Tuesday 5 October 2010

Leiden, stad van mijn hart...

The major anniversary in Europe on the 3rd of October may have been the Tag der deutschen Einheit ("Day of German Unity"), but the small city of Leiden marked the anniversary of Leidens Ontzet in a big way this weekend.

Leidens Ontzet.

Leidens Ontzet, of the Relief of Leiden, marks the relief of the city over 400 years ago when it was besieged by the Spainish during the Dutch struggle for independence. As a reward for the Leideners' courage in resisting the Spanish, they were given a choice of exemption from taxes or a university, and they chose a university, so the anniversary is an important date in the University's history too. This year the 3rd fell on a Sunday, so the celebrations were spread out over the weekend, with Monday as a holiday for the city.

The scale and duration of the festival was impressive. The kermis (fun fair) was open during Friday and Saturday, and was crammed into the area surrounding the train station, taking up any available space. On Saturday bars and stages were set up all over the city, so when night fell the city turned into a strange mix of overlapping discos, complete with lights and a worrying over-use of smoke machines. The remaining space was filled with stalls selling sweets, snacks and, well, pretty much everything as a Christmas market array of goods was put on sale - DVDs, clothes, art...

Of course, you had to eat Hutspot at some point. Hutspot is the traditional Leiden Ontzet dinner. It's made of potato, onions and carrot mashed together with some meat (usually sausage, but mine had beef). There seem to be a few versions of the Hutspot story. The most simple explanation is that it was what the people ate to stave off starvation during the siege, but other stories involve a boy who was sent out to check that the Spanish had left when the siege broke. The boy either discovered the Hutspot bubbling away in a pot the Spanish had left behind, or the food he gathered into the pot he brought back with him was used in the meal. In any case, De Lakenhal has a pot on display that is supposed to be the origin of the Hutspot. It's not exactly the most visually attractive dish, but it doesn't taste as bad as it looks!

On Sunday, marching bands ruled Leiden, putting on shows and, naturally, playing music. On Monday, Leideners gathered beside the townhall (Stadhuis) at 6.30am to sing songs before eating raw herring and white bread (food that the relieving Dutch troops brought to Leiden). Lots of people turned up for the event and lyrics were handed out so everyone could sing along as dawn broke. I was surprised how serious people must take the festival to turn up in such numbers early in the morning (and probably after a festivally unhealthy amount of alcohol), but there was lots of chatting, with bursts of singing as the musical cues radiated out from the centre (I was quite close to the edge of the gathering). The singing was ended by a procession through the town (lead by a marching band, of course), and marching bands generally played throughout the city for the rest of the morning and afternoon. I didn't get to try the raw herring and white bread (haring en wittebrood) since by the end of the singing there was already a long queue snaking halfway down the road along the canal. The day ended with a colourful fireworks display.

Dutch & Leiden identity.

A friend from England happened to be visiting during the celebrations, and she wondered if the Dutch were very nationalistic given the large celebration of what was a civic and not a national anniversary. Having only been here a short while, I don't think I have really got a sense of how the Dutch view their identity yet, but the celebration seemed to be an indiction of how seriously the Dutch take organising a party. It was also a very civic celebration, even though it had an event in the history of Dutch independence at its heart; Leiden flags easily outnumbered Dutch ones (not that there seemed to be very many flags), and today all flags seemed to have disappeared (even from the Stadhuis). At the moment it feels like a controlled and well-organised burst of civic clebration and identity that hasn't really carried over (bar hangovers) to the 5th October. On the other hand, identity issues are undoubtedly an important issue in the Netherlands today, with the PVV (Geert Wilders' party) now big enough to be in the position of supporting the minority coalition government.

Over the next year I'll try to pick up more of the Dutch culture and language, and try to follow the interesting political situation here.


  1. Great post! It reminds me of the only such celebration I've seen: the "lifting of the siege of Derry" - also a Protestant celebration of a Catholic defeat, with nationalist overtones. However, there are always riot police and spit-guards up at the Derry festivities - and a bomb actually went off in the commercial district there a couple of nights ago (nobody hurt, though). Hope it's not going to get worse.

    What are you doing in the Netherlands, btw? (I must have missed the explanation!)

  2. Thanks! I'm doing a Masters in European Law.

    Hehe, everytime a Dutch person mentioned defeating the Catholic Spanish, it always seemed that they used a slightly ghost-story tone to their voice, so I doubt the religious dimention is taken as seriously as it is in Derry! I have to admit that I never went to a siege of Derry celebration. Hopefully tensions will die away, but as a civic event it will probably "belong" to one part of the community for a long time yet.