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A descendant's pilgrimage to Leiden, the Dutch town they called home before setting sail for the New World

November 22, 1998|DALE M. BROWN | Brown, a former Time-Life Books editor, lives in Alexandria, Va

LEIDEN, Netherlands — Why Leiden, birthplace of Rembrandt, is so often bypassed by travelers to Holland I have no idea, for it is a gem of a city. Small, walkable, with plenty of canals, museums and ancient buildings, it lies less than an hour from Amsterdam by train and easily can be seen in a day.

And, of course, it holds special meaning for Americans, since it was the refuge of the Pilgrims for almost a dozen years before they finally sailed for the New World.

My special reason for wanting to see Leiden was that I--along with several hundred other Americans--am a direct descendant of William Brewster, the good gray elder of the Pilgrim church. This is not to wave the Mayflower flag; my father's people never made anything of the connection. Being farmers, they were too practical--and too busy--to join organizations like the General Society of Mayflower Descendants or the Elder Brewster Society.

But in this age when a third of Internet usage supposedly is devoted to genealogical sleuthing, there's nothing quite like family roots to make history spring to life. So I looked forward to being my own kind of pilgrim in the city where my ancestor once lived. Besides, from what I had read, Brewster seemed such a decent fellow: "Wise and discreet and well spoken . . . of a very cheerful spirit, very sociable and pleasant among his friends," as his contemporary William Bradford described him.

As it turned out, the Leiden tourist office makes a pilgrimage easy. It has a map and guide that outlines a walk through town that will take you to all the sites associated with the Pilgrims, including Brewster's house on Stincksteeg (Stink Alley), renamed William Brewstersteeg, no doubt with modern visitors' sensibilities in mind. Even Brewster seems to have had second thoughts about his address. Some of the religious books he published from his house bear the imprint of Choir Alley, a passageway adjacent to the Stincksteeg house.

Coming to Leiden from Amsterdam in early September, I was unprepared for the modernity of the railroad station, wrapped as it is in a kind of cage of white metal girders. Another surprise was the sea of bicycles I encountered in the plaza outside, hundreds upon hundreds of them, slouched against one another, waiting idly for their owners to return at day's end from jobs in nearby cities such as The Hague and Utrecht.

I had only to walk down the street to see that Leiden is really a small town, with a low skyline punctuated by steeples and the gables of old houses. Its population is 130,000, only 100,000 more than it was in Rembrandt's time, when Leiden, with its peerless university, was considered the most beautiful and charming city in Holland. A center of tolerance, it drew English and French refugees--including those English "separatists," the future Pilgrims, seeking to escape the rigid edicts of King James I and practice their determined, austere form of Protestantism.

Consulting the map/guide to Pilgrim sites I had picked up at the tourist office near the railroad station, I walked down Stationstraat, a broad street leading into town. I made the recommended left turn onto Rijnsburgersingel and caught sight of a windmill, De Valk (the falcon), standing tall and proud in a lovely little park. Built in 1743 atop the city's fortified walls--long since torn down--the windmill continued to grind wheat for flour well into the 1920s.

The door was open, and I went inside to find that it held a windmill museum devoted to the history of milling and the life, skills and techniques typical of an 18th century miller. Climbing to the top story, up ladder-like wooden stairs, I had a bracing view of Leiden, with the mill's great sails--now held stationary against the wind--forming an enormous X above my head.

From my aerie, I could orient myself in the direction of the Hooglandse Kerk (Highland Church), a cathedral from the Middle Ages that rose in the center of town. Down on the ground again, I headed toward the church along a broad canal, Oude Singel, lined with antique buildings. On the way, I passed the stately, almost palatial Lakenhal (Cloth Hall), dating from 1640, when it was the center of the textile industry that made Leiden rich. Today it is a museum containing paintings by such Dutch masters as Lucas van Leyden, Rembrandt, Jan Steen, Gerard Dou and Frans van Mieris, all of whom worked in the city. I passed it up, vowing to return later in the day.

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