Just days after our Queen became Britain’s longest serving monarch, unashamed royalist Alan Wooding travelled to the Netherlands to see Europe’s newest crowned head make his annual speech which officially opens the Dutch Parliament.
Having visited The Hague on several previous occasions, it was thanks to an invitation from Den Haag Marketing that I was able to join the enthusiastic flag-waving crowds to see King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima head out of the Noordeinde Palace in their golden coach.
Making its way through the vast crowds, the coach is part of a huge regal procession which heads towards the Hall of Knights (the Ridderzaal) located in the courtyard of the Binnenhof, home to the 150-seat Dutch Parliament since the 13th Century. And it’s from the Ridderzaal’s Royal throne that the King delivers his annual speech to the Dutch people.
The Hague is Holland’s third largest city after Amsterdam and Rotterdam and has around half a million residents. It’s affectionately known as ‘The Royal City by the Sea’ and unsurprisingly it attracts more than 50 million visitors each year.
Home to 45 museums and galleries, 30 theatres and some 488 restaurants – there’s also around 4,000 shops! – Den Haag is also said to be the greenest city in Europe with over 111,500 hectares of gardens and sand dunes. In fact the whole city is built on sand, its streets simply meandering along the contours all the way down to the nearby North Sea beach resort of Scheveningen.
The city has been home to the Dutch Royal family for centuries and Den Haag is littered with both residential and working palaces. It’s the second home of the United Nations (after New York) and is also synonymous the Peace Palace, the International Courts of Justice while it is also the headquarters of more than 160 internationally recognised companies and organisations.
The Hague boasts a reliable tram system, several railway stations and some 250kms of cycle lanes but to simply stroll around the older parts of the city is a real joy.
Staying at the 120-room four-star Park Hotel on Molenstraat, many of its rooms actually overlook the Royal palace’s 17th Century landscaped gardens. The gardens are also free to enter and are open to the public every day of the year.
The centrally located, hotel is currently undergoing a facelift with the new reception, lounge and bar area hopefully being completed later this year. The hotel retains its Escher-like arched pillars which adorn the impressive main staircase while its spacious rooms often have steps inside them as the building has many different floor levels.
Sandwiched between the Noordeinde Palace and the Royal Stables, during the summer months the palace gardens become a popular picnic spot but it was Prinsjesdag (Prince’s Day) that I had come to see, so I set off for a vantage point along the procession route close to the former Royal Winter Palace on the beautiful tree-lined Lange Voorhout.
Unfortunately the weather wasn’t too kind but I still had a good view of the huge parade and of the King and Queen sitting in that stunning golden coach pulled by a team of eight black horses.
There were simply thousands of enthusiastic residents and visitors patriotically waving orange flags as the huge parade passed by – many wearing orange cardboard crowns! – while the entire route was lined with members of the Dutch Armed Forces while the television cameras and reporters appeared at every vantage point.
Sitting close to me in the temporary grandstands were a large contingent of brightly dressed ladies from the former Dutch colonial South American country of Suriname. And just as happy were the thousands of Dutch schoolchildren as all schools are traditionally closed on Prince’s Day which allowed whole families to make the most of the occasion … despite the inclement weather!
Held annually on the third Tuesday in September, Prinsjesdag is an important day in Dutch politics and I was able to watch His Majesty make a speech from the Hall of Knights’ throne via the huge cinema screens dotted along the route, the speech itself outlining the Government’s policies for the year ahead.
Fortunately my two companions and I were accompanied by well known Den Haag tour guide Remco Dorr. I first met Remco nine years ago and he was able to translate the speech into perfect English as we watched the huge procession of standard bearers, mounted cavalry, honorary escorts, plus several regiments of marching military and their bands, make the reverse journey back along the same route.
The golden coach – which was presented to the royal family in 1899 by the city of Amsterdam – was also making its final appearance as it is to be restored. So for the next three years, an even older glass coach will be used on this special day. Ironically this year the procession had to make an enforced detour on its way to the Binnenhof as a new underground car park is currently under construction!
We had checked into our hotel after arriving at the city’s Centraal Station following a 40 minute train ride from Schiphol AIrport, then it was quickly off to the stunning Hotel Des Indes for a two-course lunch.
The building itself was built as a ‘fun palace’ by a wealthy Dutch baron back in 1858 but it became the city’s finest and best known hotel in 1881. Since then it has been visited by rich and famous guests from all walks of life while famed Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova actually died there back in 1931.
We met up with tour guide Remco after lunch and he took us on a walking tour to see the Hofvijver lake located in front of the Binnenhof building complex, and the Tower of Rutte, the office of the current Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte.
The tower’s name actually changes each time there is a new Prime Minister while the main building in the Binnenhof complex is the imposing Gothic-style Hall of Knights which during the Middle Ages was home to the Dutch counts.
Visiting The Passage, Holland’s oldest indoor shopping mall which was built in 1885, the day’s highlight was a trip to the recently refurbished Mauritshuis, the official Royal picture gallery.
It was built between 1636 and 1641 by the wealthy John Maurice, the Prince of Nassau-Siegen, who had been governor of Dutch Brazil while today it houses masterpieces from the golden age of Dutch painting.
Its most famous painting is undoubtedly Johannes Vermeer’s ‘Girl With A Pearl Earring’ but it also features masterpieces by Rembrandt van Rijn, Jan Steen, Peter Paul Rubens, Hans Holbein and Frans Hals although to me it was the 1647 oil-on-canvas titled ‘The Young Bull’ by Paulus Potter that was the real must see.
