The first clue that the annual national frenzy was upon us was when I saw the guy standing outside the Albert Heijn grocery store with a orange paper crown on his head. Then I noticed that our favorite fish vendors had been moved out of their customary spot in the Friday market because a large stage had sprung up in their space.
Then there were the numerous welcome and traffic signs that had sprouted up around town. Yes, Koningsdag — King’s Day — was coming! The celebrations that grip the country are akin to July 4th back in the States where people wear stars and stripes in gaudy fashions that they wouldn’t think of doing on any other day. Here, one celebrates King’s Day by wearing ORANGE — a nod to the history of Willem van Oranje (William of Orange) who led the Dutch fight for independence against the Spanish. (Willem’s personal colors were red, white and blue which gave rise to the tricolor Dutch flag.)
It was Friday, April 26th, the day before Kongingsdag, but the city of Groningen was kicking off an entire weekend of festivities. Janet and I took an amble through town that evening as we would be leaving Groningen in the morning on travel. We wandered over to the Vismarkt (Fishmarket), the square that on every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday is filled with vendors of fish, meats, cheese, vegetables, fruits, stroopwafels, flowers, bread — to name a few! By Friday night, they were all cleared out, replaced by the food and drink stalls and the light pulsing stage. Behind, the beautiful tower of the Aa Kerk kept watch.
On stage, a band was sending reggae rhythms into the cool night. The party was just kicking off.
After lingering for a bit, Janet and I walked down Folkingstraat, a wonderful street filled with shops and restaurants and the only synagogue in Groningen. A couple years ago, it was given the ‘best shopping street in the Netherlands’ award. On this night, mannequins in one shop were adorned in Kongingsdag fashion.
Just a few blocks from home, we passed a couple of guys sporting masks of King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima! The King was having trouble with his mask, but Queen Maxima was ready for the party!
Here is a more proper introduction to the Dutch Royals from King Willem-Alexander’s coronation in 2013. His mother, Queen Beatrix, chose to abdicate because, as she put it, “the responsibility for the nation should be in the hands of a new generation.”
The Dutch royals generally keep a lower profile than the more famous royals across the channel. The official portrait of the royal family released in 2018, which could be mistaken for an advertisement for Clairol or Vidal Sassoon, reflects their more informal style and demeanor.
We got up early on King’s Day morning so we could make our 8:18 train. Our weekend plans were to travel the length of the Netherlands, from top to bottom, to the beautiful city of Maastricht. At the train station, we saw a promo for train travel on Koningsdag weekend.
This was our route.
We rode along on the first leg of the trip. It was fairly uneventful. Initially.
Then we stopped in the city of Zwolle and these three ladies, festooned brilliantly for Koningsdag like the Dutch Musketeers, came aboard. Each year, one city or town in the Netherlands is selected for where the King (or Queen) will go on Koningsdag for extra-special celebrations. This year, the King and Queen were gathering in Amersfoort, a city which was along the route we were traveling.
At Amersfoort, the Three Musketeers disembarked and a new trio, canines this time, came on board. I wondered, skeptically, what the new arrivals would mean for the relative quiet we had been enjoying. What followed was quite remarkable. The owner picked up her three little dogs, lined them up in a row on the seat next to her, and told them to lie down — which they promptly did!
Yet more remarkably, those little dogs hardly moved and did not make a single sound for the next 30 minutes. When we pulled into the station that was the owner’s destination, the dogs stood up, hopped off the seat, and bounded off the train and down the platform, pulling their owner like miniature sled dogs chafing to get across the Alaskan tundra. No more trios boarded and we continued on our way.
After changing trains in Utrecht, we sped our way south, past farmland that was still emerging from winter into spring. There’s a beauty and peace to crossing this country by rail. We’re without a car, but we feel more mobile than ever. Just place your rail card against the “check in” post on the platform, hear the beep, and then you’re good to board. Then off you go, skating across the landscape, urban and farmland alike, through towns big and small. Sit in the regular cars and you’ll hear all sorts of banter among the affable Dutch. Or choose a “silent” car and allow yourself to drift off into distant musings as the trees, fields, windmills and canals whiz by.
As the train made its way south and into the the southern province of Limburg, we encountered something that we hadn’t seen all year in the Netherlands — HILLS! Unlike the rest of the country which is as flat as the proverbial pancake — save for man-made dikes and ‘polders’ — this southern pocket of the country has some rolling terrain. The locals cheekily refer to it as ‘the Dutch Alps!’
We arrived in Maastricht, disembarked from the train, placed our transport cards against the “check out” poles on the platform (beep, beep, beep) and made our way through the station and out into the chilly afternoon. Maastricht is said to be one of the two oldest cities in the Netherlands, having been first established as a Roman trading post.
