Netherlands – Gouda, Utrecht, Amersfoort

WE wanted to see the other Lake Country of the Netherlands that lies southwest of Leeuwarden; we wanted to see Kampen and its gate, one of the oldest in the country, but we knew that in six weeks, at most, midsummer would be upon us and the time to enjoy the Netherlands is in the spring and June. Then if one travel by canal, vaart, or river, he may avoid fetid waters made tepid by the August sun, as well as all the sights and sounds incident to water travel along the highways on which a whole population lives and moves and has its being in a very literal sense. The canals are the dumping grounds for the inhabitants of kof and tjalk, who keep house on them, and use the canal, or river, for both front and back dooryard. Everything of waste goes “overboard.” Add to this condition of things the fact that the dwellers on land utilize the waters, that wash their very thresholds, for all domestic purposes, and one can readily understand that a great portion of the Netherlands should be seen, as we saw it, in order to hold the land as a charming permanence of recollection and remembrance.

We found we must give up some plans that were dear to us if we were to spend much of the glorious prime of the warm season in Zeeland, and to see what was of particular interest to James: the great Rhine country of the Low Lands in its entire length and breadth. To accomplish this in the time at our disposal, we found, much against our inclination, that we must make use of travel by land as well as by water.

Oom Kees, or Uncle Corney, our first mate, an out and out old sea-dog and a genuine Zeelander, kept telling us we were missing so much in spending our time in the “country,” as he called with some contempt every acre of solid ground out of Zeeland, and the Captain kept writing us such cordial notes of encouragement to leave Kampen and Drenthe for “another time” and be off to the sea islands and their June glory, that we finally yielded to the pressure brought to bear on us and directed Oom Kees and his nephew-captain to leave us at Enkhuizen, and take The Broomstick by the shortest cut to Nÿmegen in Gelderland. We purposed to meet them at that place. Moreover there were Ben Hardon and the girls to be considered. Five minds can never be as two, and James and I knew that we could no Ionger follow our way in everything, if the comfort and satisfaction of our guests were to be considered.

We had planned another trip which we had to give up — for that time: to sail from Leyden again by the way of the Old Rhine to its junction with the Gouw, and follow that along its length to Gouda. Our Dutch friends told us it was one of the most beautiful water ways in Holland. But we had to compromise and take Gouda in the usual way: that is, as other people have taken it, by rail. The country all about it is uninteresting, and an anti-climax after the beautiful meadows and farms of North Friesland.

The waters of the Yssel at Gouda are bright and clear-flowing. In this queer land where a river may run both ways, bifurcating without a watershed and apparently without complicating nature, the Yssel is a good servant to both the Old Rhine and the Maas. There is one portion of the town that these waters brighten which is like a scene depicted in some stained glass window within a mediæval church. It is this special locality that one makes the journey by rail to see: the MarketPlace, the group of houses near by and the Groote Kerk which they surround.

Of all the innumerable groote kerks in the Netherlands the Groote Kerk of Gouda seems to be the grootest. It is so great that you cannot find it for a while. This is literally true. To be sure, one can see the tower if one can stand off at the distance of a mile; a portion of it may be seen at certain angles of vantage from different and distant parts of the town; but the church cannot be seen.

There are two or three approaches all of which lead round and about and anywhere except to a point from which one can see this Groote Kerk. One wonders at last if some necromancer architect built it only that some small portion might be seen in an eluding perspective: a window, a chapel, an entrance beneath the belfry tower.

“As a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings;” that was my thought as I stood in the curiously irregular passage which is called Achter de Kerk, Behind the Church. The Groote Kerk of Gouda seems to brood the little houses that have settled so thick and close about it. Their tiny ancient gables, not one of which is more than twelve feet wide, lean to one another and are hung with heavy ivy. All about the church there are tiny squares and passages and courts and curving lanes, a willow green canal, a bridge, a small terrace set round with these mediaeval dwellings, all of which are overshadowed by the ponderous mass of the Groote Kerk. One realizes, as one walks around it, what a sense of protection it must have given throughout the centuries to the dwellers in the shadow of its walls.

