I often think of that day — I was visiting my mother in the Netherlands, and it was cold and grey. Our wanderings seemed to fall perfectly into place. We spent an afternoon in the Hague, my first time there. Mom had three highlights in mind, so the afternoon arranged itself comfortably around them: The Binnenhof, home to the Dutch parliament since the 16th century; Scheveningen, the Hague’s seafront-resort alter ego; and the Municipal Museum, or Gemeentemuseum Den Haag–plus a rest stop at the Winter Palace of Queen Mother Emma, now home to the mind-bending works by M.C. Escher.
We began at the Den Haag Centraal train station. From there, distinct sign posts, crowned with a watchful stork, part of the city’s coat of arms, led us on, steadily and dependably.
We strolled past a wide, open square–named simply Het Plein, or “the Square”–a prominent fixture of the city center since 1632. Het Plein is lined with cafes and restaurants, many open late into the evening, along with some key government buildings–like the Department of Justice, besieged just then by a thin but vocal line of protesters.
I loved the view from the square: history and modernity entwined and softened by the embrace of a thick, sleepy fog. This must be a bright, lively place in more hospitable months.
Het Plein deposits you directly by the gates of the Binnenhof, literally, the “Inner Court,” a complex of buildings housing the local government since 1446 and home to the Parliament of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands since 1585 (some of its structures date back 800 years!). I was impressed at how open, matter-of-fact, and accessible this area is to the public. It is easy to forget that this is no mere collection of photogenic old bricks–although it is that too–but the throbbing epicenter of the country’s political life. Cars with tinted windows do stop by at regular intervals, however, as small groups of journalists keep watch. In the morning, you can spot some parliamentarians and ministers (on occasion, the current Prime Minister Mark Rutte among them) arrive to work on bicycles.
I would be amiss not to mention the impressive 17-century palace you will pass on your way to het Torentje: the Mauritshuis, the Royal Picture Gallery, a treasure trove of Dutch and Flemish art, including Vermeer’s pensive Girl with a Pearl Earring. The museum is undergoing an extensive renovation and will remain closed until mid-2014. Some of its collection is on display at the Hague’s Gemeentemuseum, but some–including the Girl–are traveling across Japan and the United States (she is at the Kobe City Museum until 6 January 2013 and will be in San Francisco’s De Young from 26 January to 2 June 2013, Atlanta’s High Museum of Art from 22 June to 29 September, and New York’s Frick Collection from 26 October to 19 January 2014).
We did not have too much time to linger at Binnenhof. On my next visit, I will make sure to go inside the 13th-century Ridderzaal, the Knights’ Hall, a visual and historic centerpiece of the complex. This is where the reigning Queen or King kicks off each legislative season with a speech from the throne before the joint session of the Dutch Parliament, all part of the carefully choreographed Prinsjesdag, or Prince’s Day (mark your calendars: it’s the third Tuesday in September). For now, I made sure to relax a little by the gilded fountain in front of the Ridderzaal, somewhat out of place in this otherwise reserved, understated setting.
Leaving Binnenhoff behind, we wandered around the small pond that frames the Prime Minister’s tower and houses of the Parliament. The pond is called Hofvijver (simply, “Court Pond”), and it is all that remains of a dunelake that first attracted local leaders to this site. I enjoyed strolling through the gentle grove alongside Hofvijver and the peaceful views it offered of the water, the birds, and the buildings, modest but elegant and so important.
A couple of picturesque boulevards later, we reached the Escher Museum, housed today in the former Winter Palace of Queen Mother Emma, remembered as the “Queen of Benevolence” (for her charitable initiatives) and the “savior of the House of Orange” (in 1878, she married the decrepit but boisterous King William III, forty years her senior, and managed to produce an heir, daughter Wilhelmina, the longest-reigning Dutch monarch, who went on to lead her country through two world wars and decolonization).
The Museum showcases highlights of Escher’s entire career and has many of his most famous works. It was fascinating to see in one place the gradual development of the artist’s instantly recognizable style and watch the slow, startling evolution of his favorite subjects, all illuminated by bizarre and imaginative chandeliers of Hans van Bentem (under Bentem’s glowing crystal shark, it dawned on me that this is the first time I see Escher’s work “live”).
A leisurely hour later, we stopped by the museum’s M.C. Cafe, formerly Queen Emma’s kitchen, and, fueled up with coffee and pastries, boarded a tram (#9) for a complete change of scenery: the Scheveningen, the Hague’s seaside district.
A mere 15-minute ride from the Escher Museum, it is hard to believe that Scheveningen is part of the Hague–it looks and feels so different. This is, resolutely, a seaside resort, a summer escape, no longer as grand as in its heyday, but still respectable. In a cold, rainy December, the pier and the beaches are abandoned, subdued, silent, but you can feel how vibrant this place must be when it is fully awake.
Chilled at the pier, we cut through Kurhaus, Scheveningen’s most dominant structure, “the grand dame of the North Sea coast.” This luxury hotel and its music hall have welcomed royals and foreign dignitaries, screen divas and rock stars in its nearly 200-year history.
The music hall is now the Kurzaal Restaurant, and we could not, of course, resist having a drink under its golden frescoes.
But there was one more stop still ahead: the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag. Another short tram ride, and there we were, by the museum’s striking Art Deco building, itself an artwork of a prominent Dutch architect Hendrik Petrus Berlag (an interesting connection: Berlag visited the United States in 1911 and was greatly influenced by the organic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose work Berlag then helped popularize in Europe).
Gemeentemuseum is normally noted for its modern art, including the world’s most complete and impressive Mondrian collection, from realist rural landscapes to his last unfinished masterpiece, Victory Boogie-Woogie, a pulsating love letter to New York City. For the next year and a half, though, Gemeentemuseum is also home to 100 paintings from Mauritshuis, thus offering “600 years of [breathtaking] art under one roof.” I could spend the entire afternoon at this museum, including a good while of just enjoying the colorful, intricate details of the building.
We stayed until the Gemeentemuseum closed at 5pm. By now we were sufficiently hungry–pastries and two coffee cups did not sustain us for long. The museum’s docent recommended a street nearby, Frederik Hendriklaan (“the Fred”), lined with restaurants, stores, and bars (there is also a bank if you find yourself, like we did, in need of cash for your tram ride back to Den Haag Centraal).
We chose Toko Sawa (Frederik Hendriklaan 250), an inexpensive, cozy, family-run Indonesian restaurant with a heated terrace in the winter. A group of glamorous ladies was having drinks on the terrace when we arrived. Passersby stopped to talk to them and seemed excited to see them–local celebrities, perhaps? Inside, service was friendly and warm, and the food simple, comforting, and very delicious. The day could not have ended on a better note.