Roman and medieval walls surround the city. Along the streets, sculpted postings were set into the walls, speaking of times past.
And yet, in the midst of things from long ago, Maastricht boasts modern architecture (the Dutch are fond of juxtaposing modern and centuries old structures side-by-side with no sense of contradiction) as well as something as pedestrian as updated walking signs!
We continued our walk from the train station towards the River Maas, which separates the city east from west. A series of bridges straddle the river, somewhat like a corset, holding the two sides together.
The bridge above, Sint Servaasbrug, dates back to the 1500s. It was demolished in World War II, but then rebuilt.
The more modern Hoeg Brogk extends before the Bonnefantenmuseum.
We left the east side of the city to cross over to the old center city where our hotel was located.
The twin spires of Onze Lieve Vrouwebasiliek (Basilica of Our Dear Lady) rise up over the roof line.
Standing at the base of the front of the basilica is stunning. We continued to walk about the city — remembering sites and streets from a day’s visit ten years ago. Along our way, splashes of color marked the city, almost as if an artist with a thick brush and gallon of orange paint had gone traipsing through the city, dabbing a bit here and a bit there.
The local Miffy store had its own salute to the royals!
Some music and children’s activities were going on in the Vrijthof Square. In the background one sees the astonishing red tower of the 15th century Sint Janskerk (left). Immediately to its right is the 11th century Sint Servaasbasiliek. They stand side-by-side like ecclesiastical siblings.
We stopped for lunch in a cafe and then stepped into perhaps the most beautiful bookstore I’ve ever seen.
The old Dominicanerkerk had been converted into the Dominicanen Bookshop, coffee shop and artist exhibit space. While I’m always sad to see a worshiping space retired, it was warming to feel the bustle of all those gathered in this sanctuary full of books, an ongoing legacy of sorts from the scholarly tradition of the Dominicans.
The old nave is now a gathering spot for those meeting over coffee, or perhaps thumbing through a book purchase with one of those signature cups of Dutch mint tea. I wondered if those sitting at the cross-shaped table in the center were aware of their cruciform surroundings.
I loved the warm portraits that hung around the space.
Back outside in another square we met this statue of Jan Pieter Minckeleers, a Dutch scientist who invented the gas lamp. After touring a bit more around town, we shared some dinner, and then headed towards the river where we could hear Maastricht’s Koningsdag celebration in full swing. People had gathered around a stage where a Dutch crooner, think Tom Jones or Tony Bennett, had the crowd in his hand. Hear a snippet below as the crowd joins in.
The next morning, Sunday morning, I made my way over to Sint Janskerk for the morning service. The striking hue of the tower pops in the sunlight.
The congregation gathered in a semi-circle around the raised pulpit found in most Dutch churches. I caught bits and pieces of the sermon in Dutch and joined in the hymns that were led by a gorgeous organ.
The service then concluded with the singing of the Dutch National Anthem, which I assumed is traditional on the Sunday closest to Koningsdag. The full anthem includes six verses, the first letter of each spell out W-i-l-l-e-m.
After the service I shared some coffee during the fellowship hour and spoke with a few locals who have been coming to the church for decades. Fortified by my double cappuccino, I walked around the church.
At the far end of the church, the floor was covered with tombs of the honored from centuries past. Above, the windows soared up like redwoods. I always wonder what it must have felt like, 500 years ago, for people who lived in squat mud and peat homes to come into these massive worshiping spaces. I’m left transfixed myself in 2019.
After church, Janet, Elyse and I hopped on a bus. I had an overdue appointment.
Over the course of my life, I’ve had the privilege of living or traveling in Europe at several different points. And yet across these various times, I hadn’t visited any of the U.S. military cemeteries which are the final resting place for so many Americans who made just one trip to Europe. And so a visit to the Netherlands American Cemetery outside of Maastricht — the one U.S. military cemetery on Dutch soil — was a must. (As it happens, two college roommates of mine will be visiting later in May, and after spending time in the Netherlands and Belgium, we will be heading to Normandy to visit some of the memorials and cemeteries there.)
Nine miles out of town, we came to the marker and entrance for the Netherlands American Cemetery which was established in 1944.
The front gate to the cemetery was flanked by two heavy stone markers. We stepped off the bus and and made the walk up the drive.
As we made our way, we could see a line of rain coming up the valley.
The sky turned dark as we came upon the plaza which serves as the Court of Honor. The walls to the left and right list the names of 1,722 service men who were missing in action in the local theatre.
