THE TRAIN to Den Haag Centraal pulls in past one of the largest greenhouses I have ever seen, a kilometre or more of blooms under glass. The land is flat and criss-crossed with neat drainage ditches and canals. I can’t escape the thought it is only borrowed temporarily from the North Sea. Nothing has come easily to the Dutch. It is a land where every field is made by hand, and you depend on a well-ordered infrastructure – and your fellow citizens – to survive.
As I walk from the station to the nearby centre, the streets of The Hague are as quiet as a museum. People do not raise their voices, a rare bicycle bell is tinkled politely, I see few cars. A funfair takes kids on a carousel but there is no screaming. Expensive cameras capture the moment, so it can be fully enjoyed in private at another time.
Around a corner, a crane is labouring to raise its load. Bright signage makes me think it must be a bungee jump but it is only lifting a cage full of spectators for a thrilling view from on high. As they get out, they congratulate themselves modestly on their bravery, a firm handshake taking the place of any high fives.
These events are part of a weekend of celebrations leading up to Prince’s Day, the third Tuesday of September, when the Dutch monarch reads a speech to the joint Houses of Parliament outlining the government’s plans for the year ahead. It is a tradition now just over 200 years old but the atmosphere out here today is more village fête than historic happening.
“We are officially the largest village in Europe because we never had city rights,” says art historian and city guide Remco Dörr. “The other cities surrounding us – like Rotterdam, Delft and Leiden – were afraid we would become too powerful. Being the capital was thought too much.
“Because of that we are different to other Dutch cities. We don’t have canals, because we were never a trading city. And we’re a coastal city, of course, one of the real sea cities of The Netherlands.”
Prince’s Day sees King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima ride in the Golden Coach from Noordeinde Palace to the Ridderzaal, the ornate “Knight’s Hall” that is the centrepiece of the gothic Binnenhof. This ceremony, accompanied by booming salutes from cannon and jingling cavalry escort, can distract the visitor from the reality that it is Amsterdam, not The Hague, that is the Dutch capital.
“The Hague is almost unique in being the seat of government but not the capital,” says Remco. “It was the home of the aristocracy and the burghers in places like Amsterdam were wary of them having too much power. The first King of The Netherlands [William I] needed money, so he made Amsterdam the capital because it was the richest city of the time. The Hague became the seat of government because the palaces were already here.”
The town grew from a small village supplying the Binnenhof, which was originally a 13th century royal hunting lodge. As befits a country whose king, queen and prime minister are all regularly seen riding their bikes in public, I can wander through the parliament buildings. I follow a school group through a doorway and find myself in the Ridderzaal itself (the ProDemos office across the road organizes more formal tours). The royal throne from which the king reads his speech is against one long side, like a church pulpit, with the queen’s throne standing beside and behind it.
The room is 26 meters high and its ceiling is made from Irish oak, pinned together with dowels but no nails. The hall was at one time a courtroom, and the beams are decorated with carved heads whose big ears supposedly reminded witnesses to tell the truth.
The ears – and eyes – of the world were on The Hague in 1899 when Tsar Nicolas II of Russia gathered 24 nations here for the First International Peace Conference. Germany and Britain were in an arms race that had left Russia struggling to keep up. “The Netherlands in those days was neutral – we were too small to fight anyone,” says Remco. “The Hague was also a good central location, you could easily reach it from England, France or Germany. It was a beautiful hamlet and his auntie was the former Queen Consort of The Netherlands; Anna Paulowna Romanov.”
The young Dutch Queen Wilhelmina, Anna Paulowna’s granddaughter, offered her Palace Huis ten Bosch as a venue. The conference put a brake on military expenditure and banned various new weapons, such as bombing from balloons, but also introduced the idea of using arbitration to settle international disputes.
The result was the decision to build a Peace Palace, funded by Scottish-American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie to the tune of $1.5million. The building is the home of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the first of many other such international bodies to follow, from the Permanent Court of International Justice – now the International Court of Justice – to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. As Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former Secretary-General of the UN, said: “The Hague is the legal capital of the world.”
THE PEACE PALACE is a mix of architectural styles, owing more to Carnegie’s American background than to any Dutch influences. Inside, it is a brash tribute to as many world cultures as possible, well meant but at times overwhelming. The large gardens are a welcome return to serenity. Outside is a touchingly informal World Peace Flame, surrounded by a strange assortment of rocks from 197 countries – looking more like your auntie’s rock garden than a major world symbol.
Nearby is another oasis of peace, the Mesdag Panorama. Hendrik Willem Mesdag’s vast painting depicts Scheveningen – The Hague’s nearby seaside resort – and is the oldest surviving example in its original location of the fad for such scenes that swept 19th century Europe. It shows a world very different to today yet recognizably Dutch. Flat-bottomed fishing boats are drawn up on the sand, and horse-drawn trams deliver passengers to the centre of what is still a small town. A grand hotel and even grander palace stand out from the spread of poorer houses.
It is an impressive work of art as well as a detailed record of a way of life that oozes the respectability and enjoyment of daily life that are still such features of the Dutch character. A video shows the fascinating technological challenge that went into restoring the painting in recent years, highlighting how much hard work and brainpower is hidden behind the orderly face shown to the outside world.
Scheveningen itself has moved on, with a line of beach bars, chic restaurants, exclusive clubs and other modern developments. In summer, men in linen trousers and women in floral dresses make for a scene that might be Ibiza, if not for the moody, muddy North Sea washing against the magnificent, three-kilometre-long beach.
