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Pageantry Aplenty

by Sarah Shuckburgh

Mid-November is a magical time to visit the Dutch city of Den Bosch, says Sarah Shuckburgh.

There is an air of expectancy in the market square of Den Bosch. Hundreds of people are waiting, quietly stamping cold feet on the cobbles, hands thrust deep into pockets, woolly hats pulled well down.

Baggy-trousered teenagers stand shoulder to shoulder with fur-coated elderly women. Babies, muffled and trussed, stare cautiously, sensing tension.

The half-hour carillon strikes from the town hall, and clockwork jousting knights appear, but the crowd's attention is elsewhere. Small children stand on tiptoe and whisper anxiously: "Will he come? Has he forgotten us? Have we been good enough?" My friend Will and I are intrigued and mystified.

Suddenly the distant beat of a drum sounds. A tremor runs through the crowd and every face turns towards one corner of the marketplace. Far away, a band strikes up, and gradually the faint sound grows and swells. Fathers heave toddlers on to their shoulders.

The crowd sways and shuffles towards the gathering sound. And at last, with a thunder of drums and cymbals, and a thrilling blast of brass, the band bursts on to the square.

The spell is broken. The crowd surges forward, yelling, laughing, pointing, chattering. Faces light up with joy: "Hij is daar. Hij is gekomen."

Astride a white stallion is none other than St Nicholas - Sinterklaas as he is called here - a snowy-headed bishop resplendent in flowing robes and a mitre. Around him revolves a kaleidoscope of colour, noise and movement.

Rising to the trot on a pair of black horses come swashbuckling cavaliers, sporting plumed hats and black beards. Horse-drawn drays carry more brass players, making more and more raucous music. But the focus of everyone's attention is the swarm of Zwarte Piets or Black Peters.

Like a weird outdoor Black and White Minstrel Show from the days before political correctness, hundreds of Dutchmen are covered in inky make-up. They are impeccably clad in colourful doublets and hose, with white stockings and richly embroidered jackets.

Their wigs glisten, black and curly; their gloves gleam pure white, and close inspection confirms that the jet-black make-up covers every nook and cranny of earlobe, eyelid and neck. Only the Nike and Reebok trainers strike an incongruous note. Some Black Peters roller skate, ride unicycles or stilt walk. Others wave from attic windows or prance along rooftops around the market square.

It's November 2003 and we are witnessing a curious pageant that is enacted throughout the Netherlands in the weeks before Christmas. In Dutch folklore, St Nicholas is kindly and good-tempered, but he is accompanied by mischievous Black Peters, who search out and punish children who have been naughty.

Children tiptoe forwards with trepidation, but they are lucky - today the Black Peters are generous, throwing a hail of sweets towards proffered Frisbees and baskets.

Every Dutch child knows that the Black Peters come from Spain, and sure enough, children who speak to them are answered with a "hola" or "muy bien".

The procession halts at the Stadhuis, where we sing carols, reading incomprehensible words from a four-storey banner dangling from the parapet.

Will and I are spending the weekend in 's-Hertogenbosch - a small city with a long history and a long name, which means the Duke's Wood. Scarcely visited by tourists, Den Bosch, as it is known, is lively and convivial, with some of Holland's best restaurants.

Hieronymus Bosch lived here all his life, and took his name from the town. The duke's wood is long gone, but the 16th- and 17th-century buildings that surround the marketplace stand on the exact site of the triangular fortress that was declared a city by Duke Hendrik of Brabant in the 12th century.

Twice a week, the market is filled with rows of tents covering stalls displaying fish, cheese, meat, bales of cloth, flowers, fruit and vegetables. Will and I buy sausages and a tablecloth on Saturday morning, and that afternoon, in the local museum, we gaze at the same scene in a 16th-century painting - the white canopies over the market stalls instantly recognisable.

The museum has some lovely flower paintings from the Golden Age of Dutch painting, and some gruesome instruments of torture, including a cloak of infamy, or schandhuik, made of wood carved with adders, toads and other symbols of infidelity. In the 17th century, unfaithful wives were forced to wear this cloak while being paraded through the city on a cart.

That night, we eat at the atmospheric Dry Hamerkens restaurant, feeling like characters in a Dutch painting. Bars stay open late in Den Bosch, and our walk back to the hotel takes several hours.

Dominating the city and surrounding marshland are the spires of St Janskathedraal, Holland's finest and largest Gothic cathedral. Here, on Sunday afternoon, Will and I witness another memorable medieval pageant.

Following a dozen robed and rosetted gentlemen into the vast, gloomy 14th-century nave, we find ourselves among the Fraternity of the Illustrious Lady, an organisation set up in 1318 to worship an even older wooden statue of Mary, which is credited with many miracles.

The brightly painted Zoete Lieve Vrouw (Dear Sweet Lady) is still venerated, and hundreds of lighted candles flicker in the Lady chapel.

For an hour, the cathedral's vast, candlelit interior echoes with sublime choral music. As we emerge into the icy night air, the rosetted brothers repair to the elegant Zwanenbroedershuis opposite the cathedral, and we hurry over the cobbles to the Korte Putstraat, a narrow street packed with restaurants.

We choose the lively Eetcafe Javaanse Jongens, and order an array of Indonesian dishes. Looking out on to the street, we catch occasional glimpses of Black Peters in varying states of inebriation.

We decide that we must have stepped out of the 21st century and into a timeless Dutch folk tale, in which we have spent the weekend stumbling upon curious pageants and magical, wintry celebrations in the Duke's Wood.

This year St Nicholas and the Black Peters will parade through Den Bosch on Sunday November 14.

Bosch basics

Getting there
KLM (0870 507 4074; www.klm.com) offers flights from Heathrow to Eindhoven in November (Friday-Monday), from £218. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) has flights from Stansted to Eindhoven from £62. Bus 410 runs from the airport to Eindhoven train station, where trains leave every 10-30 minutes for the 20-minute journey to Den Bosch.

Staying there
Golden Tulip Hotel, Burgemeester Loeffplein (0031 73 692 6926; www.hotel-central.nl), has double rooms from £96 a night and special weekend rates (Fri-Mon) from £72, subject to availability.

What it cost for two
Flights £436
Weekend package £288
Transfers £31
Meals and drinks £200
Total £955

First published by the Telegraph

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