A Blog by International Students at Leiden University
There were fish, everywhere. All kinds of sparkling scales and glistening gills caught my eye as I battled through the hordes of tourists and locals crammed into the narrow alleys between the market stalls and the shop fronts lining the Niewe Rijn. The smells of batter, spice mix and freshly fried fish were drawing huge and hungry crowds to the fishmongers’ counters, and the area was gridlocked. The unwise or unwarned attempted in vain to force their bikes through the melee, but this was one area of the Netherlands where bikes weren’t taking priority. Here, the focus was on fish. The seagulls knew this too, and the super-sized scavengers were sweeping around the red and white striped awnings, sharp eyes and sharper beaks ready for the inevitable, that moment when a tourist loses focus, a beautiful bite of battered cod halfway to his mouth, and the tasty morsel drops, almost in slow motion, to the ground. The gulls are on the scrap before it even hits the grubby cobbles, a whoosh of feathers acting as the tell-tale sign that some poor soul is missing a part of his lunch.
On the rickety footbridge over the Nieuwe Rijn, bikes lie piled against the handrails, sprawling over the decking, turning the crossing into a narrow passageway between bells and spokes. Half-open panniers flap, slightly open in the blustery wind, flicking the coat-tails of the market-goers as they pick their way through the maze of bicycles towards the less-fishy, but equally busy, west bank of the canal. Here, truckloads of verdant salad vegetables adorn trestles and shelves, no matter what the season. Huge bulbous winter roots cause the tables to creak, and the vendors call out, competing with each other to attract the largest crowds, to sell the most pre-prepared Hutspot packages, and to cause the most chaos in front of their stalls for anyone just trying to make their way along the canal-side. It seems as though the vegetable growers of the polders have dragged their entire season’s growth into the market, and are determined to sell it all in one shot. (Only later, riding the Snelltrein through the countryside towards Utrecht, would I see the acres of gleaming glass greenhouses, the agricultural factories that feed not just the Leiden market, but the whole of Holland, and much of Europe too.)
It’s hard to stop and stare during the busiest times at the Market. More often, its a case of just observing as much as possible whilst being swept along in a human tide. When members of this tide are often wielding bucket-loads of fried fish or attempting to spear other shoppers with their recently acquired giant cucumbers, this can be quite an unpleasant experience. But outside of peak times, a quiet charm replaces the frenetic excitement and competition. It’s then that it’s possible really enjoy the market, to munch on oliebollen or poffertjes, to pick up some bargains at the bike stands, and to linger for a while under the awnings of the stalls of the local dairy farmers, who arrive at the crack of dawn with more cheese than can be imagined, and leave, when darkness has fallen once more, with just waxy rinds and empty vans. Mountains of dairy products are stacked high into the air, each hardened round of cheese and paper-wrapped slab of butter balanced precariously upon the products below. Fortunately for my wallet, I don’t have the space in my bag for rounds of cheese as large as my head, so I wander on, growing weary. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of cafes and around the market, so, needing my mid-afternoon pick-me-up, I dive into a charming little place, get myself some coffee and a slice of apple cake with cream, and perch in the window to watch the early darkness of late autumn creep in and around the stalls, slowly closing the Saturday market down for another week.