My guide, Remco Dorr, introduces himself as a real Hagenaar. He’s member of a local noble family, where, when he was small, wearing too many diamonds was frowned upon as being too ‘new rich.’ Hagenaars are seen as snobs by other Dutch people, and they are right, Dorr says. To me it’s clear that this is the perfect person to take me around the Royal Palaces and impressive mansions of The Hague, where the Dutch Royal Family lives and works and where you might see a royal carriage passing by or a politician having a drink.
Officially known as ’s-Gravenhage (the Count's Hedge), Den Haag is the Dutch seat of government and apart from the royal family and palaces, it is also packed with incredible art, stylish shopping, superb dining and a wealth of drinking, nightlife and entertainment venues. But today we are chasing Royalty.
istock - Gatsi
In the old days, Amsterdam was the city where the money was, inhabited by merchants along canals. But the Royals and aristocrats always lived in stately The Hague, Dorr tells me as we look at the statue of Willem I. There are so many kings and nobles called Willem in Dutch history, (including the current King Willem – Alexander), that it is hard to keep them apart. Through the ages, different Willems fought against all kinds of invaders who occupied the Netherlands, but this particular Willem is heralded as the founding father of the Dutch nation. He dared to declare the independence of the Netherlands to the Spanish King in 1581 and in the end, they managed to assassinate him for this.
The Willem that was important to The Hague came a few centuries later. He was named Willem Frederick, and in 1813 he came back from England, to take over the country from the French. He landed in Scheveningen, which is the beach resort attached to The Hague, and decided to settle in the city and become king. He gathered some of the old palaces, build some more and soon the ruling classes of Holland lived around the court. Many streets were specifically built for civil servants employed in the country's government and for the Dutchmen who were retiring from the administration of the overseas colonies. These men often came back to build a colonial style house in the middle of the city.
The Mauritshuis is exactly such a palace, built for Prince John Maurice, to be used after coming back from governorship of Dutch Brazil. The 17th-century nobleman's town house brushes up against the Binnenhof Royal Palace and overlooks the Hofvijver, a swan-plied lake seemingly designed for maximum scenic effect. It now is a museum, famous for its master piece “The Girl with a Pearl Earring.” You can feel the grandeur of the little palace here, where paintings of masters Vermeer and Rembrandt hang on the walls of what once were aristocratic living quarters.
Den Haag Marketing/Frank Jansen
Prime Minister on a Bike
We enter through one of the gates over the street and find ourselves in a medieval enclosed courtyard, surrounded by architecture from the 13th up to the 19th century. This is where the Hague originated around 1230, when Count Floris IV of Holland purchased land to build a hunting residence. The Binnenhof, as it is known, is now the world's oldest House of Parliament still in use. This central courtyard (once used for executions) is surrounded by parliamentary buildings. The prime minister works here in a little tower on the side and, like many other politicians, is often seen coming to work by bike, or to drink a pint in one of the café’s outside the gate.
We are here to see the Ridderzaal, or Knights' Hall, which contains the throne where King Willem-Alexander opens Parliament every third Tuesday in September, surrounded by politicians decked out in fancy hats. This is called the Princes Day, when large crowds are drawn by the traditional journey in glass carriage that the King and Queen make from the palace at Noordeinde to the Knight's Hall here.
Even on a quiet day like today, the Knight’s Hall is a great place to see. In the 15th century, Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, held meetings here with his Knights of the Golden Fleece. His son, Charles the Bold, used it as a court of law. On its vaulted ceiling, made to resemble the inverted hull of a ship, are the carved heads of "eavesdroppers" -- little men with big ears who heard everything, prevented secrecy and conspiracy and ensured that justice was served.
Den Haag Marketing
Palace of a Queen
The grand and stately 18th century townhouses opposite the Royal Pond face a large tree-lined square called Lange Voorhout. “This is where the famous and fashionable ladies used to ride around in their carriages, to see and be seen. Round and round they would go and greet each other,” Dorr says. Later he shows me a picture of Queen Mother Emma, doing exactly that.
Emma is another story. Her winter palace is right on the side of the square and is well known for a staircase that seems to go up to the top of the building, but in fact stops on the first floor. We go up the plush carpeted stairs, where in the old days only the Queen and two of her courtesans were allowed to go. Queen Emma was a popular figure, who as a young girl, saved the monarchy by agreeing to marry the much older King William III, who didn’t have any descendents. According to the story, Emma's elder sister Pauline was the King's obvious first target, but she refused. Emma was the one who stepped in with the words: "I wouldn't mind becoming Queen of the Netherlands!" Her elderly husband soon died and Emma ended up ruling the Netherlands until her daughter Wilhelmina was old enough to take over.
Right across from Queen Emma’s residence is the Hotel des Indes, another place royalty lovers shouldn’t miss. For old-world grandeur, you can't beat this historic hotel built in 1858, as an ‘Entertainment Palace’ for the aristocracy by Baron van Brienen. The palace still has kept all of its red plush atmosphere, and is the ideal place to have a truly royal high tea, complete with hourglasses that tell you how long you should wait before pouring. The tearoom is where coaches would stop, so that the ladies could go up the staircase on the side and into the ballrooms upstairs. Baron van Brienen would stand around the balustrade to welcome them from above.
Nowadays, the building functions as a modern luxury hotel, with big hand painted tulips on the walls and a long list of famous people and modern royalty as guests. Its roll-call of past guests includes Tsar Nicholas II, who held the world's first peace conference here in 1899, Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, and ballerina Anna Pavlova, who died here in 1931. And then there was the pop group One Direction, who stayed in 2013, causing the square in front to fill up with groups of screaming fans.
We are on our way to the working palace of King Willem Alexander, but pleasantly enough, the palace is in the middle of the royal shopping street, aptly called Prinsestraat. The country’s most famous and prestigious shops are located here. Signs on the wall tell us if they are official purveyors to the Dutch Court, which means that the company has been family run and of good behavior for more than 100 years. Many smaller shops offer art, antiques and designer products you will find only in The Hague.
We suddenly find ourselves at the gates of the King’s working palace, under yet another statue of Willem I. This time the ruler sits on his horse and faces the palace. “He never saw this palace finished,” Dorr explains, “So the story is that he is still facing the entrance, as he still needs to go inside.“ While the palace itself can only be visited if you have an appointment with the King, you can go around and enjoy the palace garden. On Wednesday mornings, you might be lucky enough to see a new ambassador arrive by state coach early in the morning, escorted by horsemen from the Royal Netherlands Mounted Police.
There is more shopping on the other side in The Passage, the first shopping center in the Netherlands, built in 1882, with beautiful stone facades and high vaulted glass ceilings. The Passage takes us to the Bijenkorf, an equally historic department store housed in a large building from 1924, built in a unique expressionist style with brick and copper. We admire the glass-stained windows in the staircase and the view of the restaurant on the third floor.
It’s through Chinatown and the former Jewish quarter, which has a whole different history, that Dorr takes me back to the enormous Central Station, where we started off three hours ago. This is the modern part of The Hague, featuring an ultramodern steel-and-glass city hall. The three skyscrapers of The Hague, which now dominate the city skyline, rise up above all the majestic boulevards and palaces, reminding everyone that this is not a city sunk in history, but a lively, growing place, where the old and new mix without effort.
The article was reproduced with permission from hi-europe.net.