IMMERSED

…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.





***

If you go to Leiden, here’s an amusing list of places not to miss assembled by an illustrator who drew a painstakingly detailed, hand-drawn map of Leiden. Thank you Joe for the street organ photo!


59 comments

  1. A perfect immersion, Lynn. I can picture you diving into the details of that marvelous shop. Your photos tell the story of your day in a marvelous flow. Thank you for taking me to Leiden’s hidden gems.

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    • The store was such a treat, with almost on one else around, and the outdoor spaces….and I didn’t go into it in the post, but the man who owns the store has a connection to the pilgrim folks just a few doors away. If you ever get to Amsterdam, take a quick ride over to Leiden, it’s a gem. Thank you!

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  2. What a wonderful series of images, especially in that museum. I could imagine myself walking through the area and then through the door into some enchanting time capsule. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and images, Lynn. I thoroughly enjoyed the ‘tour’.

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  3. I’m glad you had such a good and informative stay. A lot of Americans don’t realize that the Pilgrims spent years in the Netherlands, nor that although the Pilgrims are remembered for coming to America for religious freedom, they really wanted freedom only for their own version of Christianity. The Rhode Island colony later expanded the notion of religious freedom to include various groups.

    That’s some colorful map of Leiden.

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    • I knew nothing about the Netherlands stay….it’s a great way to get a feeling for history, being surrounded by so many things from the past, and not having everything behind glass. I read somewhere that the idea for Thanksgiving probably stemmed from their stay in Leiden too, from a simialr local custom.

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  4. Immersed indeed. It’s as though you were swimming in all the intricate details of this utterly unique place. We just don’t find this sort of thing here in the “New” World. So happy to float along with your tour.

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    • No, we don’t find this, especially not on the west coast! When I worked near the old World Trade Center in NYC I could walk over to the oldest part of the city and see some traces of centuries past, and cobblestones, etc., but nothing like this! I’m glad you enjoyed it! 🙂

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    • As you know, Paula. 🙂 After roaming through the Netherlands, Belgium, France and northern Germany, and appreciating all of it, the Dutch still have my heart. We both thought, when we looked back at the trip, that beginning in Leiden really spoiled us.

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  5. What a wonderful town and apparently a wonderful trip! Your fotos are fantastic, the sights of the town are beautiful as well as from the funny “miracle store” 😉 It looks a bit like from a kind of Harry Potter story, a magician shop :-). I know what you mean, one could spend hours in this place, discovering strange and valuable things as well as this fascinating place. What an astonishing house! If I ever get there I will go there 🙂 The museum must have been exciting too. It is always nice to meet people who are passionate storytellers. Very well written and photographed! PS: I like the funny cakes 🙂

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    • I do hope you get over there – it’s such a quick trip from where you are, and it’s such a delightful place (and I haven’t posted about the botanical garden yet!). You must have noticed the photo of two plant books from the 1930’s – that was tempting! There were amazing cakes and candies in the stores for Easter, that is just a small sample. 🙂 Thank you very much Almuth!

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      • Yes, I noticed the books about cactus and xxx very well 🙂 I would have been tempted too, so these are not my preferred plants, but the books looked so nice 🙂 as many other things in this shop! Did you buy anything?

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      • I bought the little broken tile with the man on it, below the cactus books. They had better ones but there is something about the way the man is painted that I really like, and all the cracks and everything add to the charm, for me anyway. Only 5 euros. 🙂 The fabric I should have bought is also here, above the books. It was early in the trip and I didn’t want to buy too much, but now I wish I had….oh well!

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  6. I love this post, Lynn, and you’ve done a wonderful job expressing the deep pleasure of being immersed in a place, and in the wisps and fragments of the past.
    The pictures and your word pictures are such nice companions, and your story comes at such a good time – – last weekend I was reading about the falling number of visitors to historic sites in the U.S., Williamsburg, Gettysburg, etc. and the number of colleges dropping History as a major.
    I think the days of herding folks, “please don’t touch!” behind rope and plexiglass, through some sterile, lifeless presentation, with a dry-as-dust docent droning on reverentially over a Wedgewood chamber pot, are over, and good riddance. You described exactly how I think history can appeal to people now, even if they suffer from complete ignorance of the topic, and despite phone/tablet/gaming addiction – – with whatever immersion you can summon up, with a sense of atmosphere, theater and storytelling. These places you visited don’t look like a mess to me, they look absolutely magical.

