Feature

This week’s travel dream: Holland’s cradle of liberty

In the early 17th century, refugees of all faiths—French Huguenots, Roman Catholics, Dutch Mennonites, Jews, and a group of English Separatists more commonly known as the Pilgrims—flocked to Leiden. Today, it is the destinat

When you think of Europe at its most progressive, Amsterdam is the first city that comes to mind, said Susan Spano in the Los Angeles Times. Yet its smaller neighbor Leiden was once “one of the most liberal cities in Europe.” In the early 17th century, as the continent was roiled by religious conflicts, refugees of all faiths flocked to the “Dutch haven.” French Huguenots, Roman Catholics, Dutch Mennonites, Jews, and a small group of English Separatists—later to become known to Americans as the Pilgrims—were free to practice their faiths.

Situated near the mouth of the Rhine River, just 25 miles southwest of Amsterdam, Leiden is a “maze of lily-padded canals, graceful old bridges, quiet squares and alleyways.” The entire city is “richly detailed, like a painting by native son Rembrandt.” Bright rows of tulips line the narrow streets, and “loftily steepled churches” of many creeds pierce the cityscape, while the countryside nearby is dotted with languid windmills and “step-gabled houses where cats sleep on the ledges of lace-curtained windows.” I wandered along the “lime tree­–bordered Rapenburg Canal,” admiring the distinguished 17th-century mansions, and snapped photographs of giant Victoria lilies in Leiden’s Botanical Garden, where some of Europe’s first tulips were cultivated after being imported from Persia.

I walked east to peer inside the Dutch Gothic facade of St. Peter’s Church, the burial place of Pilgrim pastor John Robinson, who led the sect in Leiden. Just across from the bell tower is his former home, which housed Pilgrim families while they waited to embark on the Mayflower. In all, the Pilgrims spent more than a decade in Leiden—a fact I learned at the American Pilgrim Museum, which occupies a 14th-century home with “tile-lined fireplaces, low-beamed ceilings, and mullioned windows.” Today, a new wave of immigrants from Ethiopia, Thailand, and even Iraq have resettled in Leiden, forcing the city to “revisit the idea of religious tolerance.” Perhaps they will recall what Pilgrim Robert Cushman once said: “We are all, in all places, strangers and pilgrims, travelers and sojourners.”Contact: Holland.com

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