Holland: Hang out in The Hague

By Susan Buckland

During a visit to Holland's seat of government Susan Buckland feels like a Lilliputian - dwarfed.

he Peace Palace in The Hague, Holland. Photo / Supplied
he Peace Palace in The Hague, Holland. Photo / Supplied

I used to think 1.72m was a respectable height.

Until visiting The Hague. The streets seemed full of human giraffes all in rude health.

Thanks to good living standards, the Dutch are among the world's tallest people. Their protein-rich diet is part of the mix and prompted my early visit to Anneliese van den Ende's cheese shop.

The sign in her window looked promising: "Voted one of the top-25 specialist cheese shops in The Netherlands."

Wheels of cheese, some as big as tyres, filled Anneliese's shop. They came from the renowned cheese-making towns of Gouda, Edam and Leiden and the province of Friesland.

A glossy poster depicted cows munching lush grass under sunny skies. Anneliese said these obliging creatures at the grassroots of Holland's cheese industry were from Friesland.

"The Dutch have been exporting cheese since the 13th century," said Anneliese.

"Would you like to try some gouda?"

I selected a mature variety. "A good choice. Plenty of protein," Anneliese said as she wrapped me a golden slab.

"And if you think people are tall here in the south, they get taller as you go north."

She recommended I visit the town of Gouda to see how the cheese is made. Which set me to wondering how tall the inhabitants were in protein-infused cheese towns such as Gouda.

Waving Anneliese goodbye, I stepped into the street and almost collided with a cyclist.

Stay alert when crossing streets in The Hague. People pedal around the city because bicycles are their transport of choice. Not that public transport is lacking. It's excellent, but cycling in the almost pancake-flat city is a breeze.

Finding your parked bike among the stacks of others is less easy - unless you embellish it for detection.

"I never have problems finding mine," said Ingrid when I met her near a mass of parked bikes. Her bike looked like it was going to a wedding. The handlebars, basket and back wheel guard were adorned with silk blooms.

Before pedalling off, Ingrid recommended I tuck into my cheese picnic in the Royal Palace gardens, which were open to the public.

Although it is not the capital of the Netherlands, The Hague is the seat of Government, the royal court and has about 100 embassies.

Noordeinde, the "working palace" for Queen Beatrix, resembles a small Buckingham Palace. And soon I was sitting in the adjoining park, under a chestnut tree, being sized up by a squirrel.

The Peace Palace, home of the International Court of Justice, is a short walk away. Among the 15 judges elected to the Court by the United Nations General Assembly, is New Zealand's Sir Kenneth Keith. Unless in camera, sessions of the Court in the Great Hall of Justice are open to the public.

The neo-classical building opened in 1913 and also houses an international law library, academy of international law and Permanent Court of Arbitrations. Works of art and other gifts from countries around the world furnish The Peace Palace: a three-tonne vase from Russia, marble from Italy for the spectacular hall staircase, carpets from Iran and a fountain from Denmark, are but a few.

As for other art treasures, The Hague has at least 30 museums and half as many again for children.

Where to start? I headed for Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring in the historic Mauritshuis, home of the Royal Picture gallery. The collection also includes Rembrandts and other masters.

The paintings of the 18th century Prince Wilhelm V are equally absorbing and are housed in a recently restored building across the road from the Binnenhof.

Sooner or later everyone gravitates to the grand old Binnenhof, the centre of Dutch politics for centuries. In the Knight's Hall, the Dutch Queen still gives her annual speech. The buildings surround a huge square which remains a social centre of the city.

From the Binnenhof you can plunge into the intimate grid of streets lined with cafes, shops, galleries and clubs that form the compact old centre of The Hague.

In one such street I met Max, an antiques dealer who complained he was being bled dry by taxes to support Holland's social welfare.

His Great Dane sat patiently while mournful Max poured out his heart. Two porcelain Great Danes sat inside his shop window looking lugubrious. There was no consoling Max, but he did offer a parting tip.

"Take a day trip to Delft where they make the fine porcelain," he said.

"It takes only 10 minutes in the train. Our trains are cheap and efficient," he said, breaking through his sorrow to acknowledge something good about his country.

As it's just over over 6km from The Hague, the train to Delft felt like a ride to the suburbs. If maudlin Max had visited Delft's lovely old square that sunny day and dined on wafer-thin apple pancakes drizzled with maple syrup, another compliment about his country might have escaped his lips.

Later, I emailed him a tip in exchange for his Delft one.

"Try The Hague's Mer restaurant on Java St where they serve succulent oysters from Zeeland."

I didn't tell him they were almost as good as New Zealand's Bluff oysters.

Max might have packed another sad.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Emirates operates daily flights from Dubai to Amsterdam. It takes only 40 minutes to drive from Amsterdam airport to the heart of The Hague.

Where to stay: I liked Mosaic, a small central hotel.

Further information: For more on The Hague, see denhaag.nl.

To attend a hearing at the International Court of Justice, consult "Calendar" on the website.

Susan Buckland travelled to Europe with the assistance of Emirates Airlines.

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