My visits to the Netherlands always focused on Amsterdam. For this adventure, I wanted to go deeper into the Dutch experience. I wanted to explore the concentration of cities south of Amsterdam, cities that are linked by an affordable, efficient national train system.
The university town of Leiden is only a half an hour from Amsterdam. Another fifteen minutes south is The Hague and Scheveningen on the North Sea. That’s commuting distance. It takes me that long to drive from my home near the beach to downtown Los Angeles.
On this trip, my wife Michelle and I traveled together. Her work is high-pressured and demanding. Timing her vacation, she joined me to have much needed time away from her office, time to unplug, relax and recharge. Our adventure began in The Hague.
The Hague (Den Haag)
Many people know The Hague because of the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court. The courts adjudicate complaints between countries and against leaders who are accused of crimes against humanity as was Slobodan Milosevic (1941-2006), the former leader of Serbia.
While Amsterdam is the constitutional capital, The Hague is the political heart of the Netherlands. In the 13th century the Counts of Holland built the Binnenhof or Inner Court where they ruled over their subjects. Today Parliament (States of General of the Netherlands) meets in the Binnenhof, which makes the castle one of the world’s longest continuously used governmental buildings.
When the building was constructed next to a large pond called Hofvijver, the castle sat alone. Because politicians need civil servants, who in turn need shop keepers to take care of daily needs, a town grew up around the castle.
As political and business institutions continued to find a home in The Hague, the city has grown to encompass the old town with a new, modern metropolis populated by towering, gleaming skyscrapers.
Standing in the Mauritshuis, one of the most famous art museums in the Netherlands, our guide, Remco Dörr, asked, “Can you see it?” We didn’t.
He pointed again at an area near the top of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632). “There,” he gestured at the tall man with a long face standing at the back.
A few steps closer and, yes, we saw the faint outline around the tall man’s head. Clearly Rembrandt (1606-1669) had originally painted the tall man wearing a hat. Dörr surmised that Dr. Tulp, the most important person in the painting, had insisted that only he should have the honor of wearing a stylish hat. With a few brush strokes, Rembrandt demoted the tall man and left him hatless for almost four hundred years.
Dörr told us more about the painting.
The Anatomy Lesson was originally hung high on the wall instead of at eye level. That difference explained why the corpse appeared to have a shortened body and stubby legs. If we kneeled down on the floor, we would see the painting as Rembrandt, a master of perspective, had intended. And kneel down we did. Looking up at the painting we saw clearly that the corpse had a properly sized body and legs.
The Mauritshuis was originally constructed in the early 17th century as the home of Johan Maurits Van Nassau-Siegen (1604-1679). Famous as the governor of Dutch Brazil, over time the building was refurbished and expanded to house the Royal Picture Gallery. The interior retains the feeling of a family home, albeit one containing the world’s greatest collection of important historical art.
The immense collection houses the work of the most famous Dutch and Flemish painters of the Golden Age. As we walked from room to room, Dörr pointed out the works of Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), Jan Steen (1626-1679), Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) and a great many others.
Having a knowledgeable guide made our tour of the Mauritshuis all the more enjoyable.
We admired Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665), a painting we knew from the novel and film which imagined the lives of the painter, his family and a serving girl. Dorr compared the painting with Rembrandt’s portraits of famous people like Dr. Tulp and pointed out that Vermeer’s Girl was what the Dutch call a tronie. Notwithstanding the life given her in Tracy Chevalier’s 1999 novel, Vermeer’s painting was a study of an imaginary person, not a portrait.
Likewise, Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch (1654), he explained, was not a portrait of a real bird. Intended to be unframed and placed high on a wall, the painting is an example of trompe l’oeil (“a deception of the eye”). A casual observer passing by on the street would believe that a real goldfinch lived inside the house.
In the 17th century, the Dutch became wealthy because of their abilities in science, trade and war. The goods of the New and Old worlds flowed through their warehouses. As the rising merchant class needed a way to celebrate themselves, art followed commerce.
Instead of images taken from the bible and classical mythology, popular with the aristocracy, the merchant class commissioned paintings about their own lives and interests. Hence, a goldfinch and a serving girl in Fabritius’ and Vermeer’s paintings. Walking through the galleries, we saw paintings of lavish dining room tables set with mouthwatering displays of ripe fruit, Instagram-perfect vegetables and cooked meats and fish.
Hendrick Avercamp (1585-1634) painted exquisitely detailed scenes of middle-class life. He especially loved to portray the delights of ice skating and the foibles of his fellow citizens.
For Paulus Potter (1625-1654) that representation meant painting very large farm animals on a very large canvas. The Bull (1647) portrayed an idyllic scene of farm life, albeit a realistic one with flies, a frog and a farmer.
The cultural heart of a political city
Our exploration of the old town began on Noordeinde Street. Staying at the Indigo Hotel, a refurbished bank, we crossed the street to admire the Paleis Noordeinde. Called the King’s Office, the elegant palace is used for ceremonial purposes.