Both Remco and our Mauritshuis guide Elske Schreurs were extremely knowledgeable about the gallery’s entire collection which features Dutch and Flemish masterpieces painted between 1400s and the 1800s.
We dined that evening at a stunning Indonesian restaurant called Blauw. First opened in Utrecht and then Amsterdam, the third Blauw is run by chatty Michelin star executive chef, Agus Hermawan. He explained the concept of Indonesian cooking although he has come up with many variations to the original recipes. He is also very proud to have been listed as being one of the world’s top chefs in the encyclopaedic journal, ‘Where Chefs Eat’.
At his suggestion, he produced an amazing ‘Rice Table’ menu for us after we had been joined for the evening by an old friend, Lennart Cramer from Hague Marketing.
We ended up with no fewer than 20 individual dishes sitting on a heated rack which had been built into the table top. These delicious dishes were sampled by all and Lennart (whom I’ve known for many years) didn’t miss a trick as he took home a doggy bag with enough food to keep him happy for at least a couple of days!
Having already mentioned the former Royal Winter Palace, it is now home to a permanent display of the world’s famous ‘phantasmagorical’ visions by Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis ‘MC’ Escher, known for his mathematically inspired woodcuts, his impossible construction drawings and those remarkable tessellations.
Given an exclusive guided tour by Escher in het Paleis’ general manager Marcel Westerdiep, he explained the genius that was Escher (1898-1972) and described some of the most complicated works of art that I have ever seen.
The jewel in Escher’s crown is a seven metre long circular artwork known as ‘Metamorphosis’ but Mr Westerdiep also proudly showed us another new exhibit which recently came to the palace from a private collector.
“Had the picture gone to public auction then there is no way we could have ever afforded it,” he said. “Luckily its owner realised that we exhibit the world’s largest collection of Escher’s artwork and they chose to let us have it.”
An MC Escher exhibition is currently on display in Scotland while it will shortly be transferred into a London gallery.
As the exhibition is housed in the Winter Palace of Queen Emma, the great, great grandmother of the current monarch, as a very young wife of a much older and somewhat obnoxious King William III, Mr Westerdiep explained that she was two have an influential calming affect on the unpopular monarch.
There are many photographs of the Royal family on display in the palace’s many rooms while he told us that Emma decided to have postcards printed of herself holding baby Wilhemina (who succeeded her as Queen) which she handed out to the masses at every given opportunity, thus making her and her family more popular.
Both Queen Emma and her daughter Wilhemina died in the spacious bedroom which now houses the circular ‘Metamorphosis’ while the large windows in the palace are all covered with a special UV filter paper which prevents the ink in the displayed pictures from fading.
We were also given chance to view the afternoon’s royal parade route from the Winter Palace’s golden balcony which overlooks the tree-lined Lange Voorhout. Regarded by many as the prettiest street in the whole of the country, it is also the location of The Hague’s narrowest house … it’s just 1.5 metres wide!
We finished off our short Dutch break at one of my favourite cafes, Juni, which is situated right next door to the Park Hotel. We enjoyed a special ‘high-tea’ along with guide Remco in the quirky little cafe run by a group of female entrepreneurs who pride themselves on their homemade cakes and pastries … and they’re absolutely delicious!
Had we had time, then a visit to Panorama Mesdag would have been worthwhile after it has undergone four years of renovation. It’s really unique and features a huge 120 metre cylindrical Scheveningen beach scene painted by Hendrik Willem Mesdag and his wife sometime during the late 19th Century.
At the nearby town of Leiden was an international Global Imaginations exhibition featuring 20 leading contemporary artists from all over the world. It’s housed in the old abandoned De Meelfabriek flour factory and is in association with the town’s 440-year-old university. That exhibition is scheduled to run until early next month.
Slightly further afield in Amsterdam, the Van Gogh Museum has a special and rather unique exhibition exposing the many similarities between Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch and their artistic ambitions. That runs until 17 January, 2016.
Alan Wooding flew to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport from London’s Heathrow with British Airways and stayed at the four-star Park Hotel, Molenstraat 53, 2513 BJ, The Hague – www.parkhoteldenhaag.nl (+33 70 362 43 71) – located in the centre of the city.
He dined at the famed Indonesian Restaurant Blauw at Javastraat 13, 2585 AB s-Gravenhage – www.blauw070.nl (+31 70 720 0900) – and lunched at Hotel des Indes, Lange Voorhout 54-56, 2514, The Hague – www.desindes.nl (+31 70 361 23 45) – and at the Escher in het Paleis, Lange Voorhout 74. High tea was taken at Cafe Juni Lekkernijen situated right next door to the Park Hotel in Molenstraat.
Along with specialist tour guide Remco Door, he visited the Mauritshuis, Plein 29, The Hague – www.mauritshuis.nl (+31 70 302 34 56) – and Escher in het Paleis – www.escherinherpaleis.nl (+31 70 427 77 30).
Many thanks to Simone Sagi of the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions (www.holland.com), Lennart Cramer of Den Haag Marketing (www.denhaagmarketing.com) and to my two travelling companions, ‘Majesty’ magazine’s managing editor Joe Little and ‘Mostly Food & Travel Journal’ editor Chrissie Walker.