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    • Good to hear, Robert. Wisps and fragments, yes, and I agree, this is the way to “get” history. (I didn’t know visitor numbers are down at historic sights in the US – I thought everyone still needs to get a selfie at each one!) I’m one of the many people for whom school history did nothing. I just couldn’t connect with it, I guess. That day between the architecture of the old city, the antiques store, the museum and the “castle” I had a crash course. I can’t say that I remember more facts now, but I think I have a better feeling for where we came from, and how the experience of living in the Old World is different from the experience of living in the New World. I sensed it as a kind of weight in Europe, a weight of all the generations that have gone before, and all that’s been done. Here, it feels more open, more spacious. And there are advantages to both, clearly. If you are ever anywhere near Amsterdam, Leiden is a short train ride away. I’m sure you would love the museum, and Mr. Bangs – what a character! Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments.

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    • It’s good to hear you can see that Dutch atmosphere in the photos, I’m glad! The store was such a pleasure – I’m glad there were few other people there and the owner does not mind you wandering around for a long time without buying much. Thank you, Otto.

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    • It was a great start to the trip, spending five days in Leiden. The city is super charming and the people are just wonderful. And the airbnb we stayed at is amazing – look for it if you get back there again. I’m pleased that you enjoyed the photos, thank you!

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  7. The hidden secrets of Leiden.. Things you told get a ‘better place’ now that I see the shots; a bit like seeing the movie after having read the book… I’m on the side of the movies 🙂 There are people who see something; take a shot and at home they start to look what they have shot; you look first and then you shoot what you have seen; so your attention is somehow included… Well done! Thank you! 🙂

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    • That is an interesting comment, Harrie….I guess it’s really all about attention, isn’t it? And the quality of our attention. It’s harder when you’re new to a place and you have just “one shot” at getting it right – thank god we have digital cameras! 😉 Life is worthy of being present for it, if that makes sense. There’s no reason to be half-present and save your attention for later. I’m sure you understand what I’m getting at! Thanks!!

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  8. It’s fun to see your building-interior photographs. You haven’t shared that many in the past. Love the window inside/outside that you’ve placed first—especially the light coming through the drapery. I also love the antiques-store photo with the dark foreground and the rich, lighter middle ground. It has a feeling of discovery, like I’m about to walk through that door and find interesting things. I love how the studded outside door, left open (and interesting in its own right), reveals the bit of oriental rug (?) inside. The triptych with the middle photograph of the blanket (?) in the doorway feels unusually intimate. Maybe that’s because you’re showing us things that people wouldn’t ordinarily intend people to see. Your handling of light in the photograph with the two candles in it is extraordinary—like a Georges de La Tour! The spiral staircase is pure fun and geometry. It was a good idea, I think, to follow that graphic design with the triangular shapes in the next photo. The two photographs marry, like flavors in a good dish. Altogether I had another splendid time seeing the world through your eyes, Lynn.

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    • That airbnb was certainly the most elegant one I’ve ever seen. The owner was wonderful, and is very creative. It would be wonderful to have the opportunity of repeated visits to that store, like you have had with the farmhouse – then more scenes would reveal themselves. It was probably good that it was overcast, and that there weren’t many other people around, and the owner is easy-going (Joe was saying yesterday that it’s too bad neither of us took his photo, he was interesting too). I handled the candlelight well? No, I was lucky that my camera handled it well! 😉 I don’t know Georges de la Tour, thanks – a google image search is enough to transport me right back to the EU. I’m glad you could come along to Leiden…..it was such a pleasure, it spoiled us for the rest of the trip.

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  9. What a wonderful day you spent there, Lynn. I’m with you…that shop is worth another visit or two at least. So much history and culture contained in that space. It sounds like you did not buy anything, but I hope you did. A perfect memento of that time well spent. It certainly does sound like you will return.

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    • You’re very kind to say that about the photography, Ule….and I think Leiden could be a really good place to spend a little time, for someone who’s adverse to all the fuss and craziness that travel entails. The people are very open and friendly, it’s a university town so the intellect is respected, it’s very easy to get around, there’s a wonderful botanical garden….and what’s not to like about the architecture? 😉

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  10. Lynn, your eye for detail brings a place alive for those of us lucky enough to follow you, whether in nature or in a far flung city. I especially loved the triptych of mossy green images preceding the arched window filled with green foliage.

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    • Thank you Lynn! Those three photos – what a pleasure it was to photograph inside that rather ancient building, with its wandering rooms and courtyards. I’m glad you enjoyed it! Seeking the details is such a pleasure, and then sharing them with people who appreciate it is gift.

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  11. So often records of a vacation trip are just that – a soulless catalogue of places visited. The photos and commentary in this post really do capture the excitement of your experience.

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  12. Less than a year ago, I was 10 kilometers from the place. And I was still there this morning. Leiden is, by far, my preferred place in the Netherlands. My favorite spot is the Boehave Museum, both for what it contains and for the building.
    Many thanks, Blue Brightly !

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    • I planned to get to the Boehave but it didn’t work out….maybe there will be a next time. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Oh, yes, I loved Leiden!!!

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