Europe 05.07.2016

Tuesday the 5th

What a weather! Cold, wet and grey. These kind of conditions normally call for a snuggly blanket and movies all day but again we had a full schedule so could not succumb to this poor excuse for summer. Locals were clad in thick jackets that looked appropriate for the ski slopes – we followed their lead and pulled the warmest clothing out of our suitcases. We did not have to drive long to get to the neighbouring city of Leiden, home to the oldest university in the Netherlands, and the birth of both the renowned painter Rembrandt and my father. It was a student-city engraved with canals that gave it likeness to Amsterdam – a smaller version but more quiet, dad said. We had planned to do a walking tour outlined on a map we had found at the hotel information desk and it was soon revealed that my lack of directional orientation was inherited from both mum and dad. Somehow we still managed to walk the eight kilometre route and enter a few of the attractions, although our organisation was sometimes backwards and very inefficient.

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A conical tower made of grey brick with vertical windows built straight into the slanted walls loomed high above the treetops. It’s hooded roof was painted to match the black door, windowpanes and the sails that were looped onto the arms of the windmill. The grassy knoll around the restored windmill was littered with old grinding wheels covered in a film of moss from the humid conditions of Leiden. De Valk had operated as a museum for fifty years but the original mill that stood at this location was built in 1611. Inside, the structure was divided into six levels with a ladder-like staircase that made your stomach flip at the sight of the floor far below between the slippery steps. The lower levels of the exhibition were arranged as living quarters in near-poverty, the kitchen and dining room, washroom and sleeping chambers of a large nuclear family cramped into what could not have been more than 60 square metres. The higher levels were for storage and the workshop, where grinding stones had to be scored weekly to ensure the grain was pulverised into a fine flour. It was interesting to learn that the mill had many secret compartments in which to hide flower from the taxation officer as the miller received only a meagre portion of his own produce which was rarely enough for subsistence. The top floor of the windmill allowed access to a platform upon which the fan wings could be rigged with sails or turned towards the wind. Through the tessellating edges of the planks, the ground was visible far below. Accompanied with the powerful wind, this panoramic outlook put fear into the few people who braved the old structure – dad held his breath as I forced him to look over the edge. You would think someone so tall and already far from the ground would have no trouble with heights but he did not enjoy the view as I taunted him about the drop below the weathered flooring. Whilst the windmill played an important role as bread earner, a polder mill was used to maintain the dutch landscape by pumping sea and storm water away from the low lying fields. Due to this multiplicity of functions, the windmill is a cultural icon that has been associated with the Netherlands since it facilitated the industrial rise of the nation in the seventeenth century. De Valk windmill could operate at a capacity of 50 horsepower and grind 1280 kg of flour over the course of a day. With a turn out this large, it is no surprise that windmills allowed the Netherlands to flourish, but the utilisation of steam and coal power with the onset of the industrial revolution caused the demise of windmills in daily existence. Only 150 original windmills remain in the Netherlands today, many lost due to fires and poor maintenance.

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By the time we had descended the intimidating ladder to the bottom of the windmill, the rain was being thrust to the ground with such strength that it stung our cold faces. The temperature had dropped, but we had barely begun our walking tour so we pulled our coats tighter and took long strides to the next destination. The Marekerk was the first protestant church built in 1835. The aisle between the orderly pews was gated from visitors yet the protestant furnishings inside the church was evident from our removed viewpoint. Minimalist white walls made of stone were lightly decorated, with only a single statue of the cross-bearing Jesus at the end of the walkway. A short walk further was the Town Hall on the Grand Place. This area, when compared with the city centre of Belgium, had underwhelming ambience. Instead of cathedrals in the baroque style, there stood a red brick building that could have been mistaken for an institution were it not for the clock tower that doubled the height of the building. The adverse side of the building visible from the street appeared more grandiose with a staircase crafted in skilful detail above which a poem was written into the wall in extravagant lettering. The discrepancy between either architectural style was due to the destruction caused by a fire in 1929 therefore the new and modest Town Hall had been built into the silhouette of its precursor.

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We had done so well to follow the guidance of our map for the first fifth of the “Leiden Looper” but my parents were becoming lazy with correlating the street names to the diagram and it was not long before we were totally off tack. We were back at the car already? That wasn’t 8 km and I am sure we hadn’t been so ignorant to overlook the attractions in this humble city. We made another attempt at the tour but this time backwards as to prevent us wasting time going past the same attractions once more. First, the Hortus Botanicus. The purpose of an expansive scholarly garden, as explained by the information placard at the front of the garden, is to stimulate thought and provide a peaceful and naturesque escape at walking distance from the university of Leiden. Outside stood a multiplicity of flowering plants which extended into a greenhouse to the side of the property. The academic garden had been open to public access for more than 400 years, but we were rained out and concluded to progress to our next destination. Exiting the Hortus Botanicus, we passed the main hall of the University of Leiden wherein a graduation ceremony was currently taking place. It was the first university established following the Spanish occupation of the Benelux and therefore had a protestant outlook, in the renovation of a chapel for supposedly educative purposes. A walk around the building took us to another faculty that was constructed of metal wiring across its forefront. It was not particularly beautiful or impressive, but dad was adamant that the weather had masked its true qualities and therefore this day had only been a bad impression of Leiden. I agree, we had not had the best of circumstances due to the stormy forecast, but I had enjoyed the simplicity of the city.

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Finally we made it to the cream of Leiden! The Pieterskerk was originally a chapel belonging to the reigning count of the region, but was so large and grand that the now empty space attracted tourists and cafe-goers alike for both spiritual enlightenment and a good coffee. It was built in 1121 and was first recognised as a monument in 1976. The annual total of 45 000 visitors come to admire the high ceilings and the impressive organ mounted against the reinforced brick at the back of the room. It was puzzling to think how such a large and heavy instrument could be suspended above the ground – rows of pipes in a variety of sizes were lined against the width of the wall itself so that the doors of the organ could barely open to reveal the inner workings of this old instrument. The stillness was disturbed by the echo of our steps as we admired the many arches and stained glass window features hence I could only imagine the reverberation caused by the choral songs and organ. I tried to picture the effect of such a large instrument in a space built to multiply sound off its curved ceiling – the grandiosity of this music must make up for the lack of idols as is typical of protestant worship.

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We had walked 15 000 steps today. The completion of the city walk brought us to the car, although backwards, and we were relieved to get off our feet and out of the cold for the short drive back to Noordwijk. It was not long before we were on our way to a restaurant on the water with Oma beside me on the back seat of the car. I am constantly astounded by the quaint cafes hidden discretely from the public except from those who know or came to discover these hotspots through luck and chance. Como and Co. looked out of place in the nature reserve Noordwijkerhout. It was a shed littered with a mis-matched arrangement of picnic tables and beach stools that had a wood fire oven and barbecue around the side. It had a floating dock decked with plants and a slippery side dunked into the lake for anyone who was brave enough to make a splash into the cold water. A wreath adorned with sunflowers formed an archway over the walking path through which access to indoor seating was granted. It was a beautiful evening as the puffy clouds had finally given way to a bright blue sky over the still expanse of water, and the food was delicious too. A pleasant way to farewell my Oma, Noordwijk and the Netherlands.

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