Having a short June break definitely belongs to the small pleasures of life, and even more so if it allows you to take a not-Dutchie along some Dutch landmarks. Funny enough, I noticed that it are not those household places that are the best introduction to Dutch culture, but rather the unexpected surprises you stumble upon while wandering around.
Spending a couple of days at the Dutch beach is definitely one of the things to do if you want to pass your Dutch integration course. So we headed for Scheveningen, one of the easiest beaches to reach and a stay that is easily combined with a visit of the political centre of the Netherlands, The Hague.
Now the cliche thing to do in Scheveningen is to stroll along its esplanade until you reach the Pier, where you might want to experience what it is like to walk into the sea without getting your feet wet. There are of course also the harbour and the lighthouse to admire, and - this is Holland, after all - the nudist beach.
The quintessential Dutch feeling however, is not in these things, but in the entirely unpredictable weather. As in any real Dutch summer, we needed sun lotion on one day, while having to buy a jacket against storm winds and rain the other… Nevertheless, we’re not complaining, as the the changing weather allowed for a lovely view on the full range of Dutch skies. The so called ‘Dutch light’ enamoured many of the painters of the The Hague School. Their works can of course be admired in museums, but it’s even better to see this natural work of art in real life while walking at the seaside.
In the end however, the weather drove us from Scheveningen to the nearby The Hague, where we couldn’t overlook the adds drawing attention to one of the best known Dutch artists ever, Piet Mondriaan, and the artistic movement of De Stijl, that was founded one hundred years ago and of which he was one of the ‘big names’.
The Hague is also the centre of Dutch political life, as it houses the Dutch parliament and government. As in any country, there are always people who disagree with something, which means that there is bound to be some demonstration going on somewhere in the city.
Today was no exception, and we stumbled across people saying the government should do more for the preservation of rare domesticated animal species under European rules. In practice it meant I had the pleasure of taking a veterinarian to look at rare Dutch cow, horse and goat species, among others, accompanied by one of the volunteers explaining their cause.
So far, so good, but one Dutch landmark that prominently features an animal proved a bridge too far for the vet: the “haring happen”, or eating a herring the Dutch way, which is probably best explained by a video. (It’s good to know, by the way, that these herrings are cleaned and, contrary to popular believe, in fact not raw!)
City of Light
Down south shines Eindhoven, also known as the ‘City of Light’, which refers to Philips, the technology company that started there as a manufacturer of, among other things, light bulbs. With it’s high tech industry and the Eindhoven Technological University it is the heart of what in 2011 dubbed ‘the most intelligent region in the world’.
It is also a relaxed city, with many parks forming a green lung throughout the centre and venues such as the PSV stadium at close hand. A stop at De Effenaar, just outside the main shopping streets, provided us with drinks and sweets, but also with a peek into the city’s industrious history. The concert venue, where pop and rock artists perform, is located in a former linen factory. The process to remove creases from the fabric is called ‘effenen’ in Dutch, making the machine they used the ‘effenaar’.
Now that was certainly informative, but you will only truly learn to understand your own culture when you start looking at it with the ‘new’ eyes of an outsider. That was exactly what happened when I was thoughtlessly passing a cafeteria in one of Eindhoven’s shopping streets. The questions I got about the wall with build-in vending machines took me by surprise.
Here you can get snacks like ‘kroketten’ (croquettes). Dutch croquettes are cylindrical shaped, crispy and crunchy on the outside, with a smooth, soft inside that tastes like something meat-ish. Your best hope is that is a meat ragout made of beef, herbs, onions, butter and flour that was breaded and deep-fried, but most likely it is a mix of leftovers of the meat industry that wouldn’t be out of place in petfood... The Dutch eat this popular snack with mustard.
The vending machine also offers ‘frikandellen’ (frikandels). A frikandel is another highlight of the not so advanced Dutch cuisine, a deep-fried, long, firm, skinless and dark-coloured minced-meat sausage that in it’s ‘special’ variant comes with curry ketchup, mayonnaise and chopped onions.
Lady Miffy of Utrecht
Next thing up was the city of Utrecht, more or less in the middle of the country. Chances are that you have not heard of Utrecht, but you very likely have seen its most famous daughter.
When strolling around, we passed by “Nijntje square”, a cute small square just outside the city centre with a free tap water point and a statue of Nijntje (or Miffy in English). Miffy is of course the very popular little white rabbit you can find in bedside stories for children that are read all over the globe. She was created by the Utrecht-born designer Dick Bruna, one of the most famous people to come from the city. Unfortunately, he did pass away last year, but his brainchild is still alive and kicking. I even saw Miffy popping up as symbol in the traffic lights when waiting at a crossover in Utrecht!
Utrecht’s historical value didn’t start with Miffy, however. Proud landmark in the city centre is the Dom Church, which is hard to miss as it’s bell tower is the highest building in Utrecht. Once, the church was the catholic cathedral of Utrecht, but in 1580 the city council gave it to the protestants. Earlier, during the ‘Beeldenstorm’ or Iconoclasm of 1566, both the in- and exterior had been damaged - the marks of this can still be seen. In 1674 the central nave of the church collapsed, which is why today the tower seems to stand alone. Among what is still there, you’ll find the former chapter house, now the auditorium of Utrecht University. Here, in 1579, the Union of Utrecht was signed, which formed the foundation for the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands.
Finally, a great way of concluding a brief Tour d’Hollande on a hot day is definitely a walk alongside the canals that surrounds the old city centre. What better place to muse on life than at the waterside, surrounded by century old trees, birds and pittoresk views on houses from times bygone?
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