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Most tourists settting off to practice their Dutch in the Netherlands have their sights set on the canals and museums of Amsterdam, but there’s much more to see in this tiny country than its cosmopolitan capital. Language learners especially will want to avoid spending too much time in the Netherlands’ largest city, where you’re more likely to hear English than Dutch at any given bar or tram stop.
But there’s an idyllic, perfectly gezellig little city just a half hour’s train ride to the southwest, and among its many charms is something special for Dutch learners and language enthusiasts in general.
Leiden is one of the medium-sized cities of the Netherlands, and it’s mostly known for being a city of students and rich frat boys with obnoxious accents. It’s home to the oldest and most prestigious university in the Netherlands. It’s a short bike ride from the famous tulip gardens at Keukenhof. And it has a historic city center so dense and packed it’ll fool you into thinking there are many more than 130,000 or so Leidenaren living there. It even has, as most Dutch cities, its own local dialect or streektaal, full of surprises for learners and speakers of standard Hollands who find themselves in fout bars along the rim of the moat-like singel that encircles the city and effectively makes it a tiny island.
But the most spectacular sight to behold in Leiden might be its muurgedichten, the more than hundred poems painted on the walls of the city in nearly as many different languages.
One of the obligatory activities for visitors in Leiden is the stadswandeling langs de muurgedichten, a walking tour through the highlights of the city’s many artfully painted poems from diverse languages and cultures along its walls. As you walk up and down the canals you’ll see poëzie in Japanese, Polish, Spanish, Arabic, and others, among many others in the more familiar Dutch and English languages.
The project began in 1992 and was sponsored by the gemeente. The municipal government, in cooperation with Stichting Tegen-Beeld, invited artists to come in and paint the muurgedichten throughout the city, in alleys and the sides of row houses and along the canals. The foundation’s website explains how the project began:
Het Leidse stadsbeeld is in de afgelopen jaren verfraaid met een groot aantal verrassende en fraai vormgegeven muurgedichten in de meest uiteenlopende talen. Ze maken deel uit van het project ‘Gedichten op Muren’, dat is gestart in 1992 met een gedicht van de Russische dichteres Marina Tsvetajeva. De muurgedichten zijn het werk van de stichting Tegen-Beeld. Maar behalve het aanbrengen van de muurgedichten organiseerde de stichting de afgelopen jaren nog vele andere culturele – meest literair geïnspireerde – activiteiten.
Although the project Gedichten op Muren officially ended in 2005, the tradition goes on today, and more poems are creeping up all over the city. As recently as 2014, eye-catching new wall poems like this one were appearing seemingly uit het niks throughout the city centre.
The muurgedichten are part of the strong local identity of this small city, and they give any wandeling through its streets a literary atmosphere. Any lover of languages is sure to enjoy the masterfully painted Chinese characters and Cyrillic letters hiding around every corner. There’s something about een bakkie doen under a colorful poem in a foreign language that makes any afternoon in Leiden a perfect experience.
Leiden’s muurgedichten have been such a popular success that in 2011 Stichting Tegen-Beeld exported the idea to Paris! You can purchase a copy of Dicht op de Muur, which features images and (Dutch) translations of every poem that was in place before its printing in 2008, in any of Leiden’s many bookstores, like the local favorite De Slegte.