The Hague (Financial Times: How To Spend It 11/02)

 The Hague: Once it was Europe’s political and aesthetic heart, but time hasn’t stood still in a city that offers a rich combination of art, cuisine and architecture.

The 19th-century German writer and philosopher Heinrich Heine once wrote that were he ever certain that the world was coming to an end, he would move to the Netherlands “because everything happens 50 years later there.”

Today’s forward-looking Netherlanders are no longer so removed from the world. Nor would the 16m inhabitants of Europe’s most densely populated country wish it to be. However, on your next visit to the Netherlands, if you’re sufficiently canny to add Den Haag to your itinerary, you can still savour the wonderful otherworldiness that Heine wrote about. That, along with all the cultural and culinary attractions of a world-class city, which The Hague — or royal Hague, as it likes to call itself — most assuredly is. There are very many special features unique to this fascinating and oft-misunderstood metropolis of 450,000 — which also happens to be the administrative centre of the country — including its own miniature city, Madurodam, and adjoining North Sea resort of Scheveningen.

As one would expect from the Netherlands’ oldest city (sorry, village: Count Wilhelm, it’s 12th-century founder, never bothered to apply for a formal city charter), The Hague is replete with architectural landmarks. Begin your exploration with a stroll around the Binnenhof, the impressive, crenellated compound of buildings that form the heart of the original “city”.

Most imposing of these is the 800-year-old Ridderzaal or Knights’ Hall, the original home of the Dutch parliament, the States-General (now housed in the Binnenhof nearby). Each autumn, on Prinsjesdag (Prince’s Day), which always falls on the third Tuesday of September, the Binnenhof is the focus of Dutch eyes as Queen Beatrix arrives to open parliament. Setting off the area is the Hofvijver, a Shimmering rectangle of water graced by the fabled Mauritshuis. This was once the stately home of Prince Johan Maurits van Nassau, the 17th-century Dutch governor of Brazil, and is now one of the world’s great small museums. Dedicated to preserving both the art and atmosphere of the first tenant’s expansive time, when for a century or so Holland ruled both the real world and the aesthetic one, this stateliest of Dutch homes houses such renowned works as Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and “View of Delft”, and Rembrandt’s “Self-Portrait”, as well as other truly memorable canvasses, including Hans Holbein’s absorbing portrait of Roger casement, Henry VIII’s falconer, and the mesmerizing early 17th-century pronkstilleven, or still lifes, of Jan de Heem.

Then take a stroll along the Lange Vijverberg, the bucolic, gravel-paved avenue facing the Hofvijver, which by night becomes The Hague’s lovers’ lane. Around the corner is its even more grandiose cousin, the celebrated Lange Voorhout. One of Europe’s great boulevards, this wide, leafy street is the Netherlands’ embassy row. From April to October it hosts a sprawling antiques market on Thursdays and Sundays.

It’s also where you’ll find the 120-year-old Hotel des Indes, one of the Netherlands’ most famous hostelries. Originally intended as a pied-á-terre for the 19th-century Dutch grandee Baron van Brienen (whose principal residence was located in Clingendael, the Hyde Park of The Hague), the five-floor hotel definitely has a palatial feeling about it. The building was constructed so that the baron’s friends could arrive by horse, enter and proceed directly to the stables. Those stables now house the hotel’s immense and inviting lobby and the hotel’s early Wilhelmina era (to you, Edwardian) bar. Over the years, many luminaries have passed through the fabled wrought-iron entrance, including Churchill, Eisenhower, Anna Pavlova (who died here in 1931 — there’s even a room named after her) and The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.

A stay at the Hotel des Indes is a memorable experience, and dinner here is an appropriately royal affair. Treat yourself to the duckling breast with ravioli stuffed with truffles, horse mushrooms and broccoli. Or, around the corner, there’s the fine new Italian restaurant, Impero Romano, which caters for an appreciative crowd of ambassadors and the like. Try the sea bass in a crystallized salt crust — it really is astonishing.

If the Hotel des Indes is booked, there’s the Crowne Plaza. This self-assured, five-star hotel is located halfway between the city centrum and the beach at Scheveningen. It even boasts its own wraparound gallery of modern art, whose works include a 1975 original Warhol print of a smiling Princess — as she then was — beatrix. Its top-flight restaurant is a favoured lunch place with the rich and beautiful. Try the roasted guinea fowl with asparagus and a morel sauce at its Brasserie Promenade.

