In Leiden, the Netherlands

By Barry Sheppard

Approximately 35km southwest of the hustle, bustle and mind-altering tourist attractions of the city of Amsterdam lies the much smaller and quieter university city of Leiden.  And for me it is a homecoming of sorts, for it was twelve years to the day that I, along with approximately twenty other fine upstanding young men and women from the four corners of Ireland, made picturesque and historic stretch of land our home for those hot summer months.  Today though, I’m part of a much smaller yet equally fine and upstanding party getting ready to take in the familiar sites of the place I called home for a short time.

Although I have been back in the Netherlands on several occasions since the glorious summer of 2000 it is the first time I have decided to venture back to this location, and departing through the train station front doors the first thing to grab my attention is the pristine four story building to my left where formerly stood a large bricks and mortar brightly covered canvas for a commune of artistic punk types who called it home.  As the vast majority of buildings throughout the centre of Leiden are of that unmistakable tall and thin Dutch style the gang of punk’s squat should really have looked out of place.  But now that it appears to be no more, this monument to modernity which has taken its place looks decidedly out of step.   However, I am not prepared to let the demise of a building I never set foot into spoil this walk down memory lane.

On the walk down Stationsweg, one of the city’s main arteries I was pleasantly surprised to see that not much had changed; familiar shops and services remained in their locations and for a short time it felt like I had never left.  Just as I was mentally trying to work out what the Dutch for Groundhog Day would be my trance was broken by the absence of an equally familiar but altogether more favourite site; the ‘Rock Bar’, a place where we collectively lived up to that hard partying and pint drinking Irish stereotype that I now, in my more mature years, find myself shying further and further away from.  At this juncture it would be worth clarifying that the name of the bar was not in fact ‘the Rock Bar’, or anything remotely like it. It was given this particular moniker because it contained a full wall of the finest rock and heavy metal CDs ever to be listened to by a generation with worryingly diminishing hearing.  Combined with a ‘we go home when you do’ attitude from the staff and owner, it was what is known as a ‘winner’.  If only any of us had bothered to take the time to find out its real name…

Alas, it too is gone and the pint of Oranjeboom which I had downed several times in my head on the journey here was not to be.   But Leiden is not merely about artistic punks, allegedly satanic music and Dutch beer –  it is a city with a long and rich history.   As well as being the birthplace of Rembrandt it houses the oldest University in the Netherlands (1575) which is spread over numerous locations throughout the city. It boasts impressive alumni made up of the elite in many fields, from the Scottish Gaelic writer Màrtainn MacGilleMhàrtainn to former American president John Quincy Adams.   The University’s motto ‘Praesidium Libertatis’ (Bastion of Liberty) reflects its status as the first university in the Netherlands to permit freedom of belief and religion.

Taking a detour from the main street down the pedestrianized Haarlemerstraat I’m delighted to say that the small eatery where I had my first taste of Middle Eastern heaven, the falafel, all those years ago is still there!  Further down the street on the left is a memorial commemorating the 500 year presence of the Franciscan order in the city (1445-1945) and as far as religious commemorations go, I have to say it’s one of my favourites.

Towards the end of this pedestrianized zone and up the scenic Burgsteeg lane is one of Leiden’s hidden gems.  The Burcht van Leiden is a medieval fortification dating from the 11th Century and was once the centrepiece of the town.  At its height it was nine metres above the surrounding district, and was one of the focal points of the Siege of Leiden in 1573-1574 during  The Eight Years’ War between the Dutch and Spain.  However, as the city has grown and buildings sprang up the once dominant structure lost its military function and now it has been obscured from view from much of the city.  Today, used as a public park it provides visitors with a great insight into the structure’s history as well as those of the main buildings of the city centre, in particular the City Hall building which was destroyed by fire in 1929 with only the impressive front of the building surviving.

As someone with a love of history I have a paradoxical streak in that I can for the most part do without nostalgia.  However, this small city in the Dutch province of South Holland is an exception to the rule and is a place that I am truly fond of.  The next mission is to come back for its 3 Oktober festival when the people of Leiden celebrate the end of the Siege of Leiden, and maybe then I’ll get that elusive pint of Oranjeboom.

Barry Sheppardis a part-time student, studying History and Social Studies.  He is interested in social and cultural history, in particular the study of cultural nationalist groups in late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Ireland.

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