As the grinding of the government machine creaks slowly and inefficiently towards removing the UK from Europe, I’ve become increasingly aware of how little I’ve appreciated being part of this continent that is filled with so many diverse and fascinating countries that have such distinct cultures and histories. When something is always there, you tend to take it for granted; now I am being severed from it, I feel hungry to experience as much of it as possible. The Eurostar recently started a direct service from London to Amsterdam; in less than five hours, you are whisked under the Channel, through northern France and Belgium, and then into the Netherlands, catching tantalising glimpses of Lille, Brussels and Rotterdam as you go. I have been meaning to go to the Netherlands for years, but somehow never got around to it; my new spirit of European discovery coupled with the prospect of a pleasant continental train journey made me decide that this half term was the time to go. For only £35 one way – cheaper than a train ticket to the seaside in Britain! – I was off to Amsterdam, and what a glorious surprise awaited me!
I knew it would be charming – the canals, the gorgeous Dutch gables, everybody sailing along on gaily-coloured bikes – but I wasn’t prepared for just how stunningly beautiful it is. The canals are lined with terraces of breathtaking historical homes, all of which have enormous windows that you can peek through and enjoy some serious interior design envy (everyone in the Netherlands, judging from my peeping-tom activities, seems to be incredibly savvy about interior design, I must say – as well as incredibly gifted at floral arranging – if I have any Dutch readers, can you enlighten me as to how come these are such national talents?!), as well as fantastic, individual period details such as the varied types of gables, family crests, front doors, front steps, railings, etc. – there is no sense of uniformity in the way there is in London’s Georgian and Victorian streets. I could have walked up and down looking at these buildings for hours. Every canal has its own distinct feel, with some having been built for wealthier residents and others for more middle class, and some for larger boats and some for smaller, so as you walk around the city, each turn into a new street offers a subtly different vista that can’t fail to delight. The best way to take it all in is through a canal boat tour – there are plenty available and they’re all pretty cheap, so it’s well worth doing, as it really helps you to understand and appreciate the layout of the city and the canals and which neighbourhoods were built for which purposes.
We were there for three days, and tramped our way all over the city, which is perfectly walkable if you don’t feel comfortable joining the cyclists! We particularly loved the charming, café and boutique-filled Jordaan and Nine Streets areas – don’t miss the unbearably beautiful hidden historic square built to house single Catholic women, called the Begijnhof. A little bit further afield in the old Jewish Quarter is a lovely botanical garden, which is well worth a visit for its gorgeous palm house alone, plus it has an excellent café. Museum-wise, we went to Anne Frank’s House, which was a very emotional experience – I’ve wanted to visit ever since I first read her diary as a child, and I found it incredibly moving and sobering to see the rooms in which she spent her final two years, as well as inspiring to read about the brave people who helped hide the Franks and the other two families who hid with them, at enormous risk to their own safety. The museum is excellent and really a must-see, though please be aware that you can only book a ticket online in advance and you will need to book at least a month before you plan on visiting. I’m glad someone told me this before I went, as I would have been so sad to miss out. We also really enjoyed the Willet-Holthuysen Museum, which is a perfectly preserved, stunning townhouse that was left to the city by its last owner, a very wealthy nineteenth century art collector, and is filled with gorgeous furniture, art and antiques. The Van Gogh Museum was another fascinating experience – again, you must book in advance – and though I’ve seen all the major paintings in London, Paris or New York, this museum has an extensive collection from across the entirety of his career, along with his personal correspondence, and so it’s well worth visiting not just for the art, but also for the ability to understand more about Van Gogh as a person.
We could have happily stayed in Amsterdam all week, but my intrepid university friend Emma has a sister living in The Hague and she told me I must go there too, so I obeyed instructions! The train journey between Amsterdam and The Hague takes less than an hour, and you go through lots of lovely cities and countryside en route, with some tantalising glimpses of windmills and tulip fields. The Hague is very different to Amsterdam – as the financial and governmental centre of The Netherlands, it has far more official buildings, and is less picturesque, but it has plenty of charms of its own, and we loved exploring its stately streets. There are a particularly large number of art nouveau buildings, and some brilliant nineteenth century covered shopping arcades. A short tram ride takes you to the seaside at Scheveningnen, though it is a horror show of huge modern hotels and casinos and you do need to walk a long way down the front to get to the unspoiled white sand and dunes promised in the guidebooks! Another short tram ride in the opposite direction takes you to the charming mini-Amsterdam of Delft, home of Vermeer and of the eponymous Dutch pottery. Delft is gorgeous, and there is plenty to see and do – it’s definitely worth spending a day there. We visited the enormous and historic Old and New Churches, had delicious cakes and enjoyed wandering around the shops and along the canals. Back in The Hague itself, there are plenty of lovely cafes and shops to explore – amazing used and new book shops are aplenty in the Netherlands, and they all have an excellent stock of foreign language books – though the place to really not miss is the brilliant Maritshuis museum, which is where you’ll find Vermeer’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring, along with many other masterpieces of Dutch art. We loved it so much, we went twice!
I adored my week in the Netherlands and I already can’t wait to go back again. It’s beautiful, historic, friendly and very clean, with an excellent public transport service, brilliant museums and a very international outlook. Everyone speaks excellent English, which was enormously helpful, as my schoolgirl German really didn’t get me very far with Dutch! – and the Dutch seem to really value a much more relaxed, outdoors-y style of life. I could certainly see myself upping sticks and spending a year or so in the Netherlands at some point!