So as this adventure unfolded, I found myself enjoying the lowlands of Europe, taking in art from 400 years ago right up to the present day. There was wonderful food on offer, and I hadn’t bargained being tricked by a swimming pool! All in a day’s work for Our Man on the Ground.
The Hague is one of those cities in Europe that everyone has heard of but not many have visited. It has a peculiar status in that it is not the capital but is the home to the Dutch Parliament. The Hague is only 50km south west of Amsterdam the capital. The central section of the city is almost totally pedestrianised and full of small narrow streets with charming art shops, boutiques and galleries.
I based myself at the excellent Paleis Hotel, which is a few minutes walk from everything I wanted to see. It’s in an old building and my 3rd floor room (there is a lift) gave me a view across the rooftops to the Royal Palace. Charming staff and individually cooked breakfasts made this 20-roomed luxury gem the perfect spot to stay.
2019 is a big year for the Netherlands culturally as it is 350 years since the death of the nations most revered artist Rembrandt, his image and works are everywhere. But he’s not the only artist worth seeing there are plenty of younger creatives’ work on display worth seeing too. I wandered along to the Museum Panorama Mesdag to see a panoramic painting of a seascape, the largest circular painting in Europe of Scheveningen. I walked up a steep circular staircase into a spacious room (but it seems like you’re outside it’s so large). I found myself under a canopy roof with the sounds of the sea and gulls and this incredible continuous 360° horizon, simple but effective. To those who like an artistic souvenir there’s a lovely gift shop attached as well as other art works on display.
Eating in The Hague is a delight. There are many superb restaurants, bars and cafés to choose from. I tried a few and two stood out as being worth writing about. The first was a Tapisco a modern tapas bar run by people with an incredible enthusiasm for their work. The wine list is long as you might expect and very good, but I kicked off with a ‘house’ Old Fashioned (they make their own syrups etc) which was just swell. Next followed an exemplary lesson in component eating. Cheese, Imberico ham, mushroom all served alone but with a quality rarely found outside Spain. I could have lost myself here for many hours sipping the Douro wine recommended to me. The wine reduction with ice cream and fruits as a dessert was sublime. The second place is said to be the oldest hostelry serving food in the city, ‘t Goude Hooft is a cool place to eat. In a covered outdoor area, they have fire-pit tables to cook your own food. It was cold so I went indoors. The menu isn’t anything out of the ordinary, good sushi, Thai, hearty soups, rolls and sandwiches etc at lunchtime, but the atmosphere and the building are wonderful as is the service. Despite being built in 1423 it is cosy, warm and inviting.
For the art lover a visit to the Royal Picture Gallery Maurishuis is a must. It’s a 17th century palace in the centre of the city next to the parliament and has the highest number of masterpieces per square meter in the Netherlands. The Dutch Golden Age is the theme here with Flemish works from 1400 to 1800 by the likes of Rubens, Jan Steen, Frans Hals, Van Dyke, Adraen Coorte, Vermeer and of course Rembrandt. This is where you’ll find Vermeer’s Girl With The Pearl Earring.
They have assembled their collection of Rembrandts, 11 in total although they originally thought they had 18, five have been proven to be misattributed and a further three are under investigation. The paintings are rich in his history showing his diverse styles and subtext matter. The star has to be The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulip painted in 1632. It’s a large canvas depicting an autopsy with seven onlookers examining the exposed tendons and muscles of the subject’s hand. The onlookers are other doctors who paid commissions to be in the painting. The subject was an executed criminal, only one public dissection a year was permitted.
Charlotte Rulkens who curated the exhibition of Rembrandts wanted to look back at the history of the museum in assembling the paintings saying she wanted to “Bring it back to the essence of emotion, he is a national symbol, this exhibition keeps it fresh and he continues to fascinate”. There is plenty of space here to take it all in and you’ll be able to see his 1669 self portrait, painted the year he died.
Voorlinden, about half an hour drive out of The Hague is a new private museum that sits in a wonderful country estate. Its Modernist credentials worn proud it is a vast homage to brick and glass, incongruous but somehow at ease in its wooded surroundings. Businessman and art collector Joop van Caldenborgh has assembled a diverse, eclectic and brilliant collection of works with plenty of space. The building itself is as much a work of art to me. The standout piece (there are many to choose from) was a swimming pool. From the floor it looked like a small pool with a ladder descending into the blue. To the side of the pool is a narrow passage that takes you down some steps where you can ‘enter’ the pool and walk around. Of course, there is no water in the pool only a thin film of lapping liquid floating on glass to give the impression of being full. This is such a simple idea but so strikingly fantastic. You can be seen from above in the pool and vise versa.
Other works that took my eye were a collection of Armando landscapes that have a quality of being abstract close up but as you move away, they appear sharp and defined. It’s a very clever technique and rewarding for the viewer because it makes one reassess what you’re looking at all the time.
The Hague is simply a wonderful place to visit for a few days and I wish I had been there for longer. There is so much art, culture, food to take in and above all it’s relaxed, safe, level walking and quite beautiful and has the added bonus of just about everyone speaking English. It is only 50 minutes away by plane … what are you waiting for?
Neil Hennessy-Vass is Contributing Editor for Our Man On The Ground as well as a widely-published globetrotting food and award-winning travel writer and photographer.
Photographs by Neil Hennessy-Vass