Sunday, December 8, 2013

"Three Weeks in Holland and Belgium"

"Three Weeks" book with tulips
I came across an interesting old book on a bookshelf in my sister's house recently. The book, entitled Three Weeks in Holland and Belgium, belonged to my mother. It was published in 1910 (first edition 1908), one of a series of travel books written by John U. Higinbotham, with the mission, stated in the Preface, of "act[ing] as a spokesman for the humble and despised class grouped in travel books under the name 'tourist' "; and "furnish[ing] to its readers the one thing needful in many cases to make them globetrotters, viz., a little courage."

The book recounts the author's arrival in Rotterdam, and travels in The Hague, Amsterdam, Leiden, Delft, Haarlem, Zaandam, among other towns, villages, and cities in both the Netherlands and Belgium. Written in a sometimes tongue-in-cheek tone in elegant Edwardian English, the book has a particular interest for me in that it paints a picture of pre-World War I life in the Netherlands, the era in which my grandparents lived shortly before their departure for the United States.

Upon  arrival in Rotterdam aboard the Statendam, Higinbotham's first impressions portray the typical Dutch stereotypes of cleanliness and orderliness, and the ubiquity of bicycles:

"The first impression of Holland is pleasing, and this impression is deepened with every day of our stay. Thrift, cleanliness and a high average of comfort seem to abound. (page 13)

"It is Saturday -- scrubbing day. [. . .] Wooden-shod servants are splashing and mopping and soaking and rubbing every exterior surface, horizontal and perpendicular. (page 11)

"Bicycles are as much in evidence all around us as they were in America fifteen years ago." (page 15) (This last comment may imply that motor-cars were already becoming more evident in the thoroughfares in the U.S.)

Of Delft, which I visited a hundred years after Higinbotham, he writes:

"Delft is a city of misfortune. In the middle of the sixteenth century she was destroyed by fire. In 1584 she was the scene of the assassination of William the Silent. In 1654 a powerful explosion ruined more than five hundred houses. In 1742 a similar catastrophe occurred. Do you wonder that Delft china was blue, amid such jarring surroundings, and that its manufacture has ceased with the exception of one factory?" (pages 24-25)

I also visited this factory in 2011, and it is still the only one functioning, De Koninklijke Porceleyne Fles, founded in 1653. 

Delft - Nieuwe Kerk 2011
Higinbotham describes the square with the Stadhuis (City Hall) at one end and the Nieuwe Kerke (New Church) at the other, where I also took photos during my visit to the city, and continues on to the Prinsenhof, the scene of William's assassination:

"We went first to the dining room where William the Silent ate his last meal. His wife had forebodings, and did not like the appearance of the messenger, Gerards, who had arrived that day, but William did not share her fears. He had escaped assassination so often [. . .] that he had reason to believe in a certain degree of immunity. So, surrounded by his family, he stepped from the dining-room into the hall. Behind the column where we stood crouched Gerards, and, as William reached the first step, two poisoned bullets were discharged, passing through his body and burying themselves in the wall a short distance above the steps. Draperies probably helped conceal the assassin, but with that exception everything is as it was on July 10, 1584, the day of the crime." (pp. 28-29)

Higinbotham continues on to Utrecht:

"Utrecht is the capital of Utrecht province. It is a city of 108,000 people. It was the ford of the Rhine for ancient Rome. The Rhine here splits into the Old Rhine, which we saw at Leiden, and the Vecht, which empties into the Zuider Zee near Muiden. [. . .] We drive along the Oude Gracht (Old Canal) and feast our eyes on enchanting scenes along the canal. The town is one or two stories above the water, and people live under the pavements and their doors open on the canal. (pp. 127-128)

Utrecht - Church Tower (Domtoren) 2011
"The Cathedral was once one of the finest and largest churches in Holland, but the nave blew down in 1674 and was never rebuilt, consequently our carriage is standing on ground that was once occupied by worshippers, while the choir and tower now stand as two distinct and widely separated buildings." (pp. 128-129)

"Utrecht has a one-horse tram system that permeates the entire city. Its cars seat eight persons. Think of that in a city of over 100,000 inhabitants. The cars are never crowded, and it is a pleasure to ride in them through the clean old burg." (pp. 130-131)

I also visited Utrecht in 2011 and saw much the same scenes in the old section of the city as did the traveler a century before me. But the city's population has tripled since Higinbotham's day, and of course it has all the modern infrastructure expected in today's digital age.

Another city which Higinbotham visited, and I did as well, is Zaandam, where I stayed for a week at my cousin's house. One of the points of interest in that city is the house where Russian czar Peter the Great lived for a short time in 1697. Higinbotham describes his visit to the house:

Zaandam - Czar Peter House 2011
". . . we struck out on foot for the house of Peter the Great. A long walk brought us to our destination. The house was occupied by him in 1697 for a short time. It is now the property of the Russian government and has been enclosed by another building, and not any too soon. The high water caused by the breaking of a dike almost carried it off in 1825. Since then it has been well taken care of. This is the birthplace of the Russian navy [. . .] The house [. . .] was a hundred years old when Peter moved in. Many memorials adorn the walls. The original bed and table are preserved. [. . .] Sight-seers can thank Anna Paulowna for much of the preservation of this interesting house. She was a Russian princess, a descendant of Peter, and married William II of Holland." (pp. 83-85)

I also went on foot to visit the Czar Peter House and saw the same bed and table. It was difficult to picture the tall czar sleeping in the tiny cupboard bed with any degree of comfort.

Higinbotham spent three weeks in 1908 touring the Netherlands and Belgium; like many Americans, he has conflated the provinces of North and South Holland with the country as a whole, which is of course the Netherlands. At last, as his touring comes to an end, he boards the steamer for the United States:

"It is raining hard up to the moment that we leave. Except for the returning tourists, an American-bound liner carries no holiday crowd. The Hollanders on board are, as a rule, homeseekers and not sightseers. Until their fortunes are made, they will not see the canals and meadows of their kindly but strict old fatherland. The longshoremen march away with the big gangplanks on wheels between them. There is an imperceptible tremor as our ship wakes to life, we swing slowly into midstream, the band plays, the handkerchiefs wave and we are off." (pp. 273-274)

Higinbotham's description of his departure from the Netherlands is very different from my return trip on a jet airplane. But it gives me an idea of how the scene of my grandparents' departure from the shore may have looked. And for that I am grateful for having found this little old book.

                                                     *        *        *

A digital version of Higinbotham's book is available through the University of California Digital Library at:

Read more about my own excursions to the locations described above at the following blog posts:

- Planning my trip: Voyage of (Re-)Discovery

- Arrival in the Netherlands: Ik ga naar Nederland

- Excursion to Delft

- Excursion to Utrecht

- Zaandam

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.