Published: 01/12/2015 10:05 - Updated: 01/12/2015 12:07

Den Haag - international city of peace and justice

Written byRon Smith, travel writer

Den Haag, or The Hague as we call it, is the second most visited place in the Netherlands (NL). It has a population of around 500,000 people, and is the home of the royal family and the Dutch parliament, but it is not the capital city – that is Amsterdam.

It hosts the largest United Nations centre outside of New York.

Peace Palace in Den Haag
Peace Palace in Den Haag

Den Haag can rightly call itself the "International city of peace and justice" as it has the most photographed building in NL, the Vredespaleis, Peace Palace, mainly financed by Andrew Carnegie and completed in 1913. It holds the International Court of Justice and the Permanent Court of Arbitration, as well as more than 100 foreign embassies, which means that there are representatives of many nations in Den Haag.

You will find the tallest restaurant in NL, the Penthouse, at 135 metres high, and all this would make you think that the city is built up, busy and packed with sky scrapers – but it is not. One third of the city is green spaces, there are over 70,000 trees lining the streets and 250 kms of cycle lanes.

The apparent contradictions are simply accepted by the pragmatic Dutch people. I like the Dutch character; they just treat everything in a matter of fact way, and cheerfully get on with it. They are a very tolerant nation, which may have given NL a false international image. As professor P.J. Rietbergen of Nijmegen University writes, "rather deplorably, to many, the red light district in Amsterdam for a long time has taken precedence over the Rijksmuseum".

This sense of "controlled freedom" and practical common sense is typified in their streets. Den Haag was started in the 13th century when Count Floris lV bought a bit of sand dune to build a hunting lodge. It all grew from that. There are few straight streets, as they follow the contours of the sand dunes. This means that the streets and pavements sag and shift. Rather than try to stabilise them with masses of concrete and tarmac, the Dutch build them of bricks, in herringbone style. Then, when a dip appears, a sort of mini plough just lifts the bricks, more sand is packed down, and the bricks replaced. Simple.

As you will have gathered, Den Haag is near the sea. It was common to see nesting storks here, and the stork is the city symbol, and it appears on the coat of arms, on top of every lamp post, and so on.

The Royal Palace in Den Haag
The Royal Palace in Den Haag

Walking around Den Haag is a pleasure, plenty of space and fresh air. It has many claims to fame. There is the Lange Voorhout, a large cobbled area surrounded by large old houses and full of trees. This was the first boulevard and was the model for the Champs Elyse, Unter Den Linden and The Mall. In the olden days the nobility and the fashionable would ride round and round this square in their carriages, to see and to be seen, wearing their best clothes. This caused traffic problems, and so the first traffic regulations ever were introduced to make it a one-way system.

One gentleman was going round and round and was feeling the cold, so he ordered his carriage to stop at his house, and he went in for a cup of hot coffee. He suffered from gout, and believed that coffee with lots and lots of sugar helped his complaint. His servant brought him his coffee and set it beside the fire. The gentleman fell asleep in the warmth. When he awoke, some time later, the heat of the fire on the sugar had turned it solid, into a sweetie. He thought that this was great, just the thing to carry in your carriage to keep you going. He created the "Hopjes" and these sweeties are still on sale in Den Haag today and are a speciality of the city (although the packets that I bought are all ‘made in Italy’).

To one side of this irregularly shaped ‘square’ is a royal palace Escherinhetpaleis. It is not magnificent, just another in the row of grand houses, but once was the home of Queen Mother Emma. Napoleon Bonaparte stayed here in 1811. Today it houses the ‘phantasmagorical’ paintings and designs of M.C. Escher (1898 to 1972).

There is, of course, the royal palace in use today. Go along Noordeinde Street, which as usual is slightly bent following the line of the dunes, and among the shops you suddenly pass some railings, behind which is the palace with empty sentry boxes. This is typically Dutch to me, no guards, barriers, or security, and just in an ordinary street. Facing it is a large statue of William of Orange on his horse. His son laid out the palace gardens at the back for his Mum, in the beginning of the 17th century, and these are open to the public – why not? Just go round the back and there you are. Every 15th of September the king and queen and family process by marvellous carriage with eight horses from here round to the parliament.

The Mauritshaus art gallery which is home to the Girl with the Pearl Earring by Vermeer
The Mauritshaus art gallery which is home to the Girl with the Pearl Earring by Vermeer

The parliament is not far, next to an ornamental lake, the Hofvijver. The official buildings are along one side of the lake, terminating in a small hexagonal building with a pointed roof. This is the smallest office, and is that of the prime minister, so that he cannot get airs and graces. It is typically Dutch, and you can walk through between the buildings, again, no security or fences or barriers.

In the centre is the largest Gothic building that was never a church, the Ridderzaal, the Knight’s Hall, built for parties and meetings of knights. It is here that the King opens parliament on the 15th of every September. On the outside, to one side, is a glass walled semi-circular office-looking building built over a market. This is the actual chamber of the parliament, where the elected MPs can be seen from everyone passing by, and as they sit over the market, they should be aware of their ordinary status as citizens.

