Medieval Charm by Candlelight
By Stephanie Dijkstra
There are cities that come to life in spring, but become drab, unimaginative blocks of building materials in the winter. However, one city that becomes part of a fairytale in the winter is Gouda.
The highlight of this fairytale, this year, will be Saturday, December 13. On this day, From the early afternoon to late in the evening, there will be music, official walks, street theater and dancing, as well as a live manger and free concerts in the city’s churches. Then, as the afternoon comes to a close and dusk sets in, the mayor will take up his place by the City Hall and read the story of Christmas, accompanied by the lighting of a huge Christmas tree. This will be followed by the singing of Christmas carols by the crowd of people gathering around this scene. At the same time, in order to combat the arrival of darkness, instead of streetlights and store lights, thousands upon thousands of candles will be lit throughout the city center, taking you back to the days of Victorian fairytales, families gathered around the fireside, and steaming mugs of hot cocoa.
A breathtaking title
Furthermore, On Friday, December 14 and Saturday, December 15, the city will be organizing a Winter Fair in the St. John’s Church, with more than 70 stands, offering food, seasonal products, Christmas decorations, local products, books, home decoration, and more, while – from December 18 to January 12 – there will be an ice-skating rink on the square by the City Hall, which will be open from 9 A.M. to 11 P.M., even on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve.
If you want to go for the full December-in-Gouda experience, then you might want to sign up for a one-hour guided tour through the romantically-lit center of Gouda, which will be organized on December 14, 21, 28 and January 4, starting at 5 P.M.
“On December 13, thousand up thousands of candles are lit, taking you back to the days of Victorian fairytales, families gathered around the fireside, and steaming mugs of hot cocoa”
As you can tell, Gouda is an experienced entertainer. You will find this out as you spot the plaques on the corners of her buildings of note, with information on the building in question, its place in the city’s history and a QR-code for you to scan with your phone. And at the VVV, as in many cities, you can buy – at a modest price – folders with walking routes through the city, in a variety of languages.
The QR-codes, in fact, are part of the Erasmus audio trail, in honor of the fact that Erasmus was born in Gouda (though some say he was born in Rotterdam) a little over 550 years ago and spent several years of his life there. Erasmus was a Renaissance Humanist, who lived in the days of growing Reformation in the Netherlands. These were interesting times that had their influence on the Dutch as we know them today. The Reformers believe that the Bible, and not tradition, should be the source of spiritual authority, and therefore rejected the Pope. They also believed that churches should be plain, so that the congregants would not be distracted by the wealth on display, and that only God could forgive and not priests or the Pope. This is where the word Protestants came from: it was a name that applied to all groups who protested Roman Catholic orthodoxy. In that sense, Erasmus, though critical of the abuses of the Catholic Church and in favor of reform, was not a Protestant. He remained a member of the Catholic Church and wanted to reform it from within.
Moving south from the center of the city, to where the river Gouwe empties into the Hollandsche IJssel, you will find the Tolhuis (Toll House) of Gouda; an important source of income as all the ships between the cities of North Holland and South Holland had to pass through here. This – and the fact that the waiting skippers would enter the city and spend their money while waiting for their ship to be given the ‘green light’ – hugely motivated the upper echelons of Gouda to discourage the construction of shorter and faster water connections that might bypass Gouda. When William of Orange commanded the construction of a sluice, so that war ships could pass by the city faster, the city negotiated the obligation for these ships to pass through the center of Gouda and – when this obligation was abolished – negotiated that all ships had to remain in the harbor for at least 36 hours and pay a fee for the poor. A clear reminder of the fact that the Dutch are historically shrewd entrepreneurs and clever negotiators!
“The city’s history offers a clear reminder that the Dutch were shrewd entrepreneurs and clever negotiators”
The City Hall of Gouda, where the mayor gives his Christmas speech, stands tall and proud in the middle of a large square, and was built in the 15th century. At first its purpose was administrative, then it became a court of law and then it became a meat hall. On the eastside, there is a little balcony, and a couple of centuries ago, one of the punishments carried out there was for the perpetrator of whatever sin he had committed to stand on this balcony and endure both verbal and physical abuse, in the form of tossed food. Nowadays, it is a popular place to get married – meaning that the only food that is tossed is dry rice. Quite striking is the size of the square, which makes the City Hall seem quite modest; the square used to be a peat bog, making the building only accessible by drawbridge. Since then, the dimensions of the square have been left intact, but it is circled by a wide variety of cafés and restaurants, catering to the culinary needs of the city’s diverse visitors.
Gouda in December
Nearby the Town Hall is the St. John’s Church (St. Janskerk), which – at 123 meters – is the longest church in the country. It is also home to famous stained glass windows; 72 in all. Even these windows express the rift that took place within the Dutch church: the earliest windows dating from 1555 and the following years, and therefore more Roman Catholic in nature (religious themes, such as the birth and baptism of Jesus), and the later windows depicting more worldly topics (freedom of conscience, the siege of Leiden). Fortunately, they survived the (in)famous Iconoclastic Fury of 1566, when the Dutch Reformists ransacked the cathedrals and destroyed their art and decorations. For a while, though, the creation of these windows did come to halt when, in 1572 – during the 80 Years’ War against Spain – Gouda was captured by Les Gueux (Dutch rebels) who sided with the Protestants.
Gouda has a few museums worth visiting as well. Unfortunately, going on a Sunday is not recommended, as both the Cathedral and the Resistance Museum (called Libertum) are closed to the public on that day (Libertum is also closed on Mondays). This museum focuses on the resistance movement during the Second World War, as well as on current human rights violations, injustice, discrimination and prejudice.
Gouda Museum is located close to St. John’s Church and centers around four themes: religious art from the 16th century, (art) history of the city and region, The Hague School and the Barbizon School of the 19th century, and pottery. Particularly impressive are the huge schuttersstukken, or group portraits of civil guards, painted by, among others, Ferdinand Bol and Wouter Crabeth and in a league with similar pieces at the Rijksmuseum. A playful – if that word could be used in this context – surprise in the museum is its collection of torture tools; fittingly displayed in the cellar, as that seems to be where most activities that are best hidden from the public eye take place. The display, incidentally, though this may seem hard to believe, is suitable for all ages – at least, so says the museum.
In short, though Gouda takes on a special, magical status in December, no matter when you choose to visit, it is sure to have plenty to keep you entertained and enthralled.