But it is when one steps within, that one pauses in amazement. The great round arches, the circular pillars, the barrelled vaulting, the magnificent stained glass windows stamp this interior as a national monument. One finds, not the house of worship, but the Pantheon of the Netherlands. One must go to Milan, to Antwerp, to see the equal of the forty windows. All this land is in them: its armorial bearings, its municipal arms, ancient Gouda with her device, per aspera ad astra, the siege of Leyden and of Haarlem. We may reconstruct from the former the city and its ramparts, its gates and walls, the gathering of its citizens and troops for defense. Haarlem, also, is here, its towers, its portcullises, its ships and shallow surrounding water — a window all smoked topaz, burnt amber, and chalcedony. It is a rare example of the tints used before the general introduction of stained glass colored like an artist’s palette. These two score windows show forth sacred history, as well as profane, and afford examples of the most curious pantheistic tendencies. We find in them dogs, swans, birds, fruits, flowers, Jerusalem, the clear blue of foreign skies, Catholic rites, St. Peter’s keys, the keys of Leyden, and Christ driving the money-changers out of the Temple. This last is a gift of William the Silent. As I looked at it, it seemed as if he had spoken from out the centuries: “I, being dead, salute thee.”

This church, like many others in the Netherlands, is undergoing a partial restoration; stones, brick, mortar, scaffolding, pulleys obstruct the views. But, mutilated as the interior is, there is enough of perfection left to prove to us how great was the power of art in the middle of the sixteenth century, how fine the work in glass, not duplicated in the Low Countries, of the two artist brothers, Wouter and Dirck Crabeth, and to show us, also, something of the departed glory of the Netherlands.

The marketplace is far from being a commonplace square for traffic; it is delightfully uncommon. Where else would you look for a perky little Stadhuis as Dutch as it can well be, yet flourishing all over with a Renaissance that brings a smile to your face ? Where else can you find a meat-market beneath just such a little Town Hall ? Where else can you see a flock of Dutch school children ornamenting a Renaissance outside staircase, and playing tag all over the steps ? Where else can you see a Weigh House with such a beautiful piece of sculpture on its façade that it could be mistaken for a Town Hall ?

Gouda is nothing if not compact, and the life and interest of the town centre in its market-lace. The waters of the Gouw and the Yssel touch its streets into a kind of placid brightness, and in the midst its Groote Kerk broods throughout the centuries over the ancient gabled houses above which it looms.

James and I came to the conclusion that those who attempt to see every market-place, every town hall, every museum, every church, “old” and “great,” in the Netherlands, must in the end find themselves subject to a martyrdom fully as tedious, if not quite as exacting, as that to which those who suffered through the Inquisition were subjected. We did not attempt this, nor did we wish to, and, as a result, we saw certain things in towns and cities which characterized the places so perfectly, that they remain with us in memory as individual: Leyden and its Rhine and Zyl Gate, for instance, or Alkmaar and the approach to its Weigh House. So with Utrecht. We went to see the curves and sharp-angled bends and reaches of two great canals the Oude and Nieuwe Gracht. James calls them “double-deckers.”

Just here I may be permitted a word or two about the general plan of Dutch cities and towns. M. Havard has set it forth in his chapter on Amsterdam; but as I have seen for myself, and been able to compare one city and town with another, I may, perhaps, be allowed to express what I found in my own way, and without reference to him. They have a general plan owing to their middle-aged heredity. The Groote Kerk or Oude Kerk, the Market-Place, the Town Hall, the Weigh House and a big canal form the nucleus. If the town hall is not on the market-place it is generally within a stone’s throw. Religion, Justice and, I will use James’ word just here, “Grub” are the factors of the Dutch civic trinity that extend the hand to one another.

