Visiting Breda in the Netherlands – a worthy Dutch alternative
By Stuart Forster
There’s something beautiful about sitting outside at the table of a Continental terrace cafe on a sunny autumn day. Perhaps the cold air accentuates the warm aroma of the freshly brewed coffee, or maybe it’s the way soft golden light warms the faces of passing pedestrians?
I’m enjoying this moment of people watching in Breda, in the south-west of the Netherlands. Breda (pronounced ‘Bray-dar’ by locals) might not be a name that resonates as highly as Amsterdam or Rotterdam in terms of international recognition, but it’s a great example of a cultured regional city that offers much to travellers willing to stray from the bright lights of the bigger cities. It’s not even much of a detour to get here. Rotterdam, just 43 km distant, is only a 32 minute train ride to the north. As I sit with my coffee looking on at scenes of everyday life on the Grote Markt, the cobbled market square at Breda’s heart, I silently praise the urban planners who allowed a modern city to evolve while retaining the centre’s historic character.
Breda, in the province of North Brabant, is home to almost 175,000 inhabitants and has a well-to-do feel. Strolling along the lanes leading away from Grote Markt, I’m impressed by an extensive selection of shops. Boutiques as well as big name chains have a presence. Passing a snack bar, I’m drawn in by the chrome-fronted vending machines that dispense warm food, something I’ve only ever seen in the Netherlands. I stick in a coin buy a crispy croquette with a meaty filling. I nibble while window shopping in the De Barones shopping mall, which hosts 55 stores, then nip back outside onto Breda’s bustling streets.
Thanks to the city centre’s no motor vehicle rule it’s the hubbub of conversations and footfall of pedestrians that I can hear, creating a pleasant ambiance for exploring. I note that a good number of the shoppers have arrived on bicycles, which, of course, was a popular mode of transport here in the Netherlands long before Boris, Wiggo and co began to revive cycling’s popularity in the UK.
I stroll towards the Grote Kerk, also known as Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, meaning the Church of Our Lady. The 97 metre high steeple of the medieval church acts as Breda’s dominating landmark. Bredanaars, as locals call themselves, are proud to call their hometown a Nassaustad, thus emphasising the historic links with the once powerful Nassau dynasty. The sculpted tomb of Count Engelbert II of Nassau, the Stadtholder-General of the Netherlands, dating to 1510, is the most significant of several memorials within the Grote Kerk.
Back outside, I notice that I’ve undertaken a meandering loop through the city and returned to the cobbles of the Grote Markt. One of the city’s charms is that it’s easy to explore the attractions of Breda on foot. I cross to the town hall, known here as the Stadhuis, which faces onto the market square. A copy of Diego Velázquez’s famous painting The Surrender of Breda, which depicts Dutch troops surrendering to Ambrosio Spinola’s Spanish army on 5 June 1625, hangs within the great hall; the original is in Madrid’s Museo del Prado. The refined calm of Breda today belies the fact it played an important role in the long, bitterly fought struggle by the Dutch to win independence from Spain, a conflict that endured from 1567 to 1648. The city changed hands several times during that turbulent period.
Just a couple of minutes walk away from the town hall I take a look at one of the great legacies from that era of history. The Spanjaardsgat, a series of defensive towers overlooking a moat, guards a gate to the city’s castle. Unfortunately for would be visitors, the castle is not open to the public and since 1828 it has been the site of the Royal Military Academy. Nevertheless, it is possible to walk around the outside of the castle and to gain an impression of its size. Some of the best views of the castle are from the Kasteelplein, a square hosting an equestrian statue of William III of Orange, the man who was crowned as King of England in Westminster in 1689. Napoleon Bonaparte stayed here during 1810, at the building now used as the Museum of Ethnology (25 Kasteelplein). The French Emperor, famed for petulance as well as his military genius, is said to have expressed disappointment at the cool welcome given to him by locals.
That’s not a complaint I can echo. The previous night I’d visited a couple of the bars in the Havenmarkt district and the atmosphere was pleasant enough. Breda is known for its nightlife, boosted by the presence of a significant student population, and on evenings from Thursday until Saturday the streets are busy with revellers. The people in this region are proud of their sociability and camaraderie, naming the trait gezelligheid. “People enjoy life in this part of the Netherlands,” explained a local, in excellent English, during a conversation in one of the bars where music pumped and people swayed.
Perhaps I could have been more gezellig, or sociable, myself but made my excuses while the night was young and headed over to the Holland Casino, which opened in 2003 on the site of a former monastery, making use of the historic exterior walls. I’m not a gambler, as the croupiers probably noticed when I quickly lost my €20 gambling budget, but wanted to take a look inside of the plush casino, which locals celebrate as Europe’s largest, based on spatial volume. It adjoins the Chassé Theater, a cultural and entertainment centre designed by Herman Hertzberger, the architect who was awarded the 2012 Royal Gold Medal by the Royal Institute of British Architects.
I may not have won on the casino’s tables but in choosing Breda as the venue for my city break I could still walk back to my hotel feeling as if I’d picked a winner.
Breda Travel Tips
- For more information about the city visit the Breda Tourist Office website
- The four star Golden Tulip Keyser Hotel (tel. +31 (0)7652 05173) has 87 rooms and is close to the city centre.
- The three star De Klok Hotel (26-28 Grote Markt, tel. +31 (0) 7652 14082) is centrally located and also the site of the De Colonie restaurant.
- Eat overlooking the Grote Markt at the Zeezicht restaurant (1 Ridderstraat, Tel +31 (0) 76 514 8248). The menu is printed on sleeves containing LP records.