I’ve always been an advocate of exploring somewhere new by public transport, rather than sitting on a coach with forty other people, listening to a guide reeling off schoolroom facts.
Most cities have a particular bus or tram route that is outstanding in this respect, and one of the best I’ve come across is the Route 1 of the Hague Transport Company (HTM).
The Netherlands can be said to have two capitals. Most of the business and commerce is carried on in Amsterdam, while the royal residence and the seat of government are in The Hague … or, Den Haag, to give it its Dutch name.
‘But, we’re really just a village!’ I was told ‘We were never granted city rights. That’s why we constructed a canal around the old quarter; for defence, because we weren’t allowed to build a wall’
Some say The Hague is now the biggest village in Europe, and Tram Route No. 1 joins it with two of its outlying suburbs; the seaside resort of Scheveningen, and the beautiful town of Delft.
Don’t ask me how much the fare is, though. Explaining the fare pricing system concisely is a bit like explaining the offside rule in soccer. Let’s just say I bought a 15-unit strippenkaarte for €6.70, and, after my return trip, I still had three units left. However. I believe that, since my visit, they’ve issued a prepaid ‘swipe card’, similar to London’s Oyster card.
This is really two towns. There’s the relatively new container port and fishing harbour. It celebrated its centenary only recently. Before they built the harbour, the fishermen used specially built flat-bottomed boats, which they hauled across the sands to launch them, with teams of horses.
To the north is the resort town, grouped around the pier and the Kurhaus, or spa. The two are joined by one of the longest, cleanest beaches I’ve seen for a long time. And, they like to keep it so. On my early-morning walk, I saw fleets of tractors with apparatus to pick up any jetsam, and rake the sand over.
‘We get a lot of Germans here’ said a friendly waiter ‘This is the nearest seaside many of them have’
As you near the pier, the bars, restaurants and beach clubs become even more prolific. Maybe the décor isn’t to everyone’s taste, but most of them have open fires, which are especially welcome when the evening breeze sets in. I ate in two of them on the nights I stayed in Scheveningen, and the food was excellent.
To see what Scheveningen was like in the days before they built the harbour, let’s go to the Kurhaus, and board Tram No. 1 for The Hague.
The Hague (Den Haag)
When the artist Hendrik Willem Mesdag heard the harbour was to be built, he determined to capture the essence of the old Scheveningen on canvas. But, he produced no ordinary painting … he painted the Mesdag Panorama. This was a cylindrical painting nearly 40 feet high, and 360 feet in circumference. You can see this by getting off the tram at the Mauritskade stop, and walking around to 65 Zeestraat.
And, you’re not going there just to look at a painting, but see how cleverly the artist has frozen a moment in 1881, and made it look exactly as if you are standing on top of a sand dune, seeing the town spread out around you.
Even if you’re not into art and architecture, you can indulge in retail therapy, or just hang out. I didn’t have to walk far to see multitudes of places where people could eat, or just drink beer or coffee while chatting with their friends.
But, the art galleries are different! I checked out the ‘Escher in the Palace’ gallery in the Lange Voorhout Palace. I found Escher’s pen drawings and engravings absorbing and intriguing, but I was also attracted by the painting in the foyer, of a smiling Queen Beatrix, seemingly welcoming me to her palace.
We can’t leave The Hague without visiting its most famous inhabitant. ‘The Girl with the Pearl Earring’ in the Mauritshuis. It’s on the top floor, so you’ll have to see the other paintings first. At the time of my visit, the exhibition was titled ‘Dream of Italy’, so the paintings were mainly full of light.
Finally we come upon Vermeer’s masterpiece. All I can say is this is a ‘must see’. No print or postcard could ever reproduce the delicate colours of the original.
And, Vermeer was born not far away, in Delft, right on the No. 1 tram route. So, let’s go to the Hofweg tram stop, right by the Binnenhof, or Parliament building, to re-board.
I didn’t actually visit Vermeer’s birthplace, but it’s easy to see what inspired him. Delft is what everybody imagines a Dutch town should look like. Canals, tree-lined streets and quiet little corners. Only the Grote Markt is rather tourist-ridden, but this is where you go to buy the famous Blue Delft pottery.
Here, you’ll find genuine Delft and Far East-made Delft. Often, the shops where the real McCoy is sold have a little kiln and a pottery-painting workshop in the rear.
But, if you just want to see pottery, rather than buy it, I recommend a visit to the Lambert van Meerten Museum in Oude Delft, and view this 19th Century collector’s pottery and tiles, which decorate the entire house.
On the way there, I photographed the Oude Kerk, and was surprised at its leaning spire. The Tourist Office, though, told me that it did have a distinct list to port, and it wasn’t the result of too much Heineken! Curious thing is, it appeared almost perpendicular in my photographs. Did I maybe subconsciously compensate?
Another interesting museum was the Prinsenhof. This was the home of William of Orange, considered to be the father of the Dutch nation, assassinated here in 1584. It also has many artefacts covering the history of Delft.
(NB! At first, I confused him with Britain’s William III, a Dutchman also referred to as ‘William of Orange’)
At one stage in the Prinsenhof’s history, the building was a convent, and there’s still a quiet, remote atmosphere to the place.
It would round things out nicely if I said I rode the No. 1 tram back to my hotel in Scheveningen. But I didn’t. I cheated! I changed to a No. 9 in The Hague, which, on its way to Scheveningen, goes past the delightful miniature Holland at Madurodam.
For much more information, go to www.denhaag.com