenschuur
Originally dug in the 14th-century as a protective moat, Rapenburg had since become the jewel of Leiden canals. I found it to be the most photogenic: a row of trees perfectly aligned on both sides, moored boats on placid waters rippled by floating ducks, stone bridges arching across it. More than a hundred heritage buildings dating from the 17th and 18th centuries – still well-preserved and stately – flanked its rather short stretch. I wondered how it felt calling this place of delicate beauty home. How nice it would be to wake up to this and end the day with it. Not all buildings were residences; some were museums and University of Leiden’s fraternity and sorority houses. A portion of Rapenburg was called Steenschuur, a fact that initially confused me upon checking Google Maps.
A fixed arch bridge across Rapenburg caught my fancy. I could spend an afternoon taking photos of Doelenbrug alone. It was built in the 14th century as a high steep wooden bridge and replaced by masonry two centuries later. The one I was standing on, though, was the restoration built in 1981. I noticed that the Dutch had the habit of leaning their bikes on bridge railings. Far from unsightly, it grounded the historical nostalgia to the present.
Just paces away from Doelenbrug stood Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (National Museum of Antiquities), the national center for archaeology. Alas, I had no time to check out its exhibits of ancient and classical artifacts, including but not limited to Egyptian, Roman, and Greek. I considered it privilege enough to gaze at the stately museum from across Rapenburg.
Of course, an old city had a place for the oldest profession. Groenhazengracht in the erstwhile red-light district was named after a popular madame who went by the pet name Groene Haasje (little green hare) and who lived in a pink house still standing to this day. Leiden, though inland, was also a maritime port in the Rhine delta, and sailors needed a girl at every port. The 17th-century house, Groenhazengracht 3, was sandwiched rather awkwardly between its neighbors. Its pink paint fabulously stood out in a row of brown brick as she must have done so in her time and in her prime.
The houses along Groenhazengracht, the pink house included, looked skinny and askew. My hostess with the mostest, Ms. O, explained that Dutch soil was sandy and uneven. For this reason, 15th-century urban planning required that buildings have large windows to reduce weight and no spaces between them to increase stability and support. Houses tilted as sand settled unevenly. These architectural adaptations, perhaps unique to the Low Countries, greatly contributed to the distinct charm of Dutch houses.
I also wondered about the hooks sticking out of gables on many houses in Leiden. Ms. O once again explained that their narrow spaces and steep staircases made moving furniture to upper floors an impossible task. Pulleys had to be used to hoist heavy and bulky items to the upper levels. The forward incline also prevented collision of the items with the building façade. It paid off that I had a resource person for free.
Galgewater, so named for the gallows that used to stand on its waters, was the part of Oude Rijn (Old Rhine) that ran through the center of town. The expanse of Turfmarktsbrug provided a vantage point to scan downtown Leiden. Again, I could hang out there an entire afternoon just obsessing about every kind of gable atop brick buildings. They ranged from simple triangles and stepped designs to more elaborate neck and bell shapes.
The touristy highlight was another Galgewater bridge – the wooden drawbridge named after Leiden’s most famous son, Rembrandt van Rijn, whose childhood house was a few paces away. Rembrandt Bridge, though, was built as recently as 1983 as a replica of the 17th-century original destroyed in 1817. Molen de Put, the windmill that Rembrandt etched for posterity, was likewise built in 1987 nearby as a replica of the 17th-century corn mill lost to fire in 1640. This part of town had theme park feels, but it was historically significant with its ties to Rembrandt.
Strolling along Galgewater or on bridges was also an occasion to peek at houses – not just any kind but the uniquely Dutch houseboat as iconic as windmills. The floating houses, actually permanently moored with a specific address, were as much of a heritage as the skinny, tilted houses on land. Some were centuries old as well. These erstwhile freight ships that transported agricultural products and industrial materials through inland waterways back in the day had since been repurposed as residences outfitted with creature comforts, such as electricity, heating, and plumbing. A modern iteration, the woonark, was built on a non-motorized pontoon. My next visit, God willing, should merit a stay in a houseboat to experience canal home life literally.
Finally, Ms. O led me to see the city center with Nieuwe Rijn (New Rhine) cutting through it. In place of residential buildings, al fresco cafes and market squares enjoyed the view of the canal. From the paved steps by Leidse Markt, I could see Koornbrug, another fixed stone bridge. Historically, corn was traded and stored on the 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. This was the commercial center, then and now. Strangely enough, business was far from brisk. This downtown was practically a ghost town.
Unlike in Amsterdam, I did not see canal cruises in Leiden. I forgot to ask Ms. O about it. Not that it mattered. Sailing through the canals would have been too fast and superficial. Our walking tour was just the appropriate pace. It allowed Ms. O time to stop and school me on all things Dutch. It also allowed me to stop and take in the beauty of “the most beautiful city in the most beautiful country in Europe.”
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