…in another world. That’s what I felt on one magic Saturday in Leiden, the Netherlands. I was deeply engaged in a swirl of impressions, or was it a banquet of sensations? It began as soon as I awoke that day, tucked into an airy room on the second floor of an elegant private home:
It was tempting to stay snuggled in the thick duvet, or just to rest my gaze on the canal across the way with its swimming grebes, soaring magpies, fat old sycamores and pale daffodils waving atop a parakeet-green carpet of grass. But Leiden beckoned.
We slipped downstairs, walked along the canal, crossed a bridge and made our way to the heart of the city, at the confluence of the Oude and Nieuwe Rijn rivers, flowing through Leiden as canals. The old part of town is a picturesque neighborhood of cobblestone streets, bike-lined bridges arcing over winding canals, and handsome historic buildings, many from the 16th and 17th centuries, when Leiden was in its prime. It’s all very walkable, with enough restaurants, bars and coffee shops scattered around to grab a sit-down when you need it.
The Saturday market was bustling that cool Spring day. De Markt is supposed to be one of the best in the Netherlands, with packed stalls selling all the vegetables, fruit, fish, cheese, meat, baked goods and flowers you could want. As we walked towards the market we heard a merry musical sound that we couldn’t identify until we saw it – a colorful antique street organ parked on the cobblestones to entertain shoppers! One couple broke into a waltz, their wide smiles flying through the air. It was one of those great travel moments that one remembers later with a sigh….
Soon I was tired of the crowds, so we broke away from the bustle and wandered down a side street.
That’s when the magic took hold. In a matter of seconds, a hush replaced the market noise. It was the kind of stillness (no car noise, just the ring of an old church bell) that makes it easy to imagine you’ve dropped back into another century. I rested my gaze on a folding table set out in front of a narrow row house, holding an assortment of oddities – a globe, a broken tile, some worn books. The door to the building was ajar. It was dim inside and I sensed that a pile of treasures was waiting there. But it all seemed too precious – I doubted that I could afford anything in a European antique store. As I stood there hesitating (undoubtedly with a longing look on my face) a smiling couple exiting the store urged, “You must go inside!” So we wandered in, and for the next hour or so we were immersed in a self-contained little universe of delights and discoveries….
It wasn’t necessarily the objects themselves, though many were fascinating. It was the atmosphere, the jumble of centuries and continents, the dark recesses that held one unexpected object after another. The store, called Anterieur, is a warren of poorly lit, connected rooms that meander through the block, rooms that open onto snug outdoor spaces full of plants and statuary and rusty implements, rooms behind doors, behind rooms, behind windows….
I suppose I’m romanticizing the store – you might think it’s a mess! But for me that day, it was a delightful, otherworldy maze and I’d gladly return. If I could go again I would buy that textile I passed on, and another tile or two….
Right around the corner from Anterieur is an unusual small museum, the American Pilgrim Museum. I had read about it and I was curious. There was a sign: someone would be back to open the door in fifteen minutes.
The door featured a hand-stitched, ragged-edged cloth sign announcing the hours and price (five euros) – the perfect introduction to an eccentric and evocative museum. When it opened up again there were just a handful of us, mostly Americans. Our guide was the unforgettable Jeremy Bangs, the director and a distinguished Pilgrim scholar.
The museum is one of those places that’s impossible to describe, but suffice it to say that the experience was yet another immersion – this time into an intimate space full of objects both precious and mundane, that a small group of people left behind over four hundred years ago. Leaving England to find religious freedom, the Pilgrims spent time here in Leiden, where attitudes towards freedom of thought tend be very enlightened. They found work at the university – the oldest in the Netherlands – or in the cloth trades. But they struggled financially, and had misgivings about the liberal Dutch life – their children might stray, their hard-found religious freedom might evolve into a purely secular one. After ten years the group resolved to cross the Atlantic to the New World, where opportunities were plentiful and they could keep their faith firm. Back to England they went, to arrange for a ship and passage, and then, off to America. After the Leiden sojourn perhaps the pilgrims were a little better prepared for what lay ahead.
In the small museum housed in a fourteenth century building, the light is the same natural light supplemented with candlelight that was used four hundred years ago. Artifacts are not hidden behind glass, but are there to be touched and sensed fully. A latrine is in the corner, bone dice from a game children played lie on a table, and an amazing hand-painted linen banner carried in processions (seen above) hangs from the ceiling. Mr. Bangs hews to no script; each tour is different, depending on who is present and what questions they ask. I wished I had been better prepared because the man has such deep knowledge of his subject, but frankly, it was enough to simply take in the atmosphere.
After the museum we made our way to the Burcht, an historical fortification and park sitting on a hill in the heart of Leiden. Ages ago this was a shell midden, then in the 1200’s it was a residence, later it was a refuge from floods, later still a city water tower. A long history! Up in the old stone castle we enjoyed a view of rooftops from walkways circling the inside of the old brick building. The views were obscured by the budding branches of sycamore trees, which was fitting on that early Spring day.
The Burcht is guarded by the Leiden coat of arms, a lion and two crossed keys. We saw the crossed keys symbol over and over, throughout the city, and beyond question, the city opened its doors to us that Saturday – with or without keys.