This nucleus was in olden times walled for defense; a moat surrounded the walls. A water-gate gave entrance into the town, and the canal that led to the market-place. A drawbridge — and by “drawbridge” the Dutch under-stand the bridges that are hoisted, the others are the “swingbridges” — connected the town with the country-side. As the city or town increased in area and population, the moats, canals, and ramparts became streets. The changes that the centuries wrought in the development of a city came to be almost literally reflected in its inland waters. A voorburg, or fortification before the town walls, was added; that, too, must have a wall. After two or three generations, the city, having outgrown its limits, took in the voorburg, wall and all. At last we find in the heart of the present Amsterdam the voorburgwals! Now and then a canal, or a moat, was filled in, and the trace lost save for the name which endures.

As a result of this necessary and systematic evolution, we get a Dutch fortification nomenclature, technical in its way, to serve for the identification of streets at the present time. Take for a most, perfect example, old Amsterdam. Its heart was the Damrak — a commercial water way — that, with the Oude Kerk, Stadhuis, Markt, and City Scales (perhaps the very ones from which Rembrandt van Ryn saw and sketched the ruined tower of the Stadhuis), formed the nucleus of the city. This may serve for prototype of all the others. About this centre we find to-day the great water thoroughfare of the Oude Zyds Yoorburgwal, the ancient barbacan-wall;the filled-in Nieuwe Zyds Voorburgwal, the modern barbacan-wall; one sees this, as it was, in the illustration facing page 169 ; the Oude Schans, or old entrenchment; the grachts, or moats; the sin gels, or outer walls ; the vest, or surrounding wall. In these words you find the epitome of a Dutch city, or large town. Add to this civic glossary kade, quay, vaart, passage (water), veer, a ferry, haven, and poort, a gate — whether water, cow, abbey, or prison; throw in a fish-bridge, a butter-ditto, and a koren-beurs,or corn-exchange, and with this vocabulary you can find your way about any city and town in the Netherlands. I forget — the word picture is not complete without a molen-slop, or mill-lane.

The characteristic of one city may be its marketplace, of another its stadhuis, of a third its canals, of still another its singels, of a fifth its poort, but with every year and the work of the Iconoclast Time, the gates are becoming hard to find. We went to Utrecht to see its great Grachts, old and new, and for what remains of its ancient Dom, or cathedral.

The country about Utrecht was uninteresting compared with what we had seen in the north. It is a great fruit and poultry producing province. No wonder that Melchior d’ Hondecoeter and his uncle, Weenix, one born in Utrecht and one making his home there for a while, felt the influence of the environment and painted incomparable poultry, fruits, and game! But James and I cared little just at that time for these two masters, or even for Jan van Scorel, whose Pilgrims to Jerusalem are all to be seen here. We preferred to linger on Utrecht’s famous bridges from which, owing to the sharp-angled bends of the Oude Gracht and Nieuwe Gracht, one obtains the finest views of the imposing cathedral tower.

We wandered the length of the two Grachts, two principal canals that wind through the city far below the level of the streets; so far, indeed, that there is a subterranean city of shops and warehouses beneath the pavements, the doorways of which open on a level with the canal. Here and there a tree is seen springing in all its fresh green from the city’s basement! A curious effect, a “double-decked” arrangement as James said, and one not to be duplicated, of a city above ground, a city below ground, a canal at the bottom of everything serving as water way for both, and upper and lower town connected by flights of shaky wooden steps!

I know of no more imposing and effective grouping than is afforded by these bridges, canals, fish-market and old cathedral tower as seen from the Stadhuis-Bridge. If one looks below, one may see beneath the black arch the swans floating on the shadowed water. But in this city of a hundred thousand inhabitants, one has to seek far if he would find anything ancient beyond the Grachts, the Dom, and the aged-looking Buurkerk.

