I left Leiden for the Hague on a whim. The sun was warm and I found my legs surprisingly light despite having biked through the dunes south of Haarlem all day long. At the outset of my trip, I had had no intention of visiting the Hague. Whereas small towns like Leiden and Delft baited me with Wikipedia photos of Gothic steeples and canalside cafes, the Hague broadcast a staid, businesslike air. Nonetheless, taken by its proximity to Leiden on a sunny day, I trudged forth to discover what the city had to offer.
The largest village in Europe
The Hague, Den Haag or s’Gravenhave (translated as The Count’s Hedge) was once known by travelers as the largest village in Europe. Despite being relatively large and important, the city had no fortifications, being secured only by a low, flea-ridden moat. As a result, whereas many of Holland’s cities have a distinguishable buffer between the old and the new (or even the imprint of the old city walls), the medieval Hague seeps into its modern quarters almost imperceptibly.
From afar, the skyline of Den Haag is one of the most unique in Europe. Three buildings crowd together to make this iconic skyline possible. The first looks like a great white fin (the top quarter of which seems to be purely decorational). It stands adjacent to a building designed to look like two massive Dutch gabled townhouses. That experiment sits next a building whose top rises like a porcupine-pricked phallus, almost sinister if not for its being the shortest of the three.
The center of The Hague is a confusing jumble of old and new. From the city’s humdrum central station, the city unfolds into a post-modern development designed by Rob Krier (an architect whose style is firmly neo-traditional), and is followed by a labyrinthine upscale shopping district. At times, the city feels vaguely American. Full of buildings designed for pomp and monumentality (as the Hague is the Netherlands’ center of government, though not its capital), it reminds me of Washington D.C. melded with the docklands district of London. At one point, after the shopping district had closed, I walked through a massive 19th century gallery called Passage (backlit in royal blue). Bereft of the shopping hoardes, Passage emanated a dreary and dreamlike quality, the kind of place that might be famous in Houston or Seattle, but in the Hague seemed staged and misplaced.
The Cyclists’ Haag
For cyclists, the Hague offers a serviceable but unspectacular infrastructure. As compared with Amsterdam or Haarlem, the city lacks a critical mass to intimidate car traffic, and has far more on-street painted rather than separated lanes. Still, though less suited to bikes, these paths maintain a level of quality and connectivity that would trounce most European and American cities.
In the afternoon, I ride to the beachside district of Scheveningen 3 km east of the Hague along a wide mansion-studded boulevard. There are few bicyclists along the route, and I begin to feel as though people riding in the trams are staring at me. Scheveningen, like the Hague, caters to the extremes. Upscale restaurants lie three blocks from the lowest of carnival attractions, coffeeshops, and casinos. A massive, spaceship-like pier (casino/theme park) juts a quarter-mile into the sea. From the pier, I photograph a lavish Victorian palace/casino surely just as gaudy for its time. (Scheveningen, interestingly, is the hometown of most cast members on the Dutch version of Jersey Shore, Oh Oh Cherso, which actually takes place on the Greek isle of Crete.)
I leave the Hague for Leiden in a morning covered in a foggy dew. Cycle tracks line a busy highway along which a string of ornate proud mansions seem worse for wear. I imagine what this grand carriageway road might have looked like in the 19th century, how travelers might have gawked through the hedges at the unimaginable wealth within. From the highway, I turn into a dense wood I assume to be the count’s hedge and ride back to Leiden across the windy backroads, cow pastures, and farmlands of South Holland.