THE NETHERLANDS THROUGH THE EYES OF A CALIFORNIAN LIVING IN MADRID

Destinations Other Than SpainTravel
By Sarah Skillen

 

Flying into Schiphol airport from Barajas, I was made immediately aware of one shocking change: the green

 

From the air, the Netherlands appears bathed in one of the richest shades of green that I have ever beheld. Growing up in Southern California and spending the summer in Madrid, I am accustomed to a dustier green, a green that has been sun-bleached and bronzed by dry, hot city breezes.

 

The countryside in the Netherlands, however, is almost turquoise, and it is not difficult to believe the legend of Hans Brinker, that noble lad whose story is even now used to teach children something about Holland, the water table, and/or self-sacrifice.

 

The train alone from Amsterdam to The Hague inspired flurries of delight over the serenity and astounding greenness of the place. I must have driven my companions insane with my incessant clamoring over “how green,” “how beautiful,” and again “how green” everything is in their homeland.

 

Arriving in The Hague, my attention to the greenness of the Netherlands was distracted by the architecture. I have spent many months of my life in Spain, Italy, and southern France, and have become rather inured to the grace of that architecture. Here was something new.

 

Plaza cafe at The Hague

Plaza cafe at The Hague

Gothic churches reigned over buzzing plazas, and canals wound lazy paths between dignified edifices that rose like red and white cliffs on either side. Our first stop was home, and here I was again shocked by gardens that have never seen a sprinkler and yet maintain a verdant hue that would put any California gardener to shame.

 

Aside from greenness and architecture, the city boasts the sumptuous shopping and cafés, which one comes to expect of any great European metropolis. In Spain, however, one walks…everywhere. In The Hague, I was perfectly convinced that the number of bikes must eclipse the actual population of the city.

 

Quintessentially Dutch: bicycles in bustling city centers and quiet neighborhoods

Quintessentially Dutch: bicycles in bustling city centers and quiet neighborhoods

My time in Madrid has made me a veritable acrobat in dodging Vespa’s, busses, pedestrians, dogs, and pamphleteers. However, my talents were nothing to the sixth sense possessed by the Dutch. Somehow, they manage to anticipate the silent approach of a bicycle and step nimbly from its path. I, on the other hand, managed to imperil the wellbeing of many a cyclist during my short stay.

 

After a stroll through the city and a succulent roast beef sandwich, we travelled by tram, train, and bus to the enchanting city of Utrecht. This city is beautiful, quaint, and everything one imagines, if one imagines anything, that a Dutch town should be.

 

To increase my fervor for this country, I was introduced to the fact that the Dutch are as enthralled with the concept of tapas as my fellow countrymen. Throughout Southern California, tapas are an insuperable obsession, and now the Netherlands also share in this enthusiasm.

 

My friends invited me to dinner at a tapas restaurant in Utrecht called Fuente Flamenca. Coming from Madrid, I was, of course, excited to experience the Dutch interpretation of this classically Spanish cuisine. It was marvelous!

 

On the canal in Utrecht, a bit of Spain, the Fuente Flamenca tapas bar

On the canal in Utrecht, a bit of Spain, the Fuente Flamenca tapas bar

Resting alongside one of those romantic canals that intersect this nation, Fuente Flamenca is a fantasy of syncretism. The caves under the city, which connect the houses above the road to the canals below, form the intimate and warm environment of this restaurant. Outside one may observe boats passing and diners alighting to eat in canoes and dinghies lashed to the edge of the canal.

 

My delight in the evening could only be increased by the sangria, which was at least as good as many of the pitchers I have enjoyed in the country of its invention. That evening was one of indulgence, incomparable conversation, and a biting wind which served as a constant reminder that, while the waiters were Spanish and the food was Spanish, the location was decidedly not Spanish.

 

However, it would be a lie to say that I was not at least fairly grateful for a brief change in temperature. After coping with 95 degrees Fahrenheit in an apartment without air-conditioning, I was more than happy to shiver a little. Still, the following day was a good deal warmer, though chilly when compared to that enjoyed by the Madrileños.

 

After waking to a sunny, cloud-speckled sky, we left for the beach. Again, my Californian soul surged with joy. Before me stretched a sparkling, deep-blue body of water which instantly reminded me of the Pacific in January. We walked along the shell-studded sands, watching families cavorting beside young children and dogs enraptured by the waves.

 

Boomerang, a restaurant-cafe-bar on the Scheveningen beach, The Hague

Boomerang, a restaurant-cafe-bar on the Scheveningen beach, The Hague

Once we were sufficiently chilled, we traversed the beach and began to survey the assortment of luxurious, beachfront restaurants which stretch cushioned benches and tables into the sand for the enjoyment of their patrons. We snuggled into one of these booths, surrounded ourselves with sun-drenched pillows, and ordered a round of hot chocolate.

 

The mixture of salt air and chocolate was like eating warm, salted caramels. Perhaps it is possible that I have had better hot chocolate, but in that moment any memory of it fled. The tall grass behind the restaurant swayed placidly, the waves played a gentle cadence, and techno dance music filled the air.

 

To my dismay, the hour of my departure continued marching steadily closer. I savored the last few sips of my beverage and prayed that our ride to the airport might be late, not too late of course but late enough that I might enjoy a few more minutes of the warm booth, bonfire, and hot chocolate on the beach.

 

However, no such tardiness was to be had, and I was promptly escorted from beach to airport with plenty of time to catch my flight. As the plane freed itself from the tarmac, I was again impressed by the greenness of the Netherlands but was also comforted by the castellano being spoken by my neighbors.

 

No stockpile of photos of famous monuments

No stockpile of photos of famous monuments

When I returned home to Madrid, my friends asked me what sights I had seen. It all seemed like a dream, and though I may not have pictures of great monuments or streets famous for their “illumination”, it is always my opinion that it is far better to gozar del momento than to stockpile photos of famous bronzes.

 

I lived the pleasures that my friends have discovered in that remarkable country. When one’s time is limited, as all time is, I believe that it is best to spend that time in savoring every sensation, in tasting the salt air mingled with bitterballen and debates over the virtues of Celsius versus Fahrenheit.

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Sarah has a BA from the University of Notre Dame, IN, magna cum laude. Majors: History, and Spanish. She’s a Phi Alpha Theta as well as Sigma Delta Pi.