Inside the local train from Amsterdam to Leiden, a city in the Dutch province of South Holland in the Netherlands, there was standing room only in the compartment. With my nose almost stuck to a woman’s armpit, I jostled for space, trying to edge away and swivel my neck. Some passengers sat on their cabin bags, others were trying to strike a balance between checking their cellphones and clutching their backpacks. I was on the last leg of a rather hectic journey and had decided to spend the two remaining days of the trip in what had been described as a quiet university town. I was wondering at that moment though if I had made a huge mistake.
Twenty minutes later, however, I was able to shove my way out of the train and watched as other passengers got off, smoothed their clothing and hair, unpacked their cycles (they had folded those carefully and chained them to the side of the compartment), and sped away. I, on the other hand, decided to take the bus, much to the bemusement of a lady standing at the stop. “It’s very near,” she exclaimed, when I showed her the address.
But, I was tired, and got on the bus she finally recommended. In another two minutes, I was deposited on a road by the side of a canal. My bed-and-breakfast host was waiting, and after a fortifying cappuccino, I recovered enough to step out. The canal seemed to divide the city, and I took a random left turn, walking along the path with other walkers and the boats in the canal, enjoying the sunset and the lights that were coming on gradually, illuminating the Gothic-style buildings of the university at a distance.
I followed a chattering group of people to a restaurant and over a dinner of grilled fish and wine, gazed at the buildings across the canal. Tables on the canal boats were filling up, and Leiden looked like mini-Amsterdam at that moment. I felt I could finally take a deep breath after a period of frenetic travelling, and fell into a dreamless sleep as soon as I walked back.
The next day, I walked to the city centre, and, at the tourist desk, asked for information. The young woman at the desk suggested taking a bus to the famous Keukenhof Garden and told me the bus was leaving in 10 minutes. I quickly walked across to the bus station — and realised the lady the previous day was right, it was indeed very close — and took Bus 854. The bus ride took us past tulip-strewn fields, until we reached the garden. Once in, I wandered around the manicured gardens with the mini-windmill, contrasting fields of tulips, orchids, and lilies in various colours and varieties, and a few installations amidst them. There were also four buildings, each named after the members of the Royal Dutch family and with a specific theme, such as orchids for one and tulips for another.
After a couple of hours, when I felt I couldn’t possibly take any more photos, I took the same bus back to the Leiden city centre. This time, I walked across to the windmill I had noticed the previous evening. It turned out to a windmill museum, De Valk. After paying a token amount, I stepped inside and watched a movie about the history of windmills, walked across rooms preserved as if the miller’s family was still living in them, viewed models of previous versions of the various windmills in the city (some destroyed during the Spanish invasion) and equipment across the ages, and walked up the stairs to the roof. Gazing at the city of Leiden through the spokes of the windmill, with the wind buffeting my face, gave quite a high. Finally, I climbed down and decided to scout for lunch.
I found a restaurant, Out Leyden, which had pancakes on the menu, and opted for pineapple flavour. The pancake turned out to be a giant one, and I decided to walk off the butter-laden pancake afterwards. I made a slow circuit of the hofjes (houses with a common inner courtyard meant for the poor, widows, and elderly, dating from the Middle ages), the other windmill that is still used as a port, and the plaza dedicated to the painter Rembrandt, the city being his birthplace. Throughout the walk, I came across poems inscribed in various languages — sometimes at the end of the alley, or on a building at the corner, or the middle of the canal wall, adding a rare flavour to the city.
I then noticed the mullioned windows of a church, and although it was almost closing hours, the reception staff allowed me to go in. I was in Pieterskerk, the church named after Saint Peter. Inside, the high ceilings, double organ, and stained-glass windows glowed in the fading sunset, and I wandered around, reading about the group of travellers from England who took refuge in Leiden in the 17th century, and then emigrated to the United States a few years later, thus becoming a part of the founding fathers of America. It was strange to think how troubles and losses have prevailed across the ages, and yet so has hope.
As if to prove my musings right, just as I was about to turn in for the day, I saw a poem on the wall next to my B&B. It was one of Shakespeare’s sonnets (“Sonnet XXX”) and seemed like an apt ending of my trip. After all, as long as there is poetry in life and cities that paint those on walls, one can, in fact, still hope for sorrows to end.
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