Dutch Diary: A Gypsy At Heart Recalls Her Travels Through Leiden

If Leiden is a city with a rich cultural heritage, then, having been born and educated in the city—Rembrandt is undoubtedly its most famous bequest to the world of art.

Dutch Diary: A Gypsy At Heart Recalls Her Travels Through Leiden

Flowery welcome

The first thing that hits me, literally, when I exit the station at Leiden Centraal, is the wind—a Force 7 gale that doesn’t bother going around me but instead, goes through me with a sub-zero chill, freezing my fingers and turning my bones to ice. It is so strong that it almost swe­eps me off my feet and tugs hard at my backpack, which I try to swing on to my shoulders.

The next thing to hit my senses is the bea­uty of the place. Flowers tumble out of window bo­x­­es, adorn sidewalks in huge tubs or hang in baskets from ornate lampposts along the str­e­ets. Flowers everywhere, even growing bet­w­een the stones of cobbled pathways and in the grass that edges it. I grasp the handle of my str­olley, shift the backpack to sit more snu­gly on my shoulders and walk into the bracing wind.

I cross the bridge over the first of many can­als, turn left along the lane and am almost bro­u­ght to a standstill at the sight of a windmill, sit­ting, brooding, squat and tranquil in the middle of the green, next to the canal. The idyllic scene belongs to a picture book of days past.

Known all over as a university town/student city, Leiden has one of the oldest universities in Europe, certainly the oldest in the Netherlands, acclaimed for its elite alumni, which include num­erous Nobel Prize winners. My son, Neil, tells me that a large chunk of the country’s cabinet, including the current prime minister, have walked its hallowed portals at one time or another.

Footloose in Leiden city

As I walk on, I spy little coins embedded in the cobblestones, engraved with two ornate keys crossed at the centre. Further on, I spy some more of these ‘coins’ winking in the sun, and now my curiosity is piqued. What Google tells me is really quaint and quirky. Turns out that St. Peter, the patron saint of Leiden, guards the gates of heaven and hence hol­ds the keys to these gates—the same keys the city has adopted as its coat of arms. Sweet!

I get to a narrow lane off the main street and find myself in a residential neighbourhood where there are wooden benches placed next to main doors for the people to sit and—weather permitting—sip coffee and soak in the sun. Here the windows have been dressed with vases of flowers, some pretty china and the ubiquitous cats that look down at me with large liquid eyes and enough disdain to quell any advances that I might be thinking of making.

I cannot stop myself from taking photos of these windows, each one prettier than the last, when I come upon Rapenburg. I must tell you that there are many canals in Leiden and innumerable others in Netherlands… and then there is Rapenburg, which reigns supreme, voted the prettiest canal in the world. For a moment, it stops my heart from beating, as I soak in its exquisite beauty, the wind making the water choppy, the gulls and the little boats bobbing away on the crests.

Intimate portraits

If Leiden is a city with a rich cultural heritage, then, having been born and educated in the city—Rembrandt is undoubtedly its most fam­o­us bequest to the world of art. So I wander on and arrive at the window of his Latin school, the front room of which has been turned into his studio. I climb a wooden step and peek in through the window at the various sketches that adorn its walls, while a camera placed just inside captures my image and reproduces it on an easel in the form of a sketch, just like Remb­r­andt would have sketched. I’m enchanted.

I’ve lost track of time and sense of direction, absorbed as I am in imbibing the beauty of the surroundings with all my senses. Thus, I’m tot­a­lly disoriented and nonplussed when I emerge from a narrow lane to be confronted by a large, plain wall apparently covered with what looks like text in Sanskrit. Now, I remember being told about poems, more than a hundred at the last count, written on the walls of Leiden, in many different languages of the world. What a project to entice visitors and locals alike, making an adventure out of discovering the city through these poems!

I’ve walked a fair bit and the enticing aroma of food wafting from the various cafés that dot my path has made me realise I’m hungry. So I stop at Moksi, the Surinamese eatery that mak­es sandwiches to die for and order myself a Fa Chong with extra peppers. The wait at the cou­nter is fair proof of its popularity.

I turn a corner and reach the final stretch, tir­ed but sated. I ring the bell and with the sound of my son’s footsteps hurrying to open the door, I close my eyes and tilt my face up to catch the last of the rays of the sun.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Dutch Diary")

Nandita Singh is a teacher by profession and a gypsy at heart