A modern town in an old shell: a walk through Leiden (the Netherlands)

Thanassis Vionis, archaeologist
Οχύρωση του Leiden
Οχύρωση του Leiden 1670-1674
Αστεροσκοπείο του Leiden
Αστεροσκοπείο του Leiden
Αρχοντικό- Μουσείο
Κτήριο του 16ου αιώνα
Κτήριο του 16ου αιώνα
Ποδήλατα στο σταθμό
του τραίνου περιμένουν..
Ποδήλατα στο σταθμό του τραίνου περιμένουν..
Turfmarkt 6
ποίηση Κ. Καβάφη
Turfmarkt 6 ποίηση Κ. Καβάφη
Volmolengracht 43
Volmolengracht 43 Σαπφώ

Walking through historical Leiden
Leiden was established sometime in the 9th century close to the south-western coast of the crowded Netherlands within a complex network of rivers and water canals. Leiden, the hometown of Rembrandt the painter (where in summer 2006 the Leideners celebrated the 400th anniversary of his birth) is renowned as one of the oldest University towns in continental Europe. Like most urban centres in today’s Northwest Europe, Leiden is another example of a modern town that combines the medieval character of its historic centre with all sorts of contemporary architectural elements in an extraordinary manner. This is a town where any kind of urban development has to compile with its long-established historic character and heritage.

The history and life of this town developed around the ‘Burcht’ or Fort. It is an artificial mound where the medieval fortress of Leiden was established in the 9th century by the local feudal lords to secure their defence. A maze of narrow stone-paved lanes webbed by canals created the building insulae where the prosperous 14th-century town was developed. Although the medieval walls of Leiden do not exist anymore, the main waterway that encircles the town nowadays marks the line of the defensive walls, and functions as a notional and symbolic division between the old and the modern sectors of the town. A walk on the Singel main streets along the main waterway and around the old town is an interesting experience from an architectural point-of-view. Picturesque parks, little ports, old and contemporary water mills, as well as impressive mansions of the 19th and early 20th century succeed the modern buildings of the observatory and the University main Library.

The Gothic Cathedral of St Peter at the centre of the medieval town has been deconsecrated and although it gives a feeling of ‘emptiness’ on its inside, it remains an impressive monument that hosts university- and county-cultural events, as well as the memorials of a number of Dutch notables.

Some of the grandest 17th- and 18th-century mansions are lined on Rapenburg Street, one of the main paved lanes along a picturesque Leiden canal. The National Museum of Antiquities and University administration offices occupy most of these mansions nowadays. The University itself was founded in 1575 as a reward of the royal family towards the inhabitants of Leiden for enduring a year-long siege by the Spanish in 1573-74. A great number of important personalities from the Arts and Sciences once studied at the University of Leiden. The Academiegebouw, the main University building on Rapenburg Street was built around 1440 and used to be a convent chapel until 1572.

Movement on two wheels...

It is widely known that the bicycle comprises an extension of the human body in the Netherlands. The flat lands of this country (where in most coastal provinces the land is below sea level) is one of the main reasons for the constant movement of people on bicycles, within as well as outside their towns. The principal University town of the Netherlands could be no exception to the rule ‘mankind and bicycle’. People within medieval Leiden nowadays commute by bicycle, passing by medieval houses with 17th- and 18th-century facades, around Gothic churches that host important cultural events, as well as by modern ‘cupola’ buildings, whose origin and inspiration, according to local inhabitants, should to ought in the Eastern Mediterranean!

Buildings and wall-poetry...
Even more interestingly, Leiden has developed a unique tradition; that of decorating exterior house-walls with the so-called ‘wall poems’. Poems in their original language decorate various buildings within the city in their beautiful and sometimes unfamiliar writing. Placing poems on house-walls was a private initiative of the TEGEN-BEELD foundation that was initiated in 1992. The first wall-poem came from the Russian poet Marina Tsvetajeva, while the last one was by the Spanish poet Garcia Lorca. The aim of this poetry project was to focus on the relationship between language and image, and to familiarise a large audience (of both locals and visitors/passers-by) with different poetry styles, different cultures, languages, colours, or with the life of a particular poet. The creators of this tradition hope that the viewers will get stimulated by the poems, as well as by the visual image of different alphabets (from Greek and Russian to Latin, Arabic and Chinese) against different-coloured walls. A selection of 101 wall-poems in more than 30 languages in Leiden is an extraordinary collection of different cultures in many languages, styles and trends.

The choice of Leiden as the place for the execution of this project has a special reason and deeper meaning. Throughout the ages, the University-town of Leiden has attracted a remarkable number of writers, artists, scholars and scientists from all over the world. Many of them lived or studied here. This makes the international character of the project all the more worthwhile. However, it is hoped that with the growing ‘xenophobia’ all over Northwest Europe in recent years, this project will contribute to the Dutch going international again; hopefully more international than just their house-walls...