On Noordeinde Street, we looked in the windows of clothing stores, booksellers, coffee shops, antique dealers, restaurants and wine shops that lined both sides of the street.
We stopped at Café Lola to appreciate how one shop combined two things the Dutch love: bicycles and coffee. Part coffee shop, part bicycle repair shop, Café Lola has comfortable lounge chairs and a selection of baked goods and snacks.
Our walking tour continued on a sunny, cool day as we enjoyed the easy calm of The Hague’s old town.
From Noordeinde we walked east on Lange Voorhout to enjoy the leafy park that defines one of Europe’s first “boulevards.” Before Instagram and Facebook, there was Lange Voorhout. Originally constructed in the middle of the 16th century, the well-to-do paraded on the boulevard in their carriages. The politically connected watched from the upper stories of their large houses and waved at friends whose wealth was on display.
We walked the length of Lange Voorhout to the Escher Museum. Called Escher in the Palace (Escher in Het Paleis), the museum building was originally Queen Mother Emma’s winter residence. The collection puts a spotlight on Escher’s mind-bending optical paintings that are both beautiful and confounding.
The Hague was not built for commerce. As a political center, the city had no need for a system of transportation canals like those in the trading centers of Amsterdam, Leiden and many other Dutch cities. The city does have a canal, but it was designed to be defensive, a sort of moat built around the old town.
To see one of the most remarkable paintings of the late 19th century, we stopped at the Panorama Mesdag museum.
The star attraction is on the upper floor, but we lingered in the first gallery. Husband and wife, Hendrik Willem Mesdag (1831-1915) and Sientje Mesdag-van Houton (1834-1909), were painters. Because of her rich inheritance, they devoted themselves to their art.
In a he-said/she-said dialogue in the gallery at the entrance, their paintings face one another. We walked down one side of the room, then the other to appreciate the art of this talented couple. To us, at the beginning of their careers, hers was the superior talent.
A marine painter, Mesdag was a member of The Hague School of painters who brought realism and drama to their portraits of the seafaring life. His panorama of the beach at Scheveningen was painted in four months with the help of his wife and students and completed in 1881.
To reach the panorama, we climbed the narrow, spiraling staircase to a tented landing overlooking the painting. Standing on the promontory, the beach and fishing village of Scheveningen surrounded us.
The panorama is huge, with a 360-degree view of the coastline, village and sand dunes stretching to the horizon. Remarkably detailed, Mesdag created a snapshot of a moment in time. Because the painting is illuminated by skylights, that 19th century landscape changes depending on the weather in the 21st century.
Aided by a soundtrack of sea gulls cawing and waves hitting the beach, sand and storm-tossed debris spread along the flooring next to the painting, the illusion of actually being transported back a hundred years to Scheveningen was complete.
Like big sister Amsterdam, The Hague has a wealth of museums and public art. One of the city’s best is the Gemeentemuseum (“the municipal museum”).
The building is almost as famous as the collection housed inside. The work of the Dutch architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage (1856-1934), the museum was completed the year after his death. Embracing light, minimalism and an Art Deco design, Berlage was influenced by the aesthetic of the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959).
The “architectural” paintings of Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) comprise an important part of the collection. The works on display trace the progress of an artist’s evolution. Early examples of Mondrian’s painting show how he was influenced by Van Gogh and then Picasso. In time he found his own vision. In pursuit of universals, he embraced dramatic combinations of color and geometric lines.
In addition to Mondrian, the museum takes great pride in Dutch art, embracing the old (Delft ceramics and the late 19th century Hague School of landscape painters) and the new (Tjebbe Beekman and the designer Richard Hutten).
After walking around the old town and visiting museums, we had earned refreshment. Across the street from the Binnenhof we had our choice of outdoor cafes.
At Hometown Coffee & More, we settled into comfortable chairs and ordered what became our favorite Dutch treat: apple tart with coffee (for me) and tea (for Michelle). While we shared our tart, we looked over the photographs we had taken during our walking tour and re-enjoyed every stop.
The beach and more at Scheveningen
For our last adventure in The Hague, we slipped on flip flops and hoped on a tram. In fifteen minutes, we were sitting in an outdoor café drinking iced teas and enjoying sandwiches, our feet digging into the sand.
The fishing village of Scheveningen Mesdag painted in his Panorama is all grown up. Hotels, apartments, restaurants and more stretch along the main boulevard that faces the beach.
Start at the Pier, a wonderful long expanse that extends a quarter of a mile into the North Sea. Inside the Pier’s covered promenade, there are restaurants and bars with indoor and outdoor seating, sweet shops as well as stands selling clothing and souvenirs.
At the very end of the Pier, you can choose your adventure. See the sights or have an adrenaline rush.
We watched zipliners, two-by-two, scream with joy, as they sped overhead. Bungee jumpers took the leap from the top of a tower and were yanked back before they would plunge into the dark waters below. We thought about riding the Ferris wheel with 36 enclosed, air-conditioned gondolas with views of the beach and ocean, but we were in a relaxed mode, so we did our adventuring on foot.
