Today I went to The Hague. And I didn’t really like it.
My visit to The Hague wasn’t anything special; I wasn’t there to hang around the Houses of Parliament, nor check out the Girl with a Pearl Earring again. I wasn’t interested in the Peace Palace. All I had to do was get a Vietnamese visa.
I was unexpectedly tossed out into The Hague after being about two hours early for the embassy’s consulate hours. (Seriously, what DO they do all day? I knew I should have tried for the DFAT grad program. The lunches must be spectacular.)
So I decided to explore the area. I’d visited The Hague a few times before but had never wandered into its embassy district. And it was strange.
The Hague has never evoked strong feelings like Rotterdam, Amsterdam and even Maastricht have for me; it’s just a bit blah. Rotterdam isn’t pretty but at least it has an attitude and a distinct story, which I definitely give it credit for. Amsterdam has slowly grown on me, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, whilst Maastricht wowed me from the beginning. I could go on for the dozens of other cities, towns and villages in the Netherlands, but I won’t. I’ll just stick to The Hague now.
The Hague just doesn’t feel warm to me. It’s not inviting; it’s not rough-and-ready nor is it showy and bold. It’s got some lovely bits; the Parliament area is unquestionably Dutch in its quiet pride and the Mauritshuis is one of my favourite art galleries in the world.
But nothing seems to link it all up; they just seem plonked there. Meanwhile, the government just seems massive. Walking from Den Haag Centraal Station, you are surrounded by row after row of glassy (and quite cool-looking) modern skyscrapers, all with the little Dutch crown at the entrance. It’s as if government ate the city and spat out little bits like the Mauritshuis and the Peace Palace to keep us plebs happy.
Perhaps what’s quite telling is that The Hague isn’t a city at all. It was never given city rights, so it doesn’t have a cathedral, a market hall or even a traditional-style town hall. Just about every town in the Netherlands has a ‘waag’; a building in which goods would be weighed; The Hague doesn’t. Its main square doesn’t honour anybody; it’s just called ‘Square’ (Plein).
So with this in mind, I went a-walkin’.
The embassy area of The Hague is pretty fetchin’. For those of you unfamiliar with the weird capital system in the Netherlands, Amsterdam is actually the capital but The Hague does all the work of a capital. This does not make sense at all, but don’t try saying this to a Dutch person as you will get nowhere fast.
I remember driving around the embassy district in Canberra as a kid; the places were mansions or seemed that way to eleven year old me. Here they were stately, elegant and not Dutch-looking at all. There were no orphaned bicycles or stray footballs. There wasn’t the smell of coffeshops or Febos. It was unnerving.
I walked around for a while and just got progressively bored; it was just endless blocks of faux historic villas and charmless monstrosities claiming to be the global headquarters of this, that or the other. Sure, it was all planned well, with plenty of little canals, grand old trees which look their best in the autumn and trams criss-crossing all the way through. But there was nothing going on at ground-level, so I headed to Frederikstraat.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Frederikstraat reminded me of Toorak Road in Melbourne; the part near Chapel Street and South Yarra Station. It was a narrow street, full of beauty salons, tanning lounges, organic food stores and cafes advertising high tea. Flower boxes accompanied street lights and public hedges were perfectly trimmed. I’d never seen anything like it before in the whole country.
I was so shocked with what I saw that I even sat down for a moment to take it all in. I’d always laughed when I’d seen a four-wheel drive in the Netherlands, with it being so pancake-flat. Not only did the four-wheel outnumber all the other cars, they outnumbered the bikes too. I felt like in my wanderings, I’d accidentally wandered over to London.
I used an old travel rule and wandered a bit further to find some lunch and was rewarded; Cafe 2005 served me up the best smoked salmon baguette of my life, and under five euro. And they even had The Guardian! From the look of the clientele (lots of skinny jeans, flannelette and thick fake glasses) I’d unknowingly crossed over to the hipster district. I always was a north of the river girl, I suppose.
When I got back to the embassy, I was cranky to find about forty people milling around the still-closed front door. Here was my test. I had to remember that despite my surrounds, I was still in the Netherlands, so I ignored the haphazard queue, and when the doors opened I elbowed my way through and got ticket number three. I tut-tutted when a man complained there was only one person working, and agreed when a lady moaned about the cold wind outside.
Right there, in the Vietnamese embassy, I knew I was in the Netherlands. But when I stepped outside into The Hague again, I wasn’t so sure.