As my plane drops toward Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, I can see what look like multiple alternative runways: broad pink, blue, and yellow strips that turn the fields around the coast into the flags of an imaginary nation. They are bands of flowers—tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils—and the plane rushes towards them like an overstimulated bee.
Bang. The wheels are down. And I am in the Low Countries, the flatlands, where the ground and the sky extend as far along the horizontal axis as the ruler can measure—and where the people stretch further on the vertical axis than anywhere else in Europe. This is a country of fairground-mirror contrasts: tall, thin, canal-side houses and wide, wide polders, reclaimed land that still shimmers like an ocean to the far horizon; steep spires and flat skating lakes; bicycles and pancakes.
I am heading for Groningen, in the north, to give a series of lectures. Getting from Schiphol to the railway takes only 10 minutes. The Dutch are a practical people, and the efficiency of their public transportation systems makes those of other countries look creaky. The train shot through flat fields crisscrossed with drainage ditches and occasionally punctuated with windmills. I, however, had no seat: The station platform was dominated by apprentice giants (i.e., students) who shouldered into the carriages, leaving lesser mortals standing forlornly like mushrooms in the forest.
“Oh, but you should have confronted them!” laughed my Dutch colleagues. “That’s the way here. It’s a very forthright society. You do what you want, and if the other person doesn’t like it, they let you know.”
Groningen is a moated city that is chiefly modern, but contains some older buildings of notable beauty, such as the Martini Tower—not a cocktail joint, but a 15th-century church campanile that rises 320 feet above the market square. Canals form a belt around the town’s belly so that, as in other Dutch cities, you are constantly crossing bridges, cresting parabolas over water on which the sun dances in a million tiny points of light. It is a pleasure that doesn’t pall.
Another joy is the carillons that mark the hours with a laughing waterfall of musical notes. While most European church bells go “dong” or “ding-dong-ding,” the ingenious mechanisms of the Dutch system allow bells to be tuned to notes and played as instruments, creating chimes with the magical tinkling resonance of a music box.
The downside of this, as I discovered while teaching in a room very close to the university bell tower, is that on certain days students are permitted to “play” the bells for an hour at a time. If you have ever tried to explain the finer points of Jane Eyre while competing with a bell tower that is pealing out the theme from The Godfather, you will pity my predicament.
The other major hazard in Groningen is bicycles. I have never, ever seen so many bicycles in one place. The square opposite the Academy Building, an impressive 1909 edifice in the style of the Dutch High Renaissance, features hundreds of bikes parked upright, with interlocking handlebars like a vast migratory herd of metal antelopes. To distinguish their bicycles from the crowd, some students resort to ingenious decorative schemes: plastic ivy draped around the frame, paintwork of pink and purple with green spots. Students can often be seen transporting large items, such as chairs, as they pedal. I even witnessed the extraordinary sight of a female student riding with a large wall-mirror gripped tightly between her handlebars. (I suspect that oncoming drivers saw only a hurtling flash of light and then an image of their own puzzled faces as she passed.)
Flowers are so cheap here that they are like salt and pepper. Every sidewalk café has pots of narcissi, tiny grape hyacinths, or green hellebores growing on the tables. In the market, you can pick up 10 roses or 25 tulips for about $3.30. It was tempting to buy an armful and go around pretending that I’d just sung Carmen at the Met.
For tulip lovers, the place of spring pilgrimage is Keukenhof Gardens, located just outside Leiden on the former estate of a 15th-century countess. After World War II, the land was transformed into a flash-popping fantasy of bulbs. With my lectures over, I duly headed south, passing signs exhorting travelers to “Focus on the Crocus,” and found myself . . . back in the 1970s. A mock-Victorian street organ was playing “The Age of Aquarius” in tinny strains; many people were dressed in orange (the Dutch national color); and the extraordinary geometric beds of thousands of pink, yellow, and red tulips, with a backdrop of swans on a lake, formed a Polaroid vista reminiscent of the color-heightened postcards of my childhood. The staff told me that there are 35 gardeners working 12-hour days to create this floral spectacular, which exists for only 8 weeks of the year.
The first recorded mention of tulips in the West was made by an Austrian ambassador at the Ottoman court in 1555: He mistakenly thought that they were called “tuliban,” after their turban shape. He’d gotten the name wrong (the Turkish word for tulip is “lale”), but it stuck. Tulips quickly became a Dutch craze, such that by 1636 a single prize specimen could fetch up to 100 times the average annual income.
It was a classic example of bloom and bust: In 1637, the bottom fell out of the market, trading ceased, and hundreds of speculators were ruined.
In the current Keukenhof bulb market, where peach and green-striped amaryllis flourish like surreal gramophone horns and frilly-fringed black and crimson tulips evoke a line of can-can dancers, traders told me that their expanding markets are in Eastern Europe and Asia. There is some irony in this, because Eastern Europe and Asia are where wild tulips originated: in Turkey, the Balkans, and the northern Himalayas. The Netherlands now exports 130 million bulbs annually to Poland.