If Mesdag were painting Scheveningen today, he would add kite boarders and windsurfers to the fishermen who ply the waters off the coast. He would be happy to see that art has enriched his favorite fishing village.
Along the pedestrian boulevard facing the beach, the American sculptor, Tom Otterness (b. 1952) crafted creatures large and small, whimsical metal sculptures that climb, crawl, stand and stare. Theo and Lida Scholten created Sculptures by the Sea (Beelden aan Zee) to curate a collection of works from artists locally and around the world. And, he would have to paint a line of families waiting to enter Sea Life, a boardwalk aquarium that gives an up-close-and-personal encounter with marine life.
For us, Scheveningen was a wonderful stop on our journey. At low tide we walked past the shore line, the feel of wet sand on our feet as we joined hundreds of others enjoying a sunny afternoon. Pale white clouds floated overhead. Children ran into the surf. Families sat on blankets enjoying picnics under brightly colored umbrellas.
Mesdag would be happy that his favorite seaside destination has fared so well.
WHEN YOU GO
For detailed information about The Hague, consult www.denhaag.com/en. The comprehensive website provides an insider’s view of the city with tips about shopping, festivals, museums, attractions, walking tours and a “This Week” section, listing events and activities.
The website also has collections of guided tours that explore the city by walking, bicycling or riding on a canal boat.
Brasserie Stocks & Bonds, Hotel Indigo, Noordeinde 33, 2514 GC The Hague, +31 70 209 9000. An intimate café-lounge with a small bar. Expect a friendly staff, hearty snacks and Dutch favorites. I enjoyed De Haagsche Croquetterij, a testament to Dutch frugality. The braised beef that is served at dinner is repurposed as a fried croquette at lunch. The deliciously crisp-on-the-outside and moist-and-sweet-inside is served on a slice of bread with a quality mustard as a condiment.
Escher in the Palace (Escher in Het Paleis), Lange Voorhout 74, 2514 EH The Hague. Formerly the winter residence of the Queen Mother Emma, the museum celebrates M. C. Escher’s masterful art that uses math and optical illusions to challenge and bewilder.
Gemeentemuseum (Gemeente Museum), Stadhouderslaan 41, 2517 HV The Hague.
Hotel des Indes, Lange Voorhout 54-56, 2514 EG The Hague, +31 70 361 2345. Operated by the Marriott as part of its Luxury Collection, the elegant Belle Époque hotel was originally built in 1881 as a private home. Definitely book a table for high tea and enjoy fine food in an exceptionally beautiful setting.
Hotel Indigo, Noordeinde 33, 2514 GC The Hague. Operated by IHG, the hotel occupies what was once the National Bank. The interior references that original use. For instance, in our comfortable room with a view of the King’s Palace, instead of a cabinet for the mini-bar, there was a mock-up of a safe, complete with a metal door and combination dial.
Jamey Bennett, Plaats 11, 2513 AD The Hague, firstname.lastname@example.org, 070 365 02 35. Besides a sprawling interior, there is a large outdoor patio shaded by umbrellas. The contemporary menu borrows from many cuisines to create dishes that are well-paired with the expansive beverages menu. The restaurant is rightly proud of their Gin and Tonics (G&Ts), served Spanish-style in glass goblets.
The Mauritshuis, Plein 29, 2511 CS The Hague. The Mauritshuis is an intimate museum with a world-class collection of art, primarily from the Dutch Golden Age. In what was once a private home, you can enjoy an uncrowded encounter with The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Vermeer, The Goldfinch by Fabritius and The Anatomy Lesson by Rembrandt among many other great works of art. To appreciate familiar paintings in a new light, take advantage of an audio guide available in the museum.
Paleis Noordeinde (the King’s “working palace”), Noordeinde 68, 2514 GL The Hague.
Pauw, Noordeinde 42, NL-2514 GJ The Hague, email@example.com, +31 70 365 67 77, www.pauw.com. One of many clothing stores lining the Noordeinde within walking distance of the Paleis Noordeinde, Pauw features the work of notable designers.
Panorama Mesdag, Zeestraat 65, 2518 AA The Hague, firstname.lastname@example.org, +31 70 310 6665. Audio guides are available. Before climbing the narrow, twisting staircase to view the panorama on the upper gallery, take time to explore the galleries on the ground floor. Hendrik Willem Mesdag and Sientje Mesdag-van Houten, his wife, were both painters. In the first room, their works face each other.
The Pier, Strandweg, Scheveningen, The Hague.
Sculptures by the Sea (Beelden aan Zee), Harteveltstraat 1, Scheveningen, The Hague.
Tapisco, Kneuterdijk 11, 2514 EM The Hague. Website in Dutch only. Located close to the shopping center on Noordeinde, the tapas bar has a lively, fun vibe. Large plate glass windows flood the interior with light. The wines are well curated, the cocktails deliciously icy-cold. The well-made tapas feature Spanish and local products. The open kitchen faces a library-style lounge with a wall of books and comfortable seating.