In winter, a walk on the sands is best described as bracing but the sea always adds something special to the play of light in the sky, where high clouds lift the spirit.
Sand – and peat – defines much of The Hague. You do not have to be here long to hear of the social division into the wealthy, who built on the sandy soil near the coast, and the poor, relegated to the peaty soil inland. The division is marked by Weimarstraat, a long straight road still lined by houses that are noticeably less tall and grand than those to the west.
“Being high, dry and safe – above the water – is very important in The Netherlands,” says Remco. “The bogland is where the poor lived. The difference is still there: you are from the sand side or the peat side. It is not a class distinction – absolutely not. You are just born into it but the borderline is still there. In Amsterdam, you could have an artist start something somewhere and soon everyone would want to live in that neighbourhood. Not in The Hague, if it is not the right location.
“Both sides are proud of the city – or not: we are always complaining – but we can always tell which side someone is from. Nowadays, it is not marked by differences in clothing or whatever. I can hear it in the language.”
Back in The Hague, I take a stroll along the tree-shaded Lange Voorhout, lined with grand 18th century buildings. It is a lovely avenue, home to various embassies and the Escher Museum, Escher in het Paleis, a former royal residence. From here, I walk to the Hotel Des Indes, another palace of 1858 that is now a luxury hotel and popular spot for afternoon tea. It owes its first burst of fame to being the chosen residence for many attendees at that First International Peace Conference in 1899. The grand rooms with their high ceilings have since welcomed names such as ballerina Anna Pavlova, who died in the hotel, and entertainer Josephine Baker, who rented an extra room for her pet monkey.
THE HAGUE’S upmarket side is also on display in the Hofkwartier area of shopping streets around the Noordeinde Palace. Unlike proudly egalitarian Amsterdam, locals here seem to delight in the display of wealth. While the bicycles could be in any Dutch city, the riders are uniformly better dressed and their shopping bags are more likely to bear designer labels than the elsewhere ubiquitous logo of the Albert Heijn supermarket.
The shopping no doubt owes much to the history of rich hangers-on at court spending their money on fine things. Many shops bear the “Purveyor to the Court” mark of approval introduced by King William in 1815 that entitles them to display the Royal Coat of Arms and a discreet “By appointment to his Majesty the King” sign.
In a café for lunch, I watch the well-dressed elderly couple at the next table sip chilled white wines. He reads the newspaper, she texts on her gold iPhone. Across the road, in a designer jeweller’s, a young couple are choosing a ring. They are still there when I leave an hour later. The jeweller, impeccable in open-necked blue shirt and linen suit, holds an interested pose, one hand studiously to his chin. The husband-to-be fiddles with his sunglasses and tries to stop his attention wandering out the window, legs crossed and one expensive suede boot jiggling rapidly.
If The Hague has a gem, it is the Mauritshuis art museum. The perfect size and style for this city, it is housed in another former grand mansion – this one built by Count Johan Maurits of Nassau, who was governor of the colony of Dutch Brazil in the 17th century. He financed his home with the proceeds from Brazilian sugar imports, earning it the nickname of “Sugar Palace”. Its world-class collection of paintings is eclipsed by the fame of the “Girl with the Pearl Earring” (below). Dutch liberalism extends to allowing cameras into art galleries, so selfies are a constant sight in front of Vermeer’s masterpiece. Rembrandt, many of whose works hang nearby, might well understand. After all, he produced many self-portraits himself.
As the city’s many former palaces such as the Mauritshuis have been swallowed up by the passage of time, their gardens have helped produce a legacy of green spaces. “We’re the greenest city in The Netherlands, with one third of our space being parks and gardens,” says Remco. “There are foxes in my garden, yet I am still in the centre of town. We have the sea, so there is always fresh air. And we are not that big – only half a million inhabitants. There is this triangle in The Netherlands: everything is happening in Amsterdam, you work in Rotterdam, but you live and spend your money in The Hague.”
Not every change has been good. There are a number of newer buildings that are real eyesores, as in any modern city. But the skyline around the new railway station is striking, a compact area of skyscrapers in diverse style that has earned it the nickname of “Manhattan by the Sea”. Further out, grand designs have been thrown up to house government ministries and some of the international bodies, such as the avant-garde new home of the International Criminal Court.
There is enough variety to please any student of architecture, and some surprising hidden treasures. “I love showing people the alms-houses,” says Remco. “You do not think of them in The Hague but the aristocracy did something for poor people and built these beautiful alms-houses in the city centre. You go down a tiny alleyway and come into a lovely garden with these beautiful 17th, 18th and 19th century homes around them. We still have 115 of them in the city.
“And we are the art nouveau centre of The Netherlands. We were this little hamlet until about 1850 and then we started to grow rapidly. Around 1900, the nouveau riche started to build whole new neighbourhoods, while shopkeepers could afford to add new facades. Art nouveau was the fashion of that time, and a modern contrast to the Dutch classicism of the aristocracy.”
I end my visit with a coffee on Frederik Hendriklaan, an almost idyllic vision of what a shopping street should be. The kilometre-long “Fred” is lined with a wide range of handsome buildings, whose shop fronts open into fascinating bookstores and friendly butchers, chic boutiques and fragrant cheesemongers. Everyone has time to chat and there is a real community feel, of a village with pride in itself.
“The people of The Hague are friendly, a bit posh, and open-minded,” says Remco. ”Maybe it’s because of the sea, we can look to far horizons, but we are also a city of diplomats and foreigners.
“We are proud of being the second city of the United Nations. It fills us with pride to be the peace centre of the world.”