I went to Holland last week to visit three universities. The first was in Utrecht:
Truth be told, the college I went to see (University College Utrecht) was on the outskirts of town, in an area that felt nearly suburban. There’s not much to see nearby, though I did have an excellent open-faced mushroom sandwich at Het Oude Tolhuys down the street.
The best part of my Utrecht trip was visiting my cousins Cockie and Atie, who live less than half an hour away in the village of Leersum. Atie and I went walking in the woods together at Parc Broekhuizen, which houses a 15th-century estate that was rebuilt following a fire in 1906.
The estate was turned into a nature center in the 1970s, and my great-uncle worked there for a while. Now it’s a very fancy hotel.
In some sort of wonderful compromise, the public is welcome to wander around the surrounding woods.
I had a huge amount of fun with my cousins.
After my visit to Utrecht, I took a long drive down to the town of Middelburg (the Netherlands looks like a small country on the map, but the drive from the middle down to the bottom took me a solid two and a half hours). I arrived well after dark and was rewarded with this view from the skylight in my Airbnb bedroom:
In the morning as the sun was rising, that same tower looked like this …
Once I made my way into town, I found that the tower forms the top of the old Middelburg town hall (staathuis in Dutch):
Unfortunately, the Germans nearly leveled this building during bombardments in 1940. So much of what you see here is an elaborate reconstruction of the Gothic 15th-century exterior. The building now houses University College Roosevelt, which made it the perfect background for a small but merry of college counselors from Singapore:
Sitting just a few kilometers from Belgium, Middelburg is the capital of the province of Zeeland, in the southwestern-most corner of the Netherlands. The seal of Zeeland (which shows a lion rising from the sea, surrounded by Latin words that say “I struggle and I emerge”) is everywhere:
This is a charming town, complete with moats and canals …
… traditional Dutch houses …
… gates in the town walls …
… and an old abbey …
… with some wonderful architectural features:
I found the whole place delightful; it’s surprisingly lively for a town of only 50,000. It has a few very active shopping streets with cute stores and boutiques. I also had one of my best meals of the trip — a “Zeeuwse salade” with greens, poached apples, some special kind of Zeeland ham, and walnuts — at the Brasserie de Drukkerijj right on the main square.
Unfortunately, my next college visit — back up the coast another two hours — meant that I couldn’t stay long. But at the end of another drive, I was lucky to find myself at a charming guest cottage in the village of Warmond.
This cottage sat right across the street from the Huys de Warmond, an estate that has its origins as a fortified farm from the 14th century. It later became the residence of the “gentleman of Warmond” (that’s the finest Google Translate has to offer), and his 18th-century mansion still remains.
It even has a moat!
There are trails all around the estate (I am grateful to Holland for having so many public walking areas next to their old castles). These trails had great views of windmills …
… and gnomes:
Yes, that’s right — there was a gnome (and other assorted woodland creature) party going on in a small clearing between the castle and the park entrance. This is, in fact, just as strange as it sounds.
Aside from easy access to this rather amazing walking area, my Airbnb was most notable for its free bikes!
These made it possible for me to ride into Leiden University (Universiteit Leiden, or UL) and feel like a real Dutch commuter. If you ever make your way to campus, here are three things worth knowing about Leiden U:
1) My Oma and Opa (my maternal grandparents) went there!
2) One of UL’s buildings used to be the town prison.
Out toward the old execution yard, the prison wall is lined with an assortment of creepy faces:
We had our morning college counselors’ introductory meeting inside the old prison building, where we were able to visit the cells (they’re now used as breakout rooms…).
If you’d served time in that particular cell (or if you find yourself in a breakout meeting today), you could have spent your term contemplating this cheerful painting:
3) Leiden University has a “sweatbox,” a room where students used to sit and wait for the results of their graduation exams. Students would enter through this door with artwork from 1865 (and a line above that translates to here he sweated but not in vain):
Once inside, the candidates would wait in this room:
At some point, every single student who waited in this room signed his or her name to the wall. This means that my grandparents’ signatures are probably buried under hundreds of others by now, but I still love the idea that they might be in there somewhere. And if I really wanted to spend a lot of time looking for a needle in a haystack, Leiden has a Digital Sweat Room with a 360 degree photo!