Blog in France Goes Dutch: Part 1

I’ve recently returned from a trip to Holland to spend a few days with daughter Caitlin. Caiti is living in The Hague and attending Leiden University.

She took me to Leiden on my first day with her. It’s a short but interesting train ride from The Hague. Once out of the city, we passed first allotments with some very splendid garden sheds, some of which would house whole families, then fields criss-crossed by small drainage canals and occupied by geese, sheep and cows. Coming from rolling Creuse in the foothills of the Massif Central, the flatness to every side was very noticeable. Even flatter than my home county of Suffolk!

We headed to the university, walking through the pretty streets with their canals in the middle. Leiden is a very picturesque place.

We stopped to admire Rembrandt’s birthspot. I can’t really call it a birthplace as that’s long since been demolished, but you can look at where that once stood.

Leiden dates back to 860. It became a city in 1266 and generally began to prosper. It was famous at various times for weaving and printing and publishing. It played an important role in Eighty Years’ War between Holland and Spain. Leiden was besieged for five months in 1574 but bravely held out. It was relieved in the end by cutting the dykes, which flooded the surrounding meadows and allowed the Dutch fleet to get at the Spanish infantry positions. As a reward for being so stalwart on his behalf, William I of Orange offered the city a choice of not paying taxes or a university. Leiden opted for the latter, and today the university is still one of the best in the world, with thirteen Nobel prize winners amongst its alumni.

Since 1866 there have been annual celebrations on 3rd October, the day when the Siege of Leiden ended. There are funfairs and other celebrations, and apparently everyone can have free herring and white bread in commemoration of the first food the citizens of Leiden received after the siege, in which many people starved to death. Caiti didn’t take this kind offer up!

This building was once the university’s stables.

We had a brief poke around the Rijksmuseum, whose exhibits include a rather fascinating mummified ibis, and then visited the Hortus Botannicus, the botanical gardens founded in 1587. Botanist Carolus Clusius was instrumental in establishing them, and he began to grow tulips there which was the start of the Dutch relationship with that flower.

The gardens are amazing. Even in November, plenty of flowers were bravely hanging on so there were colourful blooms as well as colourful leaves to see. There were a lot of greenhouses, one housing a stupendous collection of nepenthes – the carnivorous plants with jugs – that youngest son Ruadhri would have loved. I took loads of photos for him. We saw the gardener who has Ruadhri’s dream job of tending all these plants. There were lots of ant ferns in that greenhouse too.

One huge greenhouse is home for a mini rainforest, with cinnamon and jade trees amongst many, many others.

Back in the main gardens there’s an extremely old tree that dates back to the 15th century, I think, and a display that shows how plants have developed over millions of years.

We had a picnic, and then it was time to visit a windmill. The splendid Molen de Valk built in 1743 is one of the city’s main landmarks.

We had a brilliant time climbing up stairs and then progressively steeper ladders to get to almost the very top of the windmill.

There was a short (thankfully!) and interesting film about the history of windmills and the different jobs they’ve been put to in the past, from grinding wheat to sawing wood to draining polders. There were once more than 10,000 windmills in Holland, but now there are only around 950. Leiden itself has nine of these.

But our day still wasn’t finished! However, I’ll leave what we did next for the next blog post but I’ll just mention that it includes huge guinea-pigs and wild parakeets.