In this, the first of a five part series which seeks to highlight some of Europe’s cities, the quaint city of S’ Hertogenbosch in southern Holland comes under the spotlight.
My reason for visiting Holland did not stem from any desire to get high, sample cheese, buy clogs or ride bicycles along the country’s unbelievably flat landscape. I came for the horses. The horses in question are the world’s finest and were gathering in S’ Hertogenbosch (or Den Bosch as it is more commonly known) in April to compete at one of the most prestigious events on the equestrian calendar-the FEI World Cup Championships.
The entire event, which featured hundreds of horses and catered to countless trainers, product exhibitors and thousands of visitors each day for four days, was held indoors at the Brabanthallen, Den Bosch’s primary exhibition centre. Suffice to say the Dutch know how to put on a show.
But there is so much more to Den Bosch than just equestrian pageantry as my forays into the city between classes proved. The city is provincial in nature yet sports a pleasing mix of contemporary, well maintained properties punctuated by old-world gems such as the incredibly ornate Roman Catholic church of Saint John’s Cathedral. The origins of the church are thought to date back to 1220, which if correct, makes the church just 35 years younger than the city itself.
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Saint John’s Cathedral
Akin to many European cities, Den Bosch began as a diminutive settlement girdled by fortified walls which it eventually outgrew by the time it reached its 689th birthday in 1874. The period spanning from the 1500’s to 1822 proved to be a particularly prosperous time for Den Bosch, following which it fell into decline when it’s harbour became redundant thanks to the introduction of a new canal. Today the city is flourishing once again, primarily thanks to software related commerce.
Den Bosch’s appealing market square is another highlight, especially on market day when the city really gets into full swing. I happened to visit the city on one of its market days and wondered around quite happily browsing the stalls while musicians played in the square. All manner of freshly baked bread, pastries (including odd tasting advocaat tarts) fish, cheese, meat, flowers, fruit and vegetables were on sale. More expensive décor-type goods, clothes, coffee, shoes, perfumes and electrical products could be purchased at the small, boutique shops which surround the square.
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Post shopping, you can take your pick of any of the welcoming pavement café’s which line Den Bosch’s narrow streets. If you really feel like indulging, Den Bosch’s speciality, the ‘Bossche Bol’ might be just up your alley. A Bossche Bol is essentially a tennis ball sized pastry filled with cream and covered in chocolate. Pure decadence at its finest.
While in Den Bosch, a tour of the ‘Binnendieze’ or canals is worth doing. The Binnendieze are as old as the city itself and have served the city in various forms over the centuries. The town council motioned to close them in 1964 given their sorry state but a few enterprising individuals saw the value in retaining and reviving them. Today the Binnendieze are one of the city’s primary tourist attractions and are lined by some of the city’s most sought-after properties which, according to locals sell for as much as €500 000 each.
Den Bosch can be seen within a day or two. Should you feel like exploring the city’s surrounds, there are a number of attractions nearby including several castles and villages which are characterised in the main by charming cottages featuring tiny formal gardens. It must be noted that the homes were refreshingly free of razor wire, high fences and barred windows.
In my own humble opinion Den Bosch is a gem of a city and has struck just the right balance between old and new. Provincial and picturesque, it has none of the airs and graces of cities like Vienna and Prague yet it exudes its own quiet sophistication. Its people are friendly and laid back, it’s easy to get around, is affordable and thankfully devoid of the tourist orientated tackiness which characterises so many other European cities.