We stepped into the small visitors center when heavy rain started to blanket the site. I appreciated the pause, as it allowed me to read about Private George Peters, First Lieutenant Walter Will and others who had posthumously been awarded the Medal of Honor for exceptional valor and sacrifice.
The rain eased and we stepped back out onto the Court of Honor. On the opposite side was an enclosure that featured large maps on tall marble walls which detailed the campaigns from D-Day through to the end of the war in Europe.
We then walked along the reflecting pool on up to the memorial.
The statue before the pool is dedicated to the women who served in the war, as well as those women who mourned the loss of husbands, fathers, brothers and sons. We left the pool and walked up the steps that lead to the burial grounds where 8,301 U.S. service members are buried.
There’s a silence that naturally falls upon you in the face of the rows upon rows upon rows of graves, marked by crosses and the star of David.
As I walked among the grave markers, I noticed names, ranks, dates of death, and home states. I quickly saw two soldiers’ graves who hailed from the midwest region where we had most recently lived (Kansas) and where I served a church (Missouri).
A written guide to the cemetery told me that those buried came from every state in the nation and the District of Columbia. There were also 41 pairs of brothers. In our present era, where the U.S. seems so riven by divisions, could we imagine such joined sacrifice, such common purpose, such mutual reliance?
Standing amidst the thousands of graves, I sought a way to connect with those around me. I ended up picking a row.
At the end of my row, I looked back over the line of graves.
The rain had tapered off and I continued to walk around the cemetery. As I did, a tune from a Lenten hymn came to my mind. “Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?”
Beyond these graves were beautiful fields, quiet now in the peace purchased by those in the ground. In the solitude of this space, surrounded by the witness of those who confronted the challenge of their time and gave the ultimate, I considered whether I could dare to live by such courage now. Could I live unafraid merely of what others thought? Could I live without timidity? Could I live with the purpose of conviction, absent arrogance, but steadfast in determination to confront the challenges that I may encounter in my own life or across our society today? Could I? Looking across the lawn, how could I not?
This couple was walking among the graves. I wondered if they were one of “them.” “They” are the Dutch who have adopted the graves in the cemetery. Later I would visit with Juan Gutierrez, the Assistant Director of the Netherlands American Cemetery. He told me how Maastricht had been an R&R location for some of the U.S. troops. Many G.I.s came to the city and got to know some of the residents. Then, they would be called back to the front. Many, Juan told me, “came back loaded in a truck.” Because of those relationships, Dutch families started adopting graves of individual soldiers back in 1944 and 1945. Today, all 8,301 graves are adopted. They are passed on from generation to generation, and there is a waiting list of more than 500 people waiting to adopt a grave.
Each grave site that was adorned with a bouquet of flowers had been placed there by their Dutch family.
The adopting families formed a foundation which organizes special events and times of commemoration around Memorial Day and other times in the year.
As I continued my circle around the cemetery, others were making the very slow, deliberate walk around the grounds.
I then noticed how the side of the tall memorial facing the cemetery actually contained an interior space for some use. Perhaps it held further information about those who had served or about the military campaigns in the area. I wasn’t fully prepared for what I was about to see, especially given the theme of this entire weekend.
It was a chapel. And suspended from above, a crown. A crown for a king, the King of kings.
Amidst the Christian symbolism, a marker for the Jewish faithful.
It was a moving conclusion to this visit, and to this Koningsdag weekend.
We left Maastricht that afternoon and made our way back north to Groningen. Now it’s a week later, May 4th, a day when I would encounter King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima again. May 4th is the day that the Dutch remember all those who died in World War II and in military service in years since. There was a service at the Nieuwe Kerk located on one side of the large Dam Square in Amsterdam with a wreath laying ceremony to follow at a monument in the square. Both the service and wreath-laying ceremony is carried on Dutch television. Janet, Elyse and I watched from home.
Following the service in the Nieuwe Kerk, King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima entered the square and walked down the aisle cleared through the crowd. I was struck by the simplicity and the solemnity of the event. There was not a word raised as the King and Queen made their way through the crowd. No cheers. No flags were waved.
At a couple minutes before 8:00 p.m., King and Queen stepped forward and laid the first wreath. A bugler played. Bells then tolled, the conclusion of which signaled the beginning of two minutes of silence that would be observed across the entire nation. I read how for these two minutes, no planes would either land or take off from Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. Trains and buses would come to a stop. The silence was a requiem for all those who suffered in war, who gave their lives, and for the hope of peace.
Below is a video of the wreath laying and then those two minutes.
After all the wreaths had been laid, some speeches were made. At their conclusion, the King and Queen and other dignitaries processed out of the square. Then the 20,000 or so who had gathered, quietly departed into the cool Dutch night.