The ancient university city of Leiden, whose former students and teachers include John Quincy Adams, Henry Fielding, and Albert Einstein, is well worth a visit of several days. Compact and charming, it is a delightful place to wander around, enjoying the elegant 17th-century canal-side brownstone merchants’ houses (so clearly an inspiration for early East Coast American architecture), stooping into antique book and map dealers’ premises, and visiting the many lively beer cellars boasting a vast range of brews, including wheat beers and fruit beers. There are also tempting pastry shops, such as Snijers, selling apple fritters and paasstol, an Easter specialty of raisin dough filled with sweet almond paste. On Fridays, a large canal-side market offers everything from bolts of cloth to bicycle locks to asparagus, chocolate, hair dye, watches, and many different locally made hard cheeses, some of which are in rounds as big as kettle drums.
One attraction, the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, is easily overlooked, but should on no account be missed. Tucked away behind an anonymous door in the oldest datable house in Leiden, it aims to tell the true story of the Pilgrim Fathers’ residence there and the intellectual and practical journey that led to the founding of Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts.
The scholar and antiques-dealer Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs created this resource as a personal project, and it is like no other museum I have ever visited: You can touch all the artifacts, and the history that the museum relates depends on you. Rather than trailing around a succession of signboards and labels, you ask Jeremy questions. Thus, you learn about the Pilgrims and their culture by exploring your own specific interests and ideas. His expertise ensures that the conversation will be both unique and illuminating.
I asked why the Pilgrim Fathers were in Leiden in the first place. Bangs replied that it was partly a matter of personal connections: William Brewster, a diplomat, had been on the Earl of Leicester’s triumphal tour as a young man and knew Leiden well. But Leiden was also more open to foreign workers than most cities: It had suffered population depletion in the 1574 siege against Spain and needed refugees to man its cloth industry.
The future Americans stayed in Leiden for over a decade, developing their theological ideas and practical skills. And they benefited from the education on offer in a university town. Deacon Samuel Fuller got his medical training by attending dissections; the botanical gardens taught pharmaceutical skills; Miles Standish, garrisoned in the city, was able to attend engineering lectures. Bangs argues that the simplified house-frame distinctive to Plymouth Colony was learned by Standish in Leiden.
What emerges most vividly from a visit to the museum is a sense of the Pilgrims’ daily lives—from the very tight size of the rooms (dimensions that continued to prevail in Massachusetts despite the abundance of land) to the candlelit interior, to the familiar objects (baby-walkers, Geneva Bibles) that occupied their domestic spaces.
While I was there, an American family with five small children arrived. Before long, the children were dressing in period costume, sitting on the furniture (including a 12th-century chair), playing with pigs’ knucklebones (used as jacks in 17th-century games), and studying 17th-century blue-and-white tiles depicting children skating, flying a kite, and walking on stilts. My heart was in my mouth as the smallest child handed back the tiles with nothing broken. I don’t think those kids will ever forget their visit.
I finished my Dutch sojourn in Amsterdam, staying in the Spiegel Quarter among hip galleries and antique glass merchants. Many tourists come to Amsterdam to sample its illicit pleasures in “coffee” shops that are more about the pot or to window-shop in De Wallen, where the nudes behind the glass are real. But the best reason to come here is to have your mind blown by Dutch art. The Rijksmuseum, closed for building renovations since 2003, triumphantly reopened this past April. It is stunning. Rather than opting for interactive displays and other novelties, the architects have concentrated on making the beautiful building a lighter and more dynamic frame for the extraordinary paintings it contains. Here, you can marvel at Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (1664) and, of course, Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (1642).
To understand Rembrandt’s habits as a painter, it is worth also visiting his house in Jodenbreestraat. The studio where he and his pupils worked elbow to elbow is flooded with cool north light. Beside it is a room filled with treasures that were props in the paintings: exotic shells, armor, terrestrial and celestial globes. Here, you can see how the artist made his brushes from weasel hair, the nib of a bird’s feather, and a wooden handle, and how he mixed his pigments. Of the roughly 20 colors available at the time, Rembrandt used relatively few, eschewing the expensive lapis lazuli blue and preferring the more readily available yellow and red ochre, umbers, bone black, and lead white.
Seeing Rembrandt’s copper etching plates, where the focus of the technique is on determining light and dark areas, helped me to understand the dramatic chiaroscuro in his paintings. And learning about the pigments he used and the way his palette was literally drawn from earth—from the rocks and soil—helped me to appreciate the down-to-earth quality of his work, the way it loves the ordinary, the humane, the rich ground out of which flesh emerges with all its flaws.
Indeed, if there was a theme to my Dutch journey, it was the experience of being brought down to earth. In Han van der Horst’s The Low Sky: Understanding the Dutch, he comments that the nation is naturally egalitarian and utilitarian, with a dislike of pomp and circumstance. A favorite Dutch saying is “Act normal, that’s crazy enough.” Moderation, thriftiness, and consensus are prized. This makes perfect sense: If you live on a flood plain, the necessity for cooperation is obvious.
I came to enjoy the levelheaded, deadpan humor of my Dutch colleagues as much as the pancakes that I wolfed down while looking out at the reflection of the calm water of the canals glinting evenly off of 100 mullioned windows. And I came to realize that my native Britain, currently struggling with an uneasy coalition government and entrenching daily its differences with Europe, has much to learn from a nation that rose from the sea and knows that steering the ship of state on a steady course depends on keeping everyone on board.
Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.