At the centre of things is the venerable (and very friendly) 111-room Park Hotel on the beguiling, narrow Molenstraat. Order a jonge jenever at the hotel’s lobby bar and sip it while contemplating the eternal verities in the delightful garden. Down the block, the colourful H&M Café is one of The Hague’s best people-watching spots, as well as another fine place to lunch. Try the colourful club sandwich.

Commune with the modern Dutch masters at the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague’s justly famed museum of modern art. Recently reopened after an extensive renovation, this classic early 20th-century building by HP Berlage is divided into four galleries for its collections of modern art, porcelain and applied art, fashion and musical instruments. Most first-time visitors head for the modern art section and the singular trove of paintings by Piet Mondrian. However, the other collections are also worth a look, as is the intriguingly designed interlocking building itself.

Start your second day with a visit to a museum with a view, the enchanting Panorama Mesdag. Its showpiece is the Panorama Mesdag, a circular panoramic painting with a circumference of 120 metres and a height of 14 metres depicting Schevengingen when it was still a fishing village. It was executed by HW Mesdag in 1880 and is one of the world’s finest surviving panoramas. Lose yourself in the persuasive illusion, enhanced by the mounds of real sand the frame the monumental canvas.

But devote the core of your day to exploring Noordeinde and Denneweg, The Hague’s two bounteous shopping streets, which run parallel to each other on either side of the Lange Voorhout. Each boasts exquisitely set shop windows. Smelik & Stokking, on Noordeinde, is the place to shop for the sumptuous modern pronkstilleven of the new Dutch masters such as Klaas Wiedijk, while Pieter Denijs is where one can aquire a Carl Appel painting and other members of the modern expressionist Cobra school. Nayler & Co, on Frederik Hendriklaan, is a Dutch English bilingual bookstore that stocks lots of hard-to-find titles. Pallas & Janos dispenses old maps and prints to the royal family and will be very happy to do the same for you. PW Akkerman, in the Mayfair-like Passage shopping arcade, specializes in selling exquisite stationary and writing instruments.

Prince Maurits would have approved of La Mano Maestro, a fashionable café on Noordeinde that offers and array of fine teas such as Ambootia Darjeeling and Ceylon orange pekoe. On Denneweg, Café Hopsters is an equally grand place ot take a break. Ready for lunch? Then repair to Dekxels, a trendy new spot where the young kitchen crew serve up such colourful creations as salad with tempura shrimp garnished with macadamia nuts and grapefruit.

After lunch, head for the ever-amusing lilliputian city of Madurodam. Such sights as Amsterdam’s canal houses, the Alkmaar cheese market and the great Dutch delta works, as well as a railroad and a nudist beach, are replicated in very convincing 1:25 scale. At night the mini-metropolis, the Netherlands’ most popular tourist attraction, is flooded with 50,000 lights.

For dinner, return to the Netherlands’ colonial past with an exotic rijstafel (rice table) at top Indonesian restaurant Tempat Senang, an institution since 1922. Or catch the best view in town along with superlative Cantonese fare at Sapphire, at the top of an 18-storey tower near the city’s sprawling new Tokyo-style government district. Go for the Peking duck or the Emperor lobster with ginger and spring onions.

Cap off your weekend in The Hague by moving to Scheveningen, the city’s festive seaside half. The cleaned-up resort boasts such attractions as the new-fangled Sea Life Scheveningen, a modern aquarium brimming with all kinds of multicoloured fish, and the high-end, neon-coated Holland Casino, where you can see equally colourful humans slither around the tables.

Overlooking all this is the landmark Steigenberger Kurhaus hotel, the grand dame of the North Sea. Over the years, its soaring painted ceiling has resonated with the music of everyone from Yves Montand to The Rolling Stones. Take breakfast on your balcony facing the famed Scheveningen promenade with a complement of attentive seagulls. Dinner at Kandinsky, the hotel’s Suprematist-adorned restaurant, is also a must. You can gaze at the crowds while tucking into courgette blossoms filled with lobster mousse and set on caremelised asparagus.

Afterwards, stroll along to the famed Scheveningen Pier. Once you reach the end, climb the winding tower all the way to the top, then let your eye drift over the crowds that throng the beach from spring well into the Dutch autumn. Standing there with one of Europe’s great panoramic views facing you, it is still possible to believe that here, as Heine once wrote, everything indeed happens 50 years later.