Netherlands – The City Of The Crossed Keys

DE Amicts, writing his classic on Holland a generation since, says: “Leyden, the antique Athens of the North, is one of those cities which make you thoughtful upon first entering them, and are remembered for a long time afterwards with a certain impression of sadness. I had hardly arrived when the chill of a dead city seemed to fall upon me. . . . In the smaller streets you walk upon long tracts of grass, between houses with closed doors and windows, in a silence as profound as that of those fabled cities where all the inhabitants are sunk in a supernatural sleep.”

We of another generation found it otherwise: gay, bright with clear-flowing waters, its streets filled with a varied, moving life, and the Old Rhine, over whose death in its decrepitude at Leyden and Katwyk De Amicis mourns throughout a whole doleful page, every-where in evidence as the busiest, most helpful and still most picturesque of rivers. Decidedly, in Leyden it is a case of old wine in new bottles — and good Rhine wine at that.

What life the river, even canalized as it is, gives to the town! How it individualizes it! What would the northern Athens be without its Rhine that, in its old age, has grown in grace of manner and courteously shows a stranger the way at every turn ? How honored it is with as many baptismal names as a prince of blood royal ! It is sociable and democratic as well. Make a companion of it for half a day, as we did, and experience how it will hedge you in with a high Rhine dyke on the one hand and a low Rhine dyke on the other; how it will delight you as the Old Rhine entering the city hard by the ancient Zyl Gate, and its blue eye remind you — just there as you lean upon the bridge to watch the river craft as they pass below you — that the force of its impetuous youth at Schaffhausen and its virile manhood beneath the shadow of Ehrenbreitstein are still with it. True, its strength is no longer concentrated; it is diffused throughout the length and breadth of the Netherlands as arterial blood to enrich and to strengthen.

It will entice you across the Rhine Bridge, and along the length of the Rhineburger Singel back to the Zÿl Gate, whence it will show you the vivacious Rhine Haven. You come, at last, to feel that you are at the mercy of the jesting Rhine that masquerades under a half-dozen aliases in the Low Countries; yet you cannot resent its surprises. Follow the Old Rhine. It lures you city-wards to the Fish Bridge. There you find the small lakelike expanse of the Still Rhine that holds you en-chanted in the very heart of ancient Leyden and all its neighboring charm of Stadhuis, Castle, Weigh House, Butter Market and St. Peter’s Church. If these do not hold you too long, the low colonnades of the Korenbeurs, or Corn Exchange, will show you a fine curve of the New Rhine that leads you on to the Rhine Quay, where, for a time, the river bids you farewell.

And well we fared! First to the Stadhuis which shows the touch of Lieven de Key, the architect stone mason of Haarlem whose hand graced every stone it touched. He is the Inigo Jones of the Netherlands.

“I’d like to make Leyden’s arms the world’s!” James exclaimed, as we lingered in the tapestried rooms. “Why Leyden’s, especially ?”

“Because those two crossed keys on the old Zÿl Gate are significant of so much. To me, one of them stands for the unlocking to the world of that seventeenth century of Dutch art that was made possible by those who possessed the key—Rembrandt van Ryn, Gerard Dou; Metsu, Mieris and Jan Steen, all of them Leyden’s sons. The other opened the door of that wonderful historic sixteenth century that stands among its fellows as the apotheosis of bravery, national, civic, personal — the bravery of the men, women, and little children of the Netherlands. But it’s too fine to waste a word on.” Therewith he grew clamlike, as his way is when he feels deeply.

I left him with his thoughts and walked again through the ancient suite of rooms unequalled, I believe, in Europe for the beauty of their wall-tapestries. They are a feast for the eye, these cool blue-greens — Holland’s own harmony of neutral tints — in the deep woodland vistas that are seen in the rare old pieces of Delft’s warp and woof. The contrasting golden lights in the ancient French Gobelins on one wall seem a forecast of that transfused atmospheric glory of the Barbizon School of painting.

Afterwards we climbed to the narrow encircling balcony above the belfry of the Stadhuis tower, and looked and looked, but could not look our fill. Beneath us rose in irregular collocation Leyden’s mass of huddling, red-tiled roofs, and in and out among them wound the dark blue ribbons of its water ways; the whole was set in the young green of springing grass lands. Above us the delicate, gray broach-spire towered to the wide-spreading cool grays of April’s changing skies. To the south, clear and dark against the horizon, the forest of The Hague showed the rounded crowns of its tree-tops thickening into foliage. To the left the square mass of the Old Church tower and the aspiring shaft of the New Church at Delft were silhouetted against the smoke-haze that, dim in the farthermost distance, gave us a blurred impression of Rotterdam.

Some pigeons hovering about the spire and flying low over the roofs beneath us completed the illusion: we were reliving with The Burgomaster’s Wife the story of Leyden’s travail of siege in that fateful 1574, as only Georg Ebers has been able to tell it.