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Destination: The Netherlands : Pilgrims’ Progress : In Amsterdam and Leiden, tracing the years spent in Holland before they sailed to the New World

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Standing in the enormous Dam Square in the center of old Amsterdam, I was tempted to block out the sounds of the trams, cars and pedestrians; to envision this most modern of European cities when it was home to the Pilgrims, in the decade before they journeyed to America. My husband and I were here to connect with a part of our American heritage, to travel back to the roots of that most American of holidays, Thanksgiving. We had come to the Netherlands to walk in the Pilgrims’ footsteps.

In 1608, a dozen years before the Pilgrims left England to establish New England’s first permanent settlement in what became Plymouth Colony, they first sought refuge in Holland, in “the Low Countries, where they heard (there) was freedom of Religion for all men,” according to the writings of Pilgrim William Bradford. Although the Holland of their time proved too liberal for the Pilgrims, during their stay there they absorbed subtle aspects of Dutch ideas and traditions that they brought to their American home and, eventually, into our lives.

The 17th-Century Amsterdam that was the first stop on their journey was the center for an explosion of geographic exploration and international commerce. Established in 1602, the Dutch East India Co. was trading, among other things, the domestic pottery that made Delft famous, and Ming porcelain from China. The population was cosmopolitan, representing a cross-section of the world, including Germans, Poles, Hungarians, French, Spanish, Muscovites, Persians, Turks and Indians--most of whom came to buy and sell. Newcomers camped in temporary shelters outside the city walls while streets were laid and houses erected.

Walking through crowded Dam Square and listening to the intonations of an unfamiliar language, it was easy to imagine the confusion of the Pilgrim farmers from pastoral England.

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The Amstel river flowed freely through the Pilgrims’ Dam Square--the city’s heart--on its way toward the harbor linking it with countries beyond. The Dutch preoccupation with international commerce was reflected in the buildings surrounding the square. Except for the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) and the Town Hall, the main buildings were warehouses for Dutch traders.

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Today’s Dam Square remains the setting of much of Amsterdam’s public life. Nieuwe Kerk, first mentioned in writings from around 1400, continues to dominate the skyline, although it is now used not for religious purposes but as a public house where concerts and art exhibitions are held. Other historic buildings--including the Town Hall--have since disappeared.

Perhaps the best place to experience Amsterdam as the Pilgrims found it is in the Amsterdam Historical Museum. Located in a quiet courtyard off Kalverstraat, a few miles south of Dam Square, in a series of 17th-Century buildings that during the Pilgrim’s time housed the Civic Orphanage, the museum covers the history of the city from the mid-13th Century to the present and puts Amsterdam’s past into perspective, making subsequent walks around town more informative.

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Although identifying titles are in Dutch, the museum provides booklets with English translations. Yet many exhibitions need little explanation: An illuminated flat plan of the city shows how the city grew; a light picks out each 25-year period down through the centuries and simultaneously illuminates the relevant phase of the city’s growth; paintings depict the city’s historic landmarks as they were when originally constructed.

Next door is the Begijnhof courtyard: a magnificent diamond-shaped cobblestone collection of 17th-Century buildings. Although the houses are still occupied today, to enter the courtyard is to step back in time. The courtyard was constructed in 1346 as a cloister for Roman Catholic lay sisters. But in 1578, when the Reformation swept Holland, all Catholic churches became Protestant, including the one (now known as the English Reformed Church) standing within the Begijnhof. (A concealed Catholic church was subsequently located in one of the houses.)

The passageway connecting the Begijnhof to the Historical Museum is hung with oversize canvas paintings of the Amsterdam civic guard--a group of marksmen that formed a union for civic defense and to help maintain public order at the end of the 14th Century. They later founded guilds for archers, crossbowmen and men with early firearms. These group portraits, often painted at their annual banquets, hung in their respective guild houses, like group photos from a reunion. About 50 of these paintings hang here, the largest collection of its kind.

The glimpses these enormous paintings offer into the extravagant splendor of the age contrast sharply with the hard life the Pilgrims led in Amsterdam. “For though they saw fair and beautiful cities,” Pilgrim William Bradford later wrote, “flowing with abundance of all sorts of wealth and riches, it was not long before they saw the grim and grisly face of poverty.” Bradford himself, being a man of private means, was exempt from the hardship that befell the majority of the Pilgrims. Excluded from most of the trades by the powerful guild system, the Pilgrims were forced to take on poorly paid, unskilled work in the wool, leather and metal trades. It was Amsterdam’s exclusive guild system, compounded by quarrels with other separatist groups such as the Brownists, another Protestant sect from England, that led the Pilgrims just eight months later to relocate to Leiden, then the second largest city in Holland.

