Travel Stories

THE NETHERLANDS: This is The Hague

All the stories of people getting stranded by EasyJet flights in hot airports and there I was at St Pancras, in the Business Premier Lounge, staring into the dark brown eyes of my second pain au chocolate.

I was off to The Hague to celebrate 200 years of Mauritshuis Museum and tie together multiple museum and gallery visits. To say I was excited is an understatement, I’ve been waiting for this for years. I had loads of reasons to visit, and now, I have even more reasons to go back.

The Hague (or Den Haag, as the locals call it) is the most beautiful city, and fascinating too. A delightful blend of architecture and culture, with a big dose of world politics.

It’s where the King of The Netherlands lives and where the Dutch government is based (in the Binnenhof), it’s the centre of the United Nations International Court of Justice (in the Peace Palace), the International Criminal Court, Europol and hundreds of other international organisations.

The Hague demonstrates a glorious amalgamation of architecture through the ages – the skyline shows the high-rise buildings of the modern era, the Binnenhof and old square show it’s more medieval past, and, walking down the street you can look up and see fabulous Art Noveau details carved in stone – on one building snails cross underneath the windows, while frogs climb up the walls.

We popped into a tiny hidden church with amazing interior detail, peeked through the windows of beautiful shops (full of beautiful things), wandered through the public areas of the famous Hotel Des Indes, and gazed across the Hofvijver – the lake beside the Binnenhof.

Before spending some quality time with the Mauritshuis Museum we took the opportunity to take in some of The Hague’s other great cultural offerings.

A visit to Fotomuseum Den Haag to see Eiland, the first solo exhibition by Jeroen Hofman – photographs from cranes and helicopters, showing the islands of the Netherlands, sometimes stark, sometimes full of human interactions, but always captured with patient observation and composure.

Also on show was a Homage to Paul Blanca, displayed in a series of white rooms, flowing openly into each other. Starting with early work using models, and then moving into the more extreme work where Blanca used himself as the model because no one else was willing to put a real arrow through their cheek or stuff a live rat in their mouth. In the final room there’s a series of images of bull fighting, not particularly exciting in their composition, but intriguing because of their process – screen-printed in bulls blood.

We popped in to the Kunstmuseum and, time poor, we sprinted through the Alphonse Mucha exhibition, pointing and exclaiming. Not only was the exhibition great, and Mucha’s photographic studies really fascinating, but the Art Deco museum, designed by architect HP Berlage, is incredible in its own right.

We headed over to Voorlinden, driving by the Royal Residence and the American Embassy, under the squirrel bridge (yes, a bridge for squirrels, no, we didn’t stop, unfortunately) and passed the Louwman Museum of cars (where the collection is apparently displayed in a concours of colour coordination). Outside we swooned at the Piet Oudolf designed gardens, and inside we were uplifted by the new exhibition, Art is the Antidote, and permanent highlights such as Leandro Erlich’s Swimming Pool and James Turrell’s Skyspace. I then had a few moments of appreciation for Antony Gormley’s Clearing VIII as I watched people tripping and clanking through it, catching their ankles, clanging their heads.

Panorama Mesdag was an unexpected delight to behold, and I think you should go and behold it too. The first trippy hit of ‘whoa, that’s weird’ when I reached the top of the stairs and my eyes adjusted in the soft diffused light to take in the view, well, I don’t want to ruin it for you, but I think Mesdag was a wizard and you’ll just have to go and see for yourself.

Galerij Prins Willem V was another surprise, the first museum of The Netherlands, it’s a bit of a hidden gem in Den Haag, housing more that 150 Old Masters, displayed on silk covered walls in very traditional salon-style. It’s an intense insight, and very worthwhile.

Then a bird did a lucky poo on someones head and we went to Mauritshuis.

Mauritshuis is next door to the Binnenhof; at the back it meets the small lake, and at the front it greets its visitors with a magnificent façade. It’s walls are currently decorated with (sustainable) artificial flowers to create an Impossible Bouquet, much as the Dutch painters put flowers of every season in one vase, flowers from all seasons are added week on week and will continue to be added until the building is completely covered. In front of the building big flower boxes are filled with seasonal flowers such as tulips and daffodils, peonies and lupins, all inspired by the 1670 painting of Jan Davidsz de Heem, Vase with Flowers.

We had the chance to see the In Full Bloom exhibition before it closed, a beautiful showcase of floral still life paintings dating from 1600-1725, mostly painted by women. I also really liked the lighting and display panels.

Then we joined the international press conference for the opening of FLASH | BACK a ground-breaking exhibition for the museum focusing on the work of 16 Dutch and Flemish photographers who each chose an image or a space from the museum to respond to with new work.

Mauritshuis, home of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and so many other high profile paintings from the likes of Rembrandt, Jan Steen and Frans Hals, now houses new photographic work to be displayed alongside the Old Masters. I was interested to see how each photographer chose to work, and what they chose to respond to, but I was most struck by the work of Desirée Dolron and Stephan Vanfleteren.

And then there was the first Mauritshuis Mural, commissioned as part of the 200 year celebration, expertly executed by Collin van der Sluijs and Super A in the Morgenstond area, putting every other supermarket to shame and making the side of Lidl’s look wondrous.

We stayed in the Royal Quarter at voco The Hague, a light and airy hotel based in a former bank. The room was comfortable and peaceful. On the second night there was a storm, but even the alluring rumbles of thunder couldn’t entice me from the comfy bed nest I’d created.

There was a good breakfast selection (which did lure me from my bed nest) and lots of space to sit and wake up; quiet outdoor space too. And, another good thing (for me), the hotel bar had proper nightclub vibes with its purple mirrored pillars – I spent a hot minute beatboxing badly and calling club shout-outs, ‘Den Haag are you with meeeee!’ before I settled down for a nice ginger drink. I’d definitely stay there again.

Things to see and places to go :

I was a guest of, and travelled with, Visit Netherlands, along with a small group of lovely journalists. As always, my opinions are my own (and yes, of course I’m available to MC at your party, thanks for asking!)

If you’d like to keep up with what I’m up to work-wise (talks, events, exhibitions, that kind of stuff), you can find my Agenda on my website. And, if you’d like occasional updates about all sorts of other nice things, in your inbox, you can join my mailing list here.