Next to the diminutive PM’s office is a grand building that is the Mauritshuis. This is a famous art gallery with an important collection of Dutch Flemish art from 1400 to 1800. It includes the Girl with the Pearl Earring by Vermeer (who comes from Delft, just 15 minutes by tram number 1) and works by Van der Weyden, Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Hans Memling and many more.

Tram no 1 is good to also get to Panorama Mesdag, a remarkable circular painting by Hendrik Willem Mesdag. It is 1,680 square metres, 120 metres x 14 metres high. You enter the building and go down a deliberately dark short tunnel to adjust your eyes; you then climb a short spiral staircase to emerge in the centre of the massive circular painting of Scheveningen as it was in 1881. It is stunning. The fishing boats were flat bottomed to be able to drag them onto the beach, and must have been difficult to steer, especially as they are very broad, almost square. The illusion of the panorama is total.

The Passage shopping arcade in Den Haag
The Passage shopping arcade in Den Haag

Scheveningen is just 15 minutes away by tram no 1 and is the coast and sea side of Den Haag. It has miles of sandy beaches, a good long pier, lighthouse, and all the usual sea side attractions. The 13th of June is a special day here, when Flag Day celebrates the arrival of the first herrings of the season.

Scheveningen is where the Catch restaurant is situated, beside the Tweede Binnenhaven, or second inner harbour. Walking along the harbour side, nearly all the buildings are restaurants these days, and on the Monday evening when I was there, most were empty or had no more than a handful of patrons. When I reached the Catch, it was going a fair, with 300 or so people eating there. Despite this, there was no sense of being crowded or rushed. The food, especially fish of course, is just excellent, and it is justifiably popular – it might be best to book a table if you are going there.

Eating out in Den Haag is certainly not a problem. The oldest inn (used by the knights) is T’goodehooft. It is in the centre and was renovated in 2012, but still retains a lot of character. The seating is in bays or long tables, the food excellent, and the ambiance very good.

You can also have dinner in a historic tram while it runs around the city’s network, good after a day’s shopping, which is another Den Haag speciality. It has the largest shopping centre in the Benelux, with all the international shops. It also has the Passage, which dates from 1885, possibly predated all other shopping passages or arcades and is now UNESCO listed. It is in the form of a Y. The locals call it the mouse trap because whichever entrance you use, you come to the junction and stop to see which way to go next, and then you start to really look at the shops and buy things, rather than just pass through.

There is so much to see here. Forty-five museums in total, including the Louwman, which houses the world’s oldest collection of motor cars, over 250 of them, and including the second oldest car in the world, the 1887 De Dion Bouton and Trepardoux. There are a great many places to go and explore so close by. I have already mentioned that Delft, famous for its pottery and historical houses, canals and picture postcard streets, is just a short tram ride away. So too is Madurodam, a miniature Netherlands, where you can walk around the scale models of all the interesting places in the whole country.

The Knights Hall, built for parties and meetings of knights
The Knights Hall, built for parties and meetings of knights

Accommodation is plentiful and good quality, with prices slightly better than here in Scotland. I stayed at the Crown Plaza. It is at the tram stop Europe Forum, the embassy district, between Dan Haag and Scheveningen, on the famous tram line no 1. It is surrounded by the Van Stolkpark, full of trees and greenery so that it is quiet and peaceful. It is to a high standard and the food copious and good quality. One part of the hotel is brand new while the other part is being renovated – all top quality.

As I keep mentioning the trams, I will explain how to get there. The practical and methodical Dutch make public transport easy and integrated, showing us up. From both Inverness and Aberdeen there are daily flights to Amsterdam Schipol airport. The railway station is underneath the airport and easily accessible. The Dutch have introduced the Chipkart, a card that you pre-load with so many Euros. When you get on a train, tram, or bus, you wave the card over a reader. When you get off, you wave the card again and the appropriate fare is deducted from the card. Simple – but hard to envisage in the UK where each operator fights for their part of the revenue and our fares system is a minefield.

However, this card is not necessarily the best if you are not going to use it a lot. I asked at the railway booking office at Schipol, telling the man what I intended to do. He worked it out quickly that day cards would suit me better, still cheaper than fares in the UK. The ticket is still waved at the readers, to validate them, but covered me from Schipol to the hotel. Trains run from Schipol to Den Haag central station in 29 minutes, about six trains per hour. For running about around Den Haag I bought a day ticket from the hotel, it cost just over £6 and would take me to Delft, Scheveningen and so on. Great value – and so simple.

To explore Den Haag the tourist office have organised walking tours. It is small enough to do so, and my tour was led by the famous Mr Remco Dörr. He is a mine of information about the history, the inside tips, gossip, traditions, specialities, food and drink, nightlife, transport, sporting events, cinemas, plays, and is obviously passionate about his city, with a sense of humour too!

Den Haag is good for families with many things for children, also for art lovers, culture seekers, gourmets, in short, something for everyone, and all accompanied by English speaking, cheerful practical and efficient Dutch people. For more information go to Den Haag website. So, easy to get to, English not a problem, civilised, cultured and ideal for weekend get-aways, longer holidays, families and culture breaks. Really worth a visit.

 

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