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The Leiden that Bradford wrote of as being “a fair & bewitifull citie, and of a sweete situation,” is still palpable 300 years later. Until recently the town was not prosperous, making it a time capsule of sorts for experiencing the past. We found the best visual view of Leiden from the Burg, or citadel, an artificial circular mound--the town’s only hillock--and the point where the Old and New Rhines unite at the town’s center. The Burg is 150 feet in diameter at its summit and crowned by an old brick fort. It looks down on the black-tile roofs of the houses that separate it from the river. The city’s most conspicuous features survive, including the two great Reformed churches where the Pilgrims were not allowed to worship but under which they buried their dead: St. Pancras, Hooglandsche Kerk (Church of the Highlands) and Pieterskerk (St. Peter’s Church).

Leiden University weighed heavily in the Pilgrims’ decision to relocate there. One of their leaders, John Robinson, a Cambridge-educated man, believed the scholarly environment would be sympathetic to their cause. He made a direct appeal to the Council of Leiden to obtain permission to settle in the city. The council granted them residency on grounds that “they refuse no honest persons free ingress to come and have their residence in this city; provided that such persons behave themselves and submit to the laws and ordinances.” A copy of that request, entered in the court journal, became among the first in which the group was officially referred to as the Pilgrims.

The document is housed in the Leiden Pilgrim Document Center, located behind the Municipal Archives Office on Vliet canal. (It was from this canal that the Pilgrims left for the port of Delfshaven, where they stayed for a night before departing for England on the Speedwell. In England they boarded the Mayflower for their journey to America in 1620.) The document is available for viewing upon request. The archives office is an essential stop for those tracing the footsteps of the Pilgrims in Holland. An informative exhibition and slide show explores the Pilgrims’ experience in Holland.

Thus prepared for our walking tour of the city, we left the center guided by a map of important Pilgrim sites that we were given at the Document Center.

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At the Stedelijk Museum, in what was during the 1600s the old cloth merchants’ hall, the history of Leiden unfolds in exhibitions that depict activities of the various guilds. Rooms furnished and containing beautiful silverware and paintings from the Dutch Golden Age make visitors feel as though they have wandered into a Dutch still-life.

Much like these artifacts, old Leiden is a city of domestic beauty. There are no great vistas, except the one from the top of the Burg. Instead, the town’s charm and history are found in its narrow, curving streets filled with beautiful houses, side by side, all different and as individual as their gables--pointed, stepped, necked, belled.

Near the center of the original city is the huge but severely plain Pieterskerk. It was there, wandering on foot along the twisting cobbled, medieval streets surrounding St. Peter’s Church, that we found ourselves in the Leiden of the Pilgrims. The majority of the Pilgrims lived within a quarter-mile radius of St. Peter’s. Forbidden to worship in any ordinary church or chapel, the group needed a house large enough to accommodate the several dozen members of the congregation. In 1611, they acquired land to build the house that became known as Groenpoort (Green Gate), across the Kloksteeg (Bell Lane)--a narrow but important street just across from St. Peter’s. There, in an area close to the university and reachable from all directions by a web of converging streets, they built Robinson’s house, as well as 21 one-room dwellings in the courtyard.

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The stones of the small square carry the memories of more than one group of foreigners who were welcomed or, at the least, tolerated. Pesijnhofje, the current house on the property where Robinson’s house stood, was built in 1683 as an almshouse for French Huguenots and can still be visited today. Robinson was buried in or near the baptistery of St. Peter’s. Directly across the street from Pesijnhofje in St. Peter’s facade is a plaque commemorating Robinson and the sailing of the Pilgrims to the New World.

Unlike Amsterdam, Leiden did not have a strict guild system that prevented the Pilgrims from finding work. Records mention the occupations of 86 Pilgrims. While the majority worked in the cloth trade, they were also polishers, ribbon weavers, tobacco workers, pipe makers, stocking sellers, wood sawyers and twine makers--trades at which these farmers could become skilled with some ease.

