Holland is more than its biggest city Small scenes: In Utrecht and The Hague you'll find that less can sometimes be more.

March 03, 1996|By Robert Levine | Robert Levine,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Amsterdam is not all of Holland any more than New York or Washington is all of the United States. Like Washington and the Big Apple, Amsterdam sparkles with commerce, culture, characters and charisma. It's Big Time and Must See.

The rest of the Netherlands is charming in an entirely different way. The Dutch are uniformly helpful and friendly (it's difficult to find one who doesn't speak English), but outside of Amsterdam, you're aware that you're in a smallish society. The Dutch are always eager to show Americans around -- and those outside of Amsterdam seem to want to prove that their way of life is as valid as those of the Amsterdammers and that their cities are just as interesting.

You might want to base your stay in Amsterdam and make day trips (Holland is tiny and the train travel is easy, fast and cheap), or you could prefer immersing yourself in another city's way of life. Either way is a treat.

Utrecht is Holland's fourth largest city, but it can be explored in a day or two on foot. There are a couple of fine museums (the National Museum Van Speelkok tot Pierement -- "from music box to barrel organ" -- is great fun), and the city's buildings, many from the 17th century , are handsomely gabled and decorated and are an attraction in themselves. There are meandering canals and quaint water gates. Along the main canal, the Oude Gracht, cellars and wharves have been turned into restaurants and shops and are ideal for people-watching as well as atmosphere.

In the Middle Ages, Utrecht was the center of religion in Holland, and there are many glorious churches. The original dom (cathedral) was built from 1254 to 1517, but was burned down in the 17th century. Its 365-foot bell tower survived and is across the square from the present church.

The dom is now made up of many small chapels, with winding passageways and oddly placed steps; in the bell tower (you can climb the 465 steps, resting halfway at the lovely St. Michael's chapel) are 15 bells, one weighing more than 16,000 pounds. Four people are needed to pull the bell cord.

You'll also want to see the 11th-century St. Peter's Church, with its part-mosaic floor and the remains of a 1,900-year-old Roman settlement; St. James' with its medieval sundials and 16th-century brass screen; the 13th-century painted wooden barrel vault in St. John's and the phenomenal collection of religious art and clothing in St. Catherine's Convent.

During Utrecht's annual, late-summer Early Music Festival -- one of the most prestigious in the world -- many of the town's churches are used for concerts, and the atmosphere is heavy with a time long gone.

Government city

The Hague -- Holland's seat of government -- is an entirely different story. Queen Beatrix lives there. The city is dignified, somewhat manicured, and without the quick comfort of Utrecht or the energy of Amsterdam. You'll find three royal palaces, a dozen or so parks (one with 20,000 roses), superb antiques, a vivid cultural life and 500,000 inhabitants -- all of whom seem eager to discuss how their country should be run.

In The Hague's heart is a lake, in the middle of which is the Binnehof, or Parliament. This imposing 13th-century complex (which can be toured) has as its center the magnificent Ridderzall (Hall of Knights) in which the queen gives her annual address.

The hall is 125 feet by 60 feet, with walls 4 feet thick, and has a solid oak roof that soars to a dramatic 85 feet. The leaded-glass windows are decorated with old city crests.

Just outside the Binnehof is a wonderful small museum, the Mauritshaus, housed in a 17th-century palace. In it you'll find works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Holbein, Vermeer and other Dutch masters.

The Gemeentemuseum (Municipal Museum), a five-minute walk north of the Binnehof, holds a huge collection including works of Mondrian, Escher and Lautrec, as well as early 19th-century Dutch artists and exhibits of glass, silver and ceramics. And if these don't suffice, try the nearby Bredius, filled with 17th-century drawings and featuring a long, narrow gallery in which nary an inch of wall space is unused.

Just for fun, visit the Madurodam, in which many Dutch towns and landmarks (past and present) have been faithfully replicated in perfect miniature.

The display is animated -- lights (50,000 of them) go on, trains run, planes taxi at the mini-airport. You can walk through it, feeling much like Gulliver. Of the 1.25 million annual visitors, 75 percent are adults!

Still on the light side is the Puppet Museum, with a collection of more than 1,000 old and new examples, which puts on shows, and a complete contrast is the Prison Gate Museum with its gruesome collection of torture instruments.

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