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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
What it cost for two
Weekend package £288
Meals and drinks £200
First published by the Telegraph