Among gentle Leiden's lures: Pilgrims and Rembrandt

Email|Print| Text size + By Diane Daniel
Globe Correspondent / November 20, 2005

LEIDEN, the Netherlands -- The Pilgrims lived here for 11 years before boarding the Mayflower in 1620, Rembrandt was born and grew up here around the same time, and today it is as pretty a city as you will find in the Netherlands.

But Leiden (LYE-d'n) a historic university town 30 minutes from Amsterdam, remains overshadowed by the capital.

That's not to say ignored. On Thursday, 500-plus Americans, mostly expatriates and US soldiers stationed in Germany, are expected to attend noontime Thanksgiving services at Pieterskerk (Peter's Church), as they do every year. It was here that many Pilgrims worshiped and several are buried. (The church remains open while undergoing timber restoration after damage from powder post beetles and general aging.)

Massachusetts has even paid homage. The Pioneer Valley hill town of Leyden and Plymouth's Leyden Street, billed as ''the oldest street in America," were named after the Pilgrims' Dutch home. (Some Pilgrim descendants left Plymouth to settle in Leyden, Mass., in the 1730s.)

It's a pity, though, that the ''Let's Go City Guide to Amsterdam" doesn't even list Leiden among its 17 recommended day trips (though some Amsterdam guidebooks do). Nor do the several day trips sponsored by the Amsterdam Tourism & Convention Board include Leiden.

That is not good news for Leiden's tourism economy, but it's great for American tourists who don't want to be surrounded by other American tourists. One can walk about this compact city of 119,000 lined with canals and filled with museums, fashionable shops, and sidewalk cafes, and hear little, if any, English spoken.

Leiden has made much progress since the Pilgrims in providing information for tourists. A good part of that is due to the work of Jeremy Bangs, the American scholar and Leiden resident who served as chief curator at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth from 1986-91, and was visiting curator at Plymouth's Pilgrim Hall Museum for a year after that. Bangs attended Leiden University, where his father was a professor and historian.

On Thanksgiving Day 1997, Bangs opened the tiny but fascinating Leiden American Pilgrim Museum in a 1370 building that he said is the city's oldest house. There, you can see Pilgrim-era maps, books, and domestic artifacts. Bangs will even let you hold some of them.

In 2001, the Leiden Pilgrim Archives opened inside the city archives with a small Pilgrim display and a study room where visitors can trace their ancestry. In May 2003, a walking tour of Pilgrim-related sites was published and is available free at the town's tourist office. Also in 2003, a monument commemorating the Pilgrims was installed. A marker lists names of families who sailed west. Surprisingly, in the city's mapped and signed walking tour, called the ''Leiden Loop," Pilgrims don't even get a mention.

Thanks to Rembrandt's fame, eyes soon will be on Leiden more intently than at any time in the recent past. On Dec. 15, the Netherlands kicks off a much-ballyhooed yearlong celebration of the painter's 400th birthday. A number of events will be held here and in Amsterdam, where he lived and worked from his mid-20s on. What tourism officials have dubbed Rembrandt 400 is expected to draw 300,000 visitors to Leiden and hundreds of thousands more to Amsterdam.

Exhibits in Leiden will be at the Museum De Lakenhal, where a special visitors center is being built. A self-guided walking tour takes folks past the site of Rembrandt's childhood home (which was torn down in the 1900s), his school (still standing), and the studio where he developed his painting skills. The town also is incorporating Rembrandt's chiaroscuro technique, using light and dark to achieve an illusion of depth, in its redesign of the Weddesteegplein square where he was born.

Leiden celebrates Rembrandt's birthday every July 15, but this year it will pull out all the stops, with costumed characters roaming around town and more.

In August, I experienced Leiden not as a tourist but as a student at the university. Founded in 1575, Leiden is the country's oldest university and is highly regarded academically. I was taking a three-week intensive Dutch course, hoping to learn some of my husband's native language. My 15 classmates were mostly exchange students from Europe and Asia. The other American was Allison Nordberg of Melrose, a junior majoring in political science and history at the University of Richmond who is studying in Leiden until late December. Although 25 years apart in age, we found we had much in common in the way we butchered the pronunciation of most Dutch words.

Even in the sleepy summer, with many of the 20,000 students and hundreds of professors and staff on holiday, the university remains vibrant. I was treated to the Dutch version of ''rush week" in mid-August, where fraternities (they are unisex) try to recruit new members. As in the United States, loud music, beer, and general rowdiness are involved. I even spotted a mud-wrestling competition.

Without the typical central market square most old Dutch cities have, Leiden has several spots where folks congregate, especially along the two main canals, the New Rhine and the Old Rhine, long arms of the river. Boats ply the waters and warm-weather worshipers fill outside restaurants and cafes.

My favorite activity was to tool around on the used bicycle I bought for $65 and three weeks later resold for $25. (You can rent bikes at the train station as well.) As in all of the Netherlands, bicyles outnumber cars, and special lanes and paths make riding simple and safe. I could ride to the North Sea coast in half an hour, or be in one of many recreation areas around Leiden, but I also used the bike for daily transportation.

My favorite 10-minute route to school took me along the Rapenburg Canal. The area was the Back Bay of its time, and starting from the 17th century, many rich and famous people lived in its large homes, including several members of the Dutch royal family who studied in Leiden. (The university remains the royals' school of choice.) Many of the homes are now student housing, but from the outside, the view probably hasn't changed all that much in four centuries. Just beyond the canal is Leiden's Hortus Botanicus, Europe's oldest botanical garden, opened in 1587 and a lovely place for lunch or a stroll.

Leiden has two lively pedestrian-only shopping streets, the Haarlemmerstraat and the Breestraat, which feed into the canal streets lined with more shops and restaurants. Because of tight sidewalk space, many cafes have added barge patios.

It seems everyone turns out for the large market on Saturdays in the city center (there's a smaller version on Wednesdays), an event not to be missed. At booths stretching for blocks along the New Rhine you can find everything from plastic housewares to pickled herring.

Another popular spot is the Burcht, an elevated fortress built in the 11th century to protect against enemy troops and rising waters. Now a city park, you can climb to the top for an aerial view of the city.

I was sorry to not be in Leiden for its annual bash, the Oct. 3 celebration to commemorate the country's successful defense against the Spanish in 1574. I followed up with Nordberg to hear my former classmate's report.

''The entire city closes down and there are carnivals and fairs," she said. ''Parades were popping up all over, like all of a sudden a marching band would walk past me while cars would be driving down the other side of the street." Nordberg enjoyed her first taste of white bread and ''hutspot," the Dutch comfort food of mashed potatoes with meat and vegetables.

''It was so fun," she said. ''I felt like I was Dutch."

As most exchange students do, Nordberg bought a used bicycle when she arrived in August. Her next attempt at cultural assimilation, she said, is to talk on her cellphone while cycling, and, if it's raining, also holding an open umbrella.

''Then I'll really feel Dutch."

Contact Diane Daniel at

 NETHERLANDS: If you go: Leiden

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