Fun Facts About Leiden

Fun fact #1: You can get pancakes that are bigger than your head. Seriously — these things are huge:

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I had this pear and whipped cream pancake at Pannenkoekenhuys Oudt Leyden, a restaurant that has been serving perfectly thin pancakes on blue and white plates since 1907.

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Fun Fact #2: The first Dutch tulip was planted in Leiden, right here in the Hortus Botanicus Leiden.

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You can’t see any tulips in November — they’ve probably only just finished putting the bulbs in the ground — but it was amazing to be in the place where all of the excitement began.

The first tulip bulbs in Europe were brought here in 1593 by a botanist named Carolus Clusius, a then newly-appointed Leiden University professor who had received them as a gift from Sultan Suleyman I of the Ottoman Empire. For the first forty years, the planting of tulips in Holland was no big deal. But in 1634, the flower (or the bulb, to be more precise) burst on the economic scene as an item of rampant speculation, leading to “tulip mania,” the world’s very first speculative bubble.

If you want to read more about this, I would recommend The Tulip: The Story of a Flower That Has Made Men Mad, by Anna Pavord; Michael Pollan also does an excellent job of covering it in The Botany of Desire. For tulip-related fiction, I’m a fan of The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas (of Three Musketeers and Count of Monte Cristo fame), though it’s only loosely connected to tulip mania.

Fun Fact #3: Leiden is known for the eponymous leidse kaas, or Leyden cheese, a semi-hard cheese made with cumin. Yummy! In the picture below, you can see wheels and sections of leidse kaas on the bottom left:

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I love cheese shops in Holland. This one is De Fransoos Cheese & Delicatessen, where they offer the valuable service of vacuum packing your cheese for shipping.

Fun Fact #4: The Pilgrims hung out here before they departed for the New World. This is the church where they worshipped:IMG_5895.jpg

The Pieterskerk (St. Peter’s Church) was built over a period of 180 years, from 1390 until roughly 1570. The multiple phases of construction means that as you walk around it, you notice different building materials and styles.

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The building is no longer consecrated as a church, so it has no pews. And the stained glass windows were mostly destroyed during the Beeldenstorm, or Iconoclastic Fury (I love that translation) of the Protestant Reformation; a gunpowder explosion in 1807 took care of what stained glass remained. As a result, the interior space feels bright and eerily empty:

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The only real decorations are the traditional Dutch chandeliers.

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Still, there are plenty of interesting things to see inside. They have a copy of the Mayflower Compact …

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… a memorial plaque to the pastor of the Mayflower Pilgrims (who stayed back in the Netherlands while a small group of his followers headed off to Plymouth Plantation)…

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… amazing carved gravestones in the church floor …

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… and plenty of skulls:

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Fun Fact #5: Leiden University, dating back to 1575, is home the oldest university in the Netherlands. William of Orange awarded this institution to the city in thanks for its heroic resistance to the Spanish (we could spend a lot of  time discussing the many centuries of Dutch oppression by the Spanish; here, suffice it to say that Spain was deeply unhappy with the Dutch participation in the Protestant Reformation).

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That building is the Academiegebouw, a former convent that was secularized during the Reformation and then repurposed by the university. I have more on other university buildings here.

Fun Fact #6: Because of a huge economic decline from the late 1600s until the mid-1800s — which meant that no one wanted to build anything new there — Leiden has the second largest 17th-century town center in the Netherlands (Amsterdam has the largest). You’ll find wonderful narrow streets with old buildings, including churches (here, the first Catholic church built in the city after the Reformation)…

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… and houses…

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… and a city hall whose facade dates back to 1597:

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Fun Fact #7: Leiden has lots of canals. In fact, after Amsterdam (this seems to be a theme), Leiden has the most waterways of any Dutch city.

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Fun Fact #8: The city of Leiden started a Wall Poems project in 1992.

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Walk around the city and look up, and you can find poems by William Shakespeare, Langston Hughes, Pablo Neruda, E.e. Cummings, Frederico Garcia Lorca, W.B. Yeats, and more. The languages span the globe, from Dutch and Swedish to Mandarin and Japanese. They are now up to 110 poems and counting.

Fun Fact #9: Leiden has windmills! You can read all about these in an earlier blog post.

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Fun Fact #10: If you bike less than ten minutes north of the center city, you can be in fields surrounded by sheep and cows:

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And if you don’t want to leave the city, you can just admire this random sheep on a wall!

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