Regal city is beyond expectations

Times Series: Panorama Mesdag. (© Panorama Mesdag) Panorama Mesdag. (© Panorama Mesdag)

The Hague has been dubbed the International City of Peace and Justice, and its inhabitants come from more than 100 countries. Nick Elvin visits the administrative capital of the Netherlands.


I know the Netherlands is a small country, but I never expected it to be this tiny.

From my vantage point I can see the flying saucer shaped Evoluon building in Eindhoven, the port at Hook of Holland, Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, and the railway station in Utrecht without the need for a telescope.

At Madurodam, the Netherlands has been shrunk into an area of just five acres. This model village is full of painstakingly built scale models of the country’s canals, windmills, ports, spires and palaces. Through the site runs what looks like a billionaire’s train set, while tiny trucks hurtle down motorways and not-so-Jumbo Jets taxi around airport terminals. I almost believe they are going to take off, and I wish they could.

Towering over the rooftops, it’s easy to believe I have wandered into some Lilliputian landscape, but I’m brought back to reality when I realise I will need to take a full-size tram to get back to the centre of The Hague.

Walking around an entire country does tend to give you a hunger and a thirst, so my companions and I head to the Plein, one of the city’s main squares, where we relax outside a café and enjoy some deep fried meatballs and lobster croquettes with mustard, and one or two beers. Our visit coincides with The Hague Festivals, in which more than 200 events are taking place across the city, and there’s live music everywhere.

We vow to return later, when the bars will be much livelier – but not before we visit one of the city’s best-known restaurants.

Garoeda, a short tram-ride from the centre, serves up Indonesian cuisine. The Dutch were once colonial masters of that country, and a legacy of that is the popularity of Indonesian restaurants in the Netherlands today. In this old corner building, beneath paintings of the old East Indes, we enjoy a “rice table” (rijsttafel), a fantastic selection of dishes laid out across our large table, leaving little room for our own plates. There’s chicken, vegetables, mussels, spicy eggs, lamb, rice, pork…the food keeps on coming and we wonder how we’re ever going to manage everything. But it’s too good to waste a morsel.

Next morning, we take a tram to Scheveningen, a busy, smart seaside resort where myriad beach cafés sit on the sand offering views of the long pier, while the impressive, domed Kurhaus hotel remains a major landmark of the town well over a century after it was built.

We have arrived on Vlaggetjesdag (Flag Day), when the first herrings of the season are landed, boxed and thoroughly celebrated by thousands of people. Today, the fishing boats out on the North Sea appear to have their decks filled with revellers rather than nets full of herrings.

We head down the busy, long promenade to the port to find the best herrings. We visit a stall where the cured fish are filleted in front of us, and then sprinkled with diced onion. The tradition is to tilt your head back, open your mouth and slowly devour the herring while holding it by the tail. This Dutch sushi is fatty and full of flavour, and surprisingly moreish.

The first box of herrings of the season is always auctioned off for charity, and we learn that this year’s has gone for the princely sum of €66,000.

From Scheveningen it is only a 15 minute journey back to The Hague, where we have plenty of time to explore the city's mix of architectural styles. There is the Noordeinde Palace, Queen Beatrix’s working palace, and Huis ten Bosch Palace, her home. At the Binnenhof the wheels of government turn, while the Peace Palace is home to the International Court of Justice. As a contrast to these older buildings, much of the city centre has a smart, functional, modern heart courtesy of the government departments located there.

The centre is also full of shops, boutiques and chain stores, while the stylish indoor mall, De Passage, is worth a stroll. Along the banks of the city’s few remaining canals, old buildings host apartments, bars and restaurants. From our seats outside Basaal restaurant we watch jazz bands perform on barges. One group plays a few numbers, to the crowd’s delight, and when they have finished they cast off, move down the canal, and another musician-laden vessel take its place, and so on.

Summer is indeed a good time to visit The Hague, but it is a year-round city, with indoor attractions that include excellent art galleries. At Mauritshuis, a beautiful classicist building, you can wonder at the skills of the Low Countries’ masters. The collection includes works by the likes of Rubens and Rembrandt, while Vermeer’s Girl With the Pearl Earring is on show here.

But there’s another work of art, on display across town that will take your breath away. The exterior of Panorama Mesdag offers little clue as to what's inside. Once I am in, I walk through an interesting gallery containing some of the work of Hendrik Willem Mesdag, one of the most famous artists of the Hague School. Then I head up a narrow, winding, staircase – kept dark to dilate my pupils, so I’m told - and emerge into the light. Suddenly and quite shockingly, I’m looking out to sea.

Panorama Mesdag is a 360-degree painting of magnificent scale. The work shows a long-lost world of sails and spires, of bathing sheds and cavalrymen. But it is more than just a painting. You stand on an observation platform on top of an artificial dune that slopes away below. You can see neither the top nor bottom of the painting. You can't make out the surface of the canvas, so cannot perceive what is near or far. A recording of sounds of the sea plays, while natural light shines down from hidden ceiling windows, and as its intensity changes, so does the picture.

The scene was completed in 1881, when panoramas were all the rage, and was painted by Mesdag with the help of other artists, from the sketches he made from atop a sand dune in Scheveningen.

I feel I’m part of a landscape, rather than simply a viewer of a painting, such is the attention to detail in the scene and the illusions at work. Even those who have worked at the panorama for many years, patiently and meticulously restoring the surface, claim they still see new things.

At 120 x 14 metres, it is unsurprisingly the Netherlands' largest painting.

And, like The Hague itself, it proves far beyond my expectations.

Tourist information:
Netherlands Board of Tourism: www.holland.com

The Hague tourism website: www.denhaag.com


Transport:
London Heathrow to Amsterdam Schipol with KLM:
www.klm.com

Train from Amsterdam Schipol to The Hague:
www.ns.nl


Accommodation:
Hotel Mercure, Spui 180, Den Haag, www.accorhotels.com

Hague Hotels Month: During October 2009, three-, four- and five-star hotels in The Hague can be booked for €25 per star per room, including breakfast: www.haagsehotelmaand.nl

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