Leiden is a relaxed and charming university town a half hour train ride from Amsterdam. The old town is filled with canals lined with distinctive tall and narrow houses and the odd building or church of historical significance. It features 88 bridges, a few windmills, a significant number of pleasure boats, an array of cafes and restaurants fronting the water and an army of happy bike riders of all ages who are able to skilfully manoevre their bikes between pedestrians and cars. This is probably because Leiden only has a population of about 120, 000 and most tourists do not yet appear to have discovered it. No cruise ships or tour buses in sight so it is a quiet and peaceful town to explore even with a large busy market twice a week.
Everything in Leiden is within walking distance. An old Burcht or castle dating back to 1150 sits on a small hill and provides stunning views to gothic churches, university buildings, seventeenth century houses and plenty of spring trees in flower.
Rembrandt was born and lived in Leiden fo forty years. Although his original house was destroyed a newer version of the house has been converted into a museum.
The food scene in Leiden is driven by a quality market featuring fresh produce and very interesting fish especially the famous herring. Organic food looks to be popular and the breads and apple cakes certainly have a Dutch style.
Many historic buildings and houses dating back to the seventeenth century and before have been carefully maintained. Tall narrow houses fronting directly onto the canals somehow manage to stay upright but slightly crooked leaning against each other.
Religious pilgrims fled from England to Leiden in 1609 and an area called Pieterskerk has been carefully preserved. Many of these families later travelled to America as founding pilgrims including the Blosom family who were ancestors of Barack Obama. The English families remaining in Holland apparently changed their names into Dutch names such as from McRae to Makreel.
Leiden seems to take pride in its English connections. It is a twin city with Oxford and you can see hundreds of students riding their bikes with carefree abandon through the historic streets or chilling out with a lazy boat picnic along the water. Curiously a number of houses display poems and quotes from literary giants such as Goldsmith or Hemingway. One house featured all fourteen lines of a Shakespearean sonnet which prompted me to ponder life’s meaning with a touch of nostalgia.
Perhaps the most interesting thing for me about Leiden was how well the bicycle was used in the town. Tall sturdy bikes with baskets and child carriers were used to transport children, go shopping or go to work. So watching the rhythm of the bike riding and the gentle lapping of the water in the canals from a Dutch cafe made for a perfectly relaxing holiday break.