I shuffle uneasily in my seat as I listen to the equivalent statement in Dutch. I turn to look through the blurred window, expecting to be met with the fathomless nothingness of the indigo skies. Just as the plane breaks through the multiple layers of clouds, a patchwork quilt landscape of infinite grasslands and canals becomes visible, stretching at my feet. Amsterdam: the city of drugs, prostitution, and bikes. This is the honest image that most people hold in their mind’s eye when they think of the Dutch capital.
A forty minute train ride south of Amsterdam lies the cosmopolitan city of The Hague. No longer playing second fiddle to Amsterdam or Rotterdam, The Hague has become home to over 150 international organisations, making it a city reborn as the Mecca of International Law. As a habitat to the International Criminal Court (ICC), The Hague has witnessed the prosecution of various high profile people that committed war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, such as, very recently, President Uhuru Kenyatta and two years ago, the Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo.
It’s late afternoon when I first walk outside the train station to discover what feels like a window to a ‘once-upon-a-time’ of the beautifully juxtaposed city. With an abundant ‘discharge’ of European feeling, The Hague reconciles the historic element with the urban flair. I’m just a short walk from the centre, yet I feel as if I’ve magically stepped into a traditional rural idyll. The city’s architecture is living proof that traditional and modern can coincide flawlessly. A fascinating mixture of the seventeenth century buildings, in a state of perfect conservation, blends in harmony with the modernity of the futuristic skyscrapers in the ‘new town’.
The ‘Centrum’, which forms the heart of The Hague, is small enough to be comprehensively toured in a day or two. The unfolded cobblestone pedestrian square is overflowing with small cafes, all blending effortlessly into one grande piazza buzzing with life. Even if plagued by the Dutch weather, the open-air plaza offers cosy indoor bars. Whether you’re hungry for syrup waffles or organic specialities, simply want to enjoy a fresh cup of coffee or a pint of Belgian beer, or listen to some live music, the Grote Markt is the place to be.
The Hague has a complex network of segregated paths, allocating its roads to various forms of transport. The main transport is the tram, whose rail lines are neatly etched within the asphalt, in between the cycle paths and the roads. I can’t help but to notice, however, that the ratio of cars to bicycles is quite astonishing. With an abundance of cycle paths, up to 70 per cent of all journeys in The Hague are made by bike. The idea that the ‘customer is always right’ transfers to ‘the cyclist is always right’, and thus those using pedal power always have priority. As I go out and about in the city, I realise that I might have actually come across a bike apocalypse! It appears that Dutch people are born and literally brought up on bikes. If locals aren’t riding a bike, they may well be in the basket of one.
I know that an all-embracing trip to The Hague will never be fulfilled unless I visit the renowned Scheveningen Beach; so I gear up and head to enjoy a relaxing getaway on the West Coast of Holland. As I approach the coastline I encounter a sky bursting with hundreds of inflatable bowed rectangle kites, flying across and splashing onto the sapphire blue sky like extravagant paintballs. I quickly find out that the best way to experience the glorious stretch of the Scheveningen coastline, without having to get in or walk along it, is to take up some of the water sports offered. The Scheveningen beach is big on windsurfing and kite boarding, with lesson prices ranging from 35 to 140 euros.
The enormous beachfront pier is perceived as a gem of contemporary architecture, and, as soon as I see it, I immediately understand why. The pier, stretching hundreds of meters into the North Sea, was rebuilt in 1961 after it had burnt down during the Second World War. The high-rise cement construction supports its grandeur on countless pillars, consumed by the grip of the foaming waves. In the middle of the construction lies the pier restaurant, a circular, coiled building – almost as if built on ascending layers, offering a spectacular view of the beach expanse.
Most tourists think that they have done Holland by simply visiting Amsterdam. A trip to The Hague can definitely turn that snobbery on its head. Whether you’re here for the architecture or the cosmopolitan feel, falling for this compelling Dutch city is inevitable.