A Blog by International Students at Leiden University
Oh I do like to be beside the seaside. One of Leiden’s big advantages is also one of its most under-reported amongst the international students here. I’ve spoken to people who spend a whole year here without being aware of it. It’s a short ride away, offers the opportunity to get away from it all when consecutive 23:59 deadlines have ramped the pressure up, and is also a great place to head to when you just feel like a change of scenery. Of course, I’m referring to the fact that Leiden is actually only a few minutes from the North Sea coast, and the sea-side towns of Katwijk and Noordwijk.
Taking the bus, it’s probably just a few euros return. I’m not exactly sure, but that’s because when I feel like a break I hop on my bike and follow the paths along the canals out to the coast. From where I live, this journey starts as a picturesque jaunt, passing tulip fields, equestrian centres and a small marina where the storks stand guard over the holiday boats and little dinghies. The end point of the journey is equally pretty, and probably more impressive, cresting the cycle route laid along the dunes and coasting down the grassy paths towards the crashing waves and glistening sands. Unfortunately, the middle of my cycle ride is marred by the tricky negotiation of a couple of business parks and industrial zones, with heavy freight starting journeys up the motorway to Amsterdam or down towards Eindhoven. But to be honest, if you ride like the locals, this challenge is easily overcome. Certainly not something to put you off taking a trip to the beach on a sunny day.
Katwijk isn’t a quaint, or charming, or memorable town. It’s just quiet. Someone once described it to me as the Florida of the Netherlands – effectively a water-side retirement village. Another friend reacted with great excitement when I told her of one of my trips to the town, asking if it was indeed the conservative Lutheran stronghold she had heard it was, and if the supposed fiery subculture of rebellious young protestant Dutch did actually exist. Sadly for her, my trips to Katwijk have included only the beach and the boardwalk, and have not taken in any religious institutions or underground dens of iniquity, so I couldn’t give her an honest answer. That said, the next time I cycled out along the sea-front, her comments caused me to wonder exactly just what was going on in the identikit pre-fab beach houses that line the promenade.
Noordwijk, by contrast, it not quiet. It’s buzzing, with modern hotels, cinemas, casinos and a lively strip with all the required coastal amenities. However, it is a fair old trek away. Katwijk is to the (north-)west of Leiden, but Noordwijk is a few kilometres to the north of Katwijk. It’s a bit more of a day-trip, at a comfortable 30 minutes ride on the dune paths. These bike paths wind their way along the coast, climbing to the top of windblown peaks of sand, doubling back on themselves as they go, then seeming to drop away sharply, almost into the sea, before recovering to run right along the top of the dunes and then down into Noordwijk. Being blunt, this is probably the hilliest ride you’ll take throughout the western provinces of Holland.
At both towns, the beaches are long and straight, and provide plenty of space for everyone. Lots of Dutch families (complete with often scarily large but lovely-looking dogs) descend on the beach on days off, while students in the know throw frisbees or footballs around. A bit further up the coast I’m told the beach becomes a nudist paradise, but you’re safe and sound and not in for naked shocks if you stay to the main beach of either town. In fact, at this time of year I’d say you’re not that likely to see any exposed flesh at all – the biting winds and icy waters should be enough to put off even the hardiest of beachgoers. Come the summer, this picture is sure to change – there’ll still be the occasional gusts, and squally showers, but on the long sunny days that I’m promised will at some point appear these two small coastal towns will be transformed. And when they are, I plan to be there to make the most of my proximity to the golden sands!