Leiden is on the Oude Rijn, part of the Rhine delta that empties into the North Sea. Like a number of historic cities in the Netherlands, it’s old; a hill settlement goes back to at least 860. The country’s oldest university, Leiden University, was founded here in 1575. A picturesque, canal-filled, culturally vibrant city, it seemed a good place to begin a trip to northern Europe – not least because our flight from Seattle landed in nearby Amsterdam.
I found an airbnb at a beautiful home on a canal (which turned out to be one of the best places I’ve ever stayed in). Most people are fluent in English. Museums are not as crowded as they are in big cities like Amsterdam, and there are things to see (Rembrandt’s birthplace, an historic botanical garden). The transportation looked doable….so we made Leiden the first destination on a three-week northern Europe trip.
Leiden turned out to be more delightful than we could have imagined. The people we met were open, warm, enthusiastic, intelligent. I know, it seems idealized and it’s a generalization, but that was our experience. The food we ate wasn’t elaborate, but it was excellent. It seemed to us that the ingredients were fresher, and respectful attention went into the preparation. I enjoyed the aesthetic awareness and care brought to bear on everyday functionality (like the trains and buses) and mundane details of daily life (like clean streets). In restaurants and coffee shops people appeared to be immersed in animated conversations.
Western civilization’s long history in Europe lends a certain depth to life there. On the other hand, I think Americans carry a sense of wide possibilities, facing towards the future, which Europe’s tradition-laden culture can dampen. Of course it was just a few weeks, not a year or a decade, so my observations are superficial. The same holds for my photographs, which don’t have the kind of depth that I’m able to bring to subjects I’ve lived with a long time. With those reservations, here’s a group of photos from four days spent walking around Leiden.
The highlights of Leiden were things we didn’t plan, as is often the case. We stumbled across an especially fascinating “un-museum” – the American Pilgrim Museum. There was a good hour or more spent exploring a spell-binding antique store, housed in a warren of centuries-old, connected buildings. The Saturday market and the botanical garden next to Leiden University were both impressive, but I’ll save the garden, antique shop and museum for later.
While we were in Leiden we took a quick train ride to Rotterdam; that’s another story too. From Leiden we traveled to Ghent, Belgium, another old city full of canals and history. There was a day in Lille, France, a week in Germany, and a few days in Amsterdam. We were on the move a lot, though we were careful to avoid one-night stops. Most people I know have been to Europe, many of them more than once. I wasn’t interested in Europe when I was younger. Later, family and job responsibilities kept me from traveling more than a week at a time. But finally the time, the desire, and the funds converged, so we did bounce from country to country a bit, wanting to experience as much as possible. As I get a little more perspective on the trip it seems worth it though. It was a late-life crash course in northern European culture, and we’re better for having done it.