This patriarchal bishopric of Utrecht clasps hands with the German Hildesheim, far away across the heaths, on a spur of the Harz Mountains. The same emperors ruled them, the same faith animated their artists in wood and stone. Hildesheim, after a thousand years, still had its famous rosebush and its antique bronzes that Bishop Bernward, the artist-souled shepherd, left as a beautiful legacy of Christian faith in works. Utrecht, after thirteen hundred years, has a cathedral tower several hundred years old to mark the spot where stood the first church of which Willibrodus was made bishop. In the worn pavement of the choir we find the two small stones, under which lie the hearts of two German Emperors. You may find the spot by the double-headed eagles cut in those stones. One thinks a thought or two, in such surroundings, of past and fallen glory. A walk in the cloisters showed us some very beautiful detail of sculpture, and gave us a glimpse of what is rarely seen in the architecture of the Netherlands: the flying buttresses, in the present case with a slight ornamentation, which enhances, without obscuring, the beauty of their curving grace.

The tower still stands, one of the few finished ones in the land, strong in its massive strength, and fine in its noble proportions. The nave is gone, destroyed by a great wind in the seventeenth century, but the apse remains, and there we saw in the enormous yet delicately fascicled pillars, crowned with varied and beautifully carved capitals, an intimation of the departed grandeur of the perfect whole.

“I don’t understand the Dutch!” James exclaimed, as we sat in the one-horse car, and were trundled with a fierce clanging of bells under and through the fine arch upon which rests the noble tower. “With their love of country and their pride in its art, why don’t they pre-serve the monuments that are left from desecration ? The idea of running a horse-car under that pretty nearly sublime archway! It’s on a par with the belittling of their groote and oude kerks by plastering their sides with a lot of miserable little tenements and shops, like mud-swallows’ nests against a barn. You can’t find the beauty of half the architectural lines because they are hidden by these pygmy monstrosities. Look how they permit desecration in other and unmentionable ways!

There should be a state law against it. It just goes to prove what I am constantly feeling, that the Dutch lack, as a nation, a certain delicacy of intuition that prevents among them a comprehension of the Ideal. When will they wake up to the fact that they are too self-sufficient ?”

This was a long speech for James, and I knew, by that same token, that his very soul was tried within him. I agreed with all his sentiments to which he gave such emphatic expression.

“Talk about the Iconoclasts!” I responded, as the Dom Tower dodged from view behind some small houses; “there is just as much iconoclasm now in the way they neglect their works of art, or demean them by such parasitic nuisances. I’d like to have a general house-of-worship cleaning throughout the Netherlands. Perhaps then a lover of the beautiful might enjoy these noble monuments of a noble worship without a feeling of disgust at every turn of a wall or cloister.”

Continuing this righteous and grumbling duet, we got out at the Cattle Bridge, and paid a visit — not an unusual occurrence — to the old men and women, the city’s charges, who go to their long home from out the walls of a former dwelling for nobles! This old patrician building is now a Home for the Aged. It is a pleasure to see the care with which these old people are surrounded. They were having their four-o’clock coffee and bread when we were there. The whole place was immaculate; the kitchen a study in shining pewter.

Above, the comfortable beds were curtained in snowy white, thus insuring privacy to each occupant of the dormitory, that may once have been a nobleman’s banqueting hall for the Spanish roisterers of the time of Charles the Fifth.

On our short trip from Utrecht to Amersfoort I found that James was impatient to be upon the water, and pace — if such a dignified word can be used in this connection — once more the unpretending deck of The Broomstick. He was actually homesick for that green boat and its crew! He had learned half his Dutch from Oom Kees as he smoked a sociable pipe with him at the tiller. I, too, had a longing to see the cozy cabin once more, although I had been absent from it but a few days, to give my frugal orders to Neeltje, and to make acquaintance with the adopted cur that James had christened Lump, which is good German for ragamuffin, scoundrel, or scamp, as one may select. James said he was all three, and deserved the name if ever a dog did.

