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Leiden Travel Guide

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Marina, Leiden


Hometown of Rembrandt, city of the Pilgrim Fathers, and seat of the country's oldest university, Leiden (Leyde in French ; pop. 118,000, with suburbs 254,000 ) is a typical Dutch city, with an architecture that has little to envy to its neighbours Amsterdam or Delft. The city host a population of 20,000 students, giving it a particularly lively atmosphere.


In Roman times, Leiden's suburb of Katwijk was the town of Lugdunum Batavorum, built during the reign of Emperor Claudius (41-54). Leiden was then the site of a smaller settlement called Matilo, which developed into a fortress in the 4th century. Both places were built on the Old Rhine (most of the river was diverted to the south in medieval times), the river forming the northern border of the Roman Empire.

The first medieval mention of Leiden was under the name of Leithon in 860. Originally under the control of the Bishopric of Utrecht, Leiden was annexed to the County of Holland in 1100.

Relief of Leiden (1574), by Otto van Veen

Leiden was sacked in 1047 by Holy Roman Emperor Henry III. In the early 13th century, Ada, Countess of Holland, took refuge here during the civil war against her uncle, William I, Count of Holland. William besieged the stronghold and eventually captured Ada.

Leiden was granted a municipal charter of rights in 1266. By 1389, its population had grown to about 4000 inhabitants.

In 1420, in the heat of the Hook and Cod wars (1350-1490) fought over the title of count of Holland, the armies of Duke John of Bavaria attacked the fortifications surrounding Leiden. After a two-month siege, the city fell and Burgrave Philip of Wassenaar was stripped of his nobility and imprisoned.

Leiden prospered in the 16th and 17th centuries thanks to the weaving industry. It also became an important printing and publishing centre, notably with Christophe Plantin (c. 1520-1589), an influential French Renaissance humanist and printer, who set up shop in Antwerp and temporarily also in Leiden.

1572 saw the revolt against Spanish rule, as part of the Eighty Years' War (1568-1648). Leiden was (in)famously besieged by the Duke of Alba for six months, so that the inhabitants had to open the dikes and flood their own city to permit allied ships to bring them provisions. This episode is known as the Relief of Leiden (see picture on the right).

Windmill, Leiden

As a reward for their heroic defence, Stadholder William the Silent (William I of Orange-Nassau) offered the citizens a choice between founding a university or partial tax exemption. They chose the university, which opened its doors in 1575.

In the early years of the 17th century, a religious congregation known as the Pilgrims fled the persecutions in their native East Midlands of England for the relative calm and religious tolerance of the Netherlands. They settled for a few years in Leiden, then embarked on their journey aboard the Mayflower, and went on to found the colony of Plymouth in 1620, the second successful English settlement in what was to become the USA.

During most of the 17th century, Spanish rule in the Southern Netherlands (modern Belgium) caused many Flemish weavers to seek refuge in Dutch cities, such as Leiden. While the city had lost about a third of its 15,000 citizens during the siege of 1574, it quickly recovered (partly due to Flemish immigrants) to 45,000 inhabitants in 1622, and may have come near to 70,000 circa 1670. During the Dutch Golden Era, Leiden was the second largest city of Holland, after Amsterdam.

The 17th century was also the time of the great painter Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), who was born in Leiden and attended its university, before moving to Amsterdam in 1631.

The 18th and 19th century witnessed the gradual decline of the cloth industry. Leiden's population shrank to 30,000 around 1800. On 12 January 1807, a catastrophe struck the city when a boat loaded with 17,400 kg of gunpowder blew up in the middle of Leiden. 151 persons were killed, over 2000 were injured and some 220 homes were destroyed.

Leiden was connected to the railway in 1842. It is also here that the present Constitution of the Netherlands was single-handedly drafted by Johan Rudolf Thorbecke (1798-1872) in April 1848.



Neoclassical church, Leiden
Town hall, Leiden
Church, Leiden

Because of the economic decline from the 17th to the early 20th century, much of the 16th and 17th century town centre is still intact, apart from the city walls, which have completely disappeared.

There aren't really special sights in town as almost every building is worth a look. Note the windmill (called De Valk) along the moat as you come from the train station ; it has a small museum inside.

The two most important buildings are the town hall and the university. The 800-year-old circular Burcht (castle) rises on top of a hill in the midst of town.

The university's Boerhaave Museum has for the least unusual displays, the results of four centuries of medical research and advances, including instruments and manuscripts, but also organs in jars.

Another surprising museum is the National Museum of Antiques (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden), with its impressive array of human and animal mummies from Egypt. It also boasts a real Egyptian temple (the Temple of Taffeh), a gift from the Egyptian government in 1969. There are also plenty of artefacts (statues, weapons, jewelry...) from the ancient Greco-Roman world or the Dutch Bronze Age. Note the Roman helmet in gilded silver or the Viking silver hoard.

The sumptuous Lakenhal (cloth hall) houses the Municipal Museum of Leiden, with collections of decorative arts as well as a reconstitution of a Leiden interior at the time of its golden age.

The last major museum is the Natural History Museum. Its most famous item is the fragmented skeleton of the 700,000 year-old Java Man, discovered by Dutch anatomist Eugène Dubois in 1891.

Leiden is a good base to visit the flower gardens of Keukenhof in Spring. Buses leave frequently from the train station.


How to get there

Leiden is located is located about halfway between Den Haag and Amsterdam. It is easily accessible by car through the E19 between Rotterdam (35km) and Amsterdam (40km).

There are frequent trains from/to Den Haag (15min), Rotterdam (30min), Amsterdam (35min) or Utrecht (45min).

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