After 11 years in Leiden, the Pilgrims began preparations to leave. Ultimately, the Dutch had proved too liberal for the Pilgrims. Resistant to their conversion efforts, the Dutch continued a loose observance of the Sabbath and what the Pilgrims saw as a lax discipline of children. Ironically, the very liberalness and tolerance that flourished in the cosmopolitan Dutch republic and that drew the English Pilgrims were the qualities that ultimately drove them to find a new home in North America. The Pilgrims feared assimilation into a general population indifferent to their religious fervor, as their time in Holland lengthened. While some attained modest prosperity, most continued to live in poverty and hardship.

The Pilgrim’s immigration options were the South American region of Guiana and a part of the North American Territory granted in 1606 to the Virginia Company. Negotiations began in 1617.

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Three years later, on July 31, 1620, the Pilgrims left Leiden on the Speedwell bound for Delfshaven. Their Vliet canal route remains much as it was then, stretching south for a mile and then turning to the southwest. The distance is 25 miles and probably took six to eight hours.

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Chief among the sites to visit in Delfshaven is the Pilgrim Fathers’ Church. There is no hard evidence to support the claim--prevalent in Holland today--that the Pilgrims held services there just before their departure from Holland. But whether they actually worshiped in it or not, the Pilgrims have through time become irrevocably linked with this small church. A medallion in one of the stained glass windows commemorates the sailing of the Speedwell, as do memorials erected by such American groups as the Boston Congregational Club. For years, Americans living and working in the Hague, Rotterdam and Amsterdam, were drawn here for Thanksgiving Day service in such numbers that services had to be relocated to St. Peter’s in Leiden.

Our pilgrimage ended on the bridge over the canal by which the Pilgrims left Holland--where old Holland connects to the new, with the great modern port of Rotterdam visible in the distance. Yet the influence of the Dutch did not end with the Pilgrim’s departure for the New World. The celebration of Thanksgiving and the many political freedoms we hold dear may never have come to be had our Pilgrim forefathers not experienced the liberties of the Dutch republic.

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The leaders organized the colony with ideas derived from both their English heritage and the Dutch experience. The Mayflower Compact (the Pilgrims’ agreement to establish a government) established an elected democracy similar to that in which the Pilgrims had participated in Leiden, as members of smaller groups that controlled local affairs, taxes and safety in each of Leiden’s 143 neighborhoods.

To an extent unknown elsewhere at the time, the Dutch constitution was founded upon and adjusted to this foundation of independent local sovereignties, or municipal governments. The military leader Miles Standish trained the Pilgrim militia using Dutch drill books. There was no minister in Plymouth Colony and when couples decided to marry, Gov. Bradford took a step unprecedented in English law: They were registered and married in civil ceremonies. He justified his actions by referring to the Dutch law requiring civil registration for marriages of non-members of the Dutch Reform church.

While the Pilgrims’ years in Holland were undeniably marked by trials and hardship, the experience exposed our forefathers to concepts of government and customs that we continue to hold dear today. Like all travelers, the Pilgrims were changed in many ways by their Holland experiences. We were too.

GUIDEBOOK: Housing in Holland

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Getting there: From LAX fly nonstop to Amsterdam on KLM and Northwest; or direct with one stop, no change of planes, on United; round-trip fares start at about $760.

Where to stay: Ambassade, 341 Herengracht, Amsterdam; 52 rooms in nine 17th-Century canal houses. Doubles about $170; from U.S. telephones 011-31-20-626-2333.

Amsterdam Hilton, 138 Apollolaan, Amsterdam; doubles about $290 per room; tel. 011-31-20-678-0780.

Golden Tulip Leyden, Schipholweg 3, Leiden; new 51-room hotel; doubles about $155; tel. 011-31-71-22-1121.

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Hotel Nieuw Minerva, Boomarkt 23, Leiden; a quaint little hotel in the heart of old Leiden; doubles about $95 with a typical Dutch breakfast of cold cuts and breads; tel. 011-31-71-12-6358.

Rotterdam Hilton, Weena, Rotterdam; centrally located with a gracious staff; doubles about $275; tel. 011-31-10-414-4044.

Where to Eat: Due Tonino, Goudseingel, Rotterdam; good Italian food with fabulous pizza in an intimate setting; tel. 011-31-10-433-1063.

Kantjil En De Tijger, 291 Spuistraat, Amsterdam; an Indonesian restaurant; tel. 011-31-20-620-0994.

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Oudt Leyden, Steenstraat, Leiden; traditional Dutch fare; tel. 011-31-71-13-3144.


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