But, despite our longings, we were bound to visit Amersfoort, if only for a day. We could hardly be said to have been through the Gates of the Netherlands, if we had omitted its Koppelpoort, or Water-Gate. More-over, it has its tower, Tower of old St. Mary’s, all that is left of a great church. It still stands beside the sluggish waters of the Langengracht that drags its lazy length from one end of the town to the other.

Amersfoort, taken as a whole, is not beautiful, not attractive; but there are three portions of it which, once seen, remain in the memory as indelible pictures of incomparable charm. Follow the Langengracht past the many private footbridges and their miniature portcullises, locked against strangers, until you are fortunate enough to find one unbarred. As quickly as possible, poach on that special preserve and enjoy one of the loveliest sights in the whole land — all the more enjoyable because it is a stolen glimpse of paradise. Before you winds the narrow canal, shaded by trees on both sides, hedged with bushes, walled with bright gar-dens; it is as green as beryl from the reflected foliage. On your right, and very near you, the most perfect example of Gothic architecture in the country, Our Dear Lady Tower, rises three hundred and twelve feet above the green waters. It seems to me that with these two statements enough is said. The detail of low, crowded gables beneath it, of the bloom of hawthorn in the gardens, of the green of lindens and of the flower-set cones of horse-chestnuts at its base, must be left to the imagination.

We left the tiny bridge to wander farther to the Binnen Gracht and the West Singel; and afterwards when we returned to it, hoping to have one more look at that perfect tower, the small gate was locked! If it had been possible, I am quite sure the bridge would have been drawn up and the portcullis lowered. “Each man in his castle” is the Dutchman’s motto, even if the castle be but a tiny gabled house on the Langengracht of Amersfoort. We turned back to the Binnen Gracht and the West Singel; to The Beck and Monnikkendam — Dam of the Monks. I fancy that was a part of their regular work in the old time, the building of dams to save their lives from a watery grave.

These four small, but surpassingly beautiful water ways within the town form the arms of a Greek cross. The centre is composed of a bridge and a triangular water-space in lieu of a square. To the left — the left arm of the cross — is the green-arched, narrow canal, The Beck. Spanning it in the near perspective is the Monnikkendam, a lovely gateway with two towers capped with extinguishers like the East Gate of Delft. They are half hidden by the foliage, and suggest their beauty rather than outline it. On the right stretches the Binnen Gracht, and crossing these two at right angles is the West Singel — all of them watery bowers of spring beauty.

In the truncated angle made by the West Singel and the Binnen Gracht stands a stately house, set in a lawn that slopes to the water’s edge ; on it a magnificent copper beech spread its bronze shadows. In the fore-ground white hawthorn stood in full bloom, and flushing the lawn here and there were great masses of full-blossomed damask-rose rhododendrons. Across the canal, above the dense rounded cones of some pink horse-chestnuts, the huddled roofs of Amersfoort showed their confusion of gables, and, beyond them, rose over all the Gothic reaching grace of Our Dear Lady Tower.

“You may search the world over for the equal of that `much in little’!” said James.

When we could leave this spot, we walked on to the Koppelpoort. This gate is shown in the illustration as it stands to-day, and a word of description would de-tract from the truth of the actual. Of the double-walled and many-gated Amersfoort of the Middle Ages, there is but this one relic — this and the Kamperbinnenpoort, which is wedged into the buildings of the town in a manner impossible to get at satisfactorily.

Long may the Koppelpoort stand to rejoice others from a foreign shore as it rejoiced us! This ancient Water-Gate of Amersfoort saw the birth of the land’s greatest patriot, after William of Orange: Van Olden Barneveld. It is not a far cry to that other mediæval portal, the Gevangenpoort, or Prison Gate, of The Hague, near which he suffered death. Thus, upon the Alpha and Omega of a noble patriot life, these two famous Gates of the Netherlands clasp hands.