LEIDEN, NETHERLANDS: As we look out the broad floor-length windows of our friend’s apartment overlooking the little marina near the eastern gate of the old central part of Leiden, there’s a light snow falling on the gabled rooftops.
Although late winter is not the season we would recommend for a trip to the Netherlands, there’s enough to keep one busy for several days within walking distance of the center of this old university town of under 120,000 inhabitants (nearly one-fifth students) without relying on public transportation or a taxi.
Trying to get to the major attractions by car would be foolhardy, as most of the streets are narrow and the area is laced with canals.
Parking is very limited, but for those looking for a day trip from Amsterdam, Leiden is just 34 minutes on trains that run every ten to 30 minutes, and it is 12 minutes from The Hague and 15 from the Amsterdam Airport (AMS), Schiphol by train.
Those traveling by car who might stay overnight should book a hotel near the center and leave the car there. For those just passing through by car, there is public parking near Leiden Central Station (CS) and the nearby Windmill Museum De Valk, which are walking distance from the central area.
A number of free pamphlets are easily available in hotels, museums and the “VVV” tourist information on Stationsweg, not far from the railroad station, for various self-guided walking itineraries around the town, including several that take the visitor to various possible haunts of the young Rembrandt van Rijn, who was born here just 400 years ago.
With more than a half-dozen major museums to choose from, visitors should find one to meet their interests, and most of them are within walking distance of Haarlamerstraat, which, along with nearby Breestraat, is a main shopping street.
Most museums are closed Mondays and open from about 10 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m. other days.
A good value to be considered, depending on one’s plans, is the Museum Card (Museum-Kaart) for 45 euros (about $54). It will get one in many museums all over the Netherlands free, though there is usually a charge for special exhibitions. It is available at all museums.
The Municipal Museum — Stedelijk Museum de Lakenhal, Oude Singel 28-32, telephone 071-516-5360 if dialed from The Netherlands, www.lakenhal.nl — is in the building where the cloth Leiden was once famous for was inspected, priced and sold. Lakenhal means “Cloth Hall.”
The 17th century building now has a collection of historical displays, curious objects and Dutch masters paintings dating from the 16th century, and there is currently a temporary exhibition for the Rembrandt van Rijn 400th anniversary concerning what is known (and mostly not known for sure) about Rembrandt’s mother and the various stories that have grown up about her and other members of his family.
The National Museum of Ethnology — Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, Steenstraat 1, 071-516-8800, www.rmv.nl — has a leading collection of articles from all over the world as well as The Netherlands, dating from prehistoric times to the recent past.
The Hortus Botanicus Leiden (Rapenburg 73, 071-527-7749) is a botanical museum and garden that is part of Leiden University and has been collecting unusual plant specimens from all over the world for over 400 years.
The new (1998) Naturalis —not in the center, but on Darwinweg, west of the railroad station, 071-568-7600, www.naturalis.nl — is the national natural history museum.
It provides a look at the evolution of the earth and its inhabitants, with displays of thousands of fossils, stones, minerals animals and plants.
For those interested in science, technology and medicine, there’s the Museum Boerhave — Lange St. Agnietenstraat 10, 071-521-4224, www.muesumboerhave.nl
This museum covers five centuries of medicine, science and technology, including medical apparatus and specimens, skeletons, laboratory gear, early clocks, telescopes and microscopes, and of course the famous “Leyden jar,” a sort of early battery dating from about 190 years ago.
The National Museum of Antiquities — Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Rapenburg 28, 071-516-3163, www.rmo.nl — has an extensive collection of objects from ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman times.
The 17th century Siebold House — SieboldHuis; Rapenburg 19, 0900-660-0600, www.sieboldhuis.org — has a collection of art and objects from Japan.
But not to be missed, in this visitor’s view, is the Municipal Windmill Museum “De Valk” —Stedelijk Molenmuseum de Valk, 2e Binnevestgracht 1, 071-516-5353, http://home.wanadoo.nl/ molenmuseum — housed in a 263-year-old windmill that was used commercially well into the 20th century.
From a platform surrounding the mill halfway up one can see the whole town.
The mill is seven stories high and one can climb to the top and view all the mill technology, provided one is thin enough and nimble enough to make it up stairways that ascend steeply like ladders from one floor to the next.
Such stairways are not uncommon in homes and even public buildings, and English speakers have fun with the idea that the Dutch word for “stairway” is trap.
The Netherlands is a small and densely populated, so space is at a premium. Why waste space on a gently ascending stairway when an 80-degree ladder can serve the same purpose?
Bicycles are everywhere, and if one is new to this culture it is urgent to learn that those nice wide brickpaved baths along the street may not be pedestrian sidewalks, but rather a fietspad. One might wrongly guess that the word means “foot path,” but fiet means “bicycle,” and a fietspad is a bike path. Pedestrians are confined to a sometimes one-lane sidewalk, often encumbered with parked bicycles or automobiles.
Those who are not into ancient or Renaissance art, archeology, history, ethnology, science, technology, medicine, biology, etc. might skip most of the museums (except perhaps the Windmill Museum) and just wander the main streets mentioned above, the elegant Rapenburg, where a 17th century homes and a number of the museums are found, and the narrow old byways that may lead off the beaten path, but with real rewards.
Or one might pay a visit to the Pieterskerk, the oldest church in Leiden, dating to the 12th century, but largely of Late Gothic architecture, and then concentrate on eating. But churches are open only limited hours.
Leiden is less expensive than the larger cities such as Amsterdam or The Hague and we’ve found some wonderful restaurants where one can get a very special meal for under 25 euros (about $30). Dinner service starts early, even at 5 p.m. in some places. And remember, no sales tax is added, and one tips only five to ten percent.
Among our favorites:
De Hooykist (Hooigracht 49, phone 071-512-809) has a charming old atmosphere and a monthly special featuring a three-course meal from a different region or country each month, for 17.50 euros (about $21).
Mejuffrouw Janssen (Gangetje 6, phone 071-513-9023) also has a monthly “gourmet special” for 16.50 euros (about $20).
De Branderij and De Gaanderij (Middelweg 7, 071-513-3728, www.branderij-gaanderij.nl) are two restaurants under the same management (one is around the corner in Nieuwstraat) that are very colorful, with wood beams, stained glass and atmosphere.
De Branderij was originally a coffee roasting place and later a wine warehouse, while De Gaanderij was a distillery. The food is excellent and there is a three-course special for 25.50 euros (about $31).
In a future article we may visit several windmills and some other sights in Leiden.