A city steeped in rich medieval history, littered with relics from bygone ages, and, currently, overrun with the visions of a frequently overlooked, misunderstood and- aesthetically at least- twisted artistic genius.
It’s almost as though the realms of fantasy and folklore have been unleashed on ‘s-Hertogenbosch, more commonly referred to as Den Bosch, a small city in the south of the Netherlands. Boasting a wonderfully preserved medieval old town brimming with photogenic imagery after escaping the wrath of World War II relatively unscathed, what it lacks in pomp and pageantry up against the likes of Amsterdam and Rotterdam is more than made up for in atmosphere.
A truly charming place, after night falls the streets are cloaked in the shadows of centuries old buildings, oozing ambience, making it easy to understand why the town’s most famous son, Jheronimus Bosch, developed such a penchant for pictures of creatures that may lurk in those dark corners. 2016 marks the 500th anniversary of his death, and thus far the ensuing celebrations have made it decidedly harder than normal to find a hotel room.
Nevertheless, it’s possible, as we proved by checking into the 4* Movenpick, located a short walk from the historic central lanes, which proved an excellent choice. And for more reasons than the bar, well stocked as it was with quality Dutch gins, our fantastic lunch in the onsite restaurant, and pre-departure chocolate buffet, which, despite the aforementioned meal preceding it, was more than welcome.
Digressions aside, one of the key reasons tourists are flocking to Den Bosch is for the Jheronimus Bosch exhibition, Visions of Genius. Comprising 20 of the artists surviving paintings- so pretty much all his surviving paintings- along with a further 19 drawings, triptychs, and even a few impersonator canvasses, it runs at the Noordbrabants Museum until 8th May. By the time we arrived 200,000 had already paid a visit, equivalent to every resident in the metropolitan area of Den Bosch buying a ticket.
Those interested must book online in advance, and we highly recommend they do. ‘Bringing home’ the vast majority of Bosch’s work, which had found itself everywhere from Italy to the USA, is no easy task. The Early Netherlandish master left behind no notes or diaries, either, meaning very little is known about his life, training or passions. Instead, the majority of what we have is his immediately identifiable oeuvre, marrying heavy religious iconography with strange, almost hallucinatory figures and settings, as though the Renaissance had walked into some Terry Gilliam movie set. Or vice versa.
Taking this into account, the Noordbrabants Museum has managed to put together what’s more than likely the most comprehensive and insightful exhibition of his work ever staged, worthy of galleries with international standings, but in a provincial location. An extraordinary feat worthy of a practitioner for whom nothing was unimaginable, this notion of making the impossible possible is a defining theme for Den Bosch throughout the coming months.
As of early March, the town has become a playground for art lovers, or anyone in the mood for escapism in the flesh, rather than through a screen. Taking just over an hour, the Heaven and Hell Cruise is a must, whereby passengers board small boats and cast out onto the Binnendieze waterways. Frequently surrounded by medieval walls and buildings, this is the perfect setting for a journey into the recesses of Bosch’s imagination.
Whilst on board the vessel passes life-size models of some truly disturbing surrealist creatures, all taken from the artist’s pieces, with videomapping and 3D projections helping to bring some to life. Running throughout summer, you’ll also be treated to potentially the planet’s only float-in cinema, situated in the arch of a bridge, with various other tunnels and overpasses being put to good use and incorporated in the overall experience.
Not a bad way to spend at least part of your afternoon, anyone feeling peckish might want to disembark and head over to the famed Korte Putstraat, a street lined with eateries ideal for refuelling. Although the options are plentiful, Restaurant Allerei won out for us in the end, and more than lived up to expectations thanks to exquisite carpaccio and lamb.
Once good to go, there’s an abundance of other events on offer in and around Den Bosch commemorating the centenary x five. Until October, A Wondrous Climb lets you scale to the roof of St. John’s Cathedral. With foundations laid in 1350, it pre-dates Bosch the artist, and clearly left a huge impression on him. Here too there are all manner of faces that don’t seem to be of this world. 96 sculptures of ghouls, mythical beasts, and buffoons line the flying buttresses (this is one of only three churches in Europe to sport these features), each equally reminiscent of the work on show at the exhibition.
These pale into insignificance, mind, when faced off against Bosch By Night. A monumental undertaking by a collective of artists, musicians and animators who specialise in site-specific projects, this laser and video show takes place in Markt (the main market square) on almost every evening until autumn, transforming the side of four buildings- including Bosch’s old studio- into a moving canvas.
Somewhat difficult to explain, the best advice is simply to go and find yourself transported back in time, then on to another world, through the terrifyingly impressive potential of modern digital techniques. Facades become the doors to triptychs, which, when parted, introduce us to Den Bosch as once was, before magical elements are gradually introduced, crawling in via windows and doors before breaking through walls to overrun the picture.
Inspired by The Garden of Earthly Delights, anyone who appreciates visual art and sheer spectacle will find Bosch By Night worth the airfare alone, and when coupled with the rest of the programme on offer a long weekend here becomes even more enticing. And this is before anyone mentions the infamous Bossche bol, a local delicacy best described as a large profiterole, coated in dark chocolate and filled with whipped cream (the best of which are supposedly made and sold by Jan de Groot’s bakery, close to the ‘s-Hertogenbosch train station). But we’ll leave you to discover those independently.
Den Bosch 500
For full details of the programme for Den Bosch 500, go to www.bosch500.nl
Easyjet flies London to Amsterdam with prices starting from £18.24; one-way including taxes, based on two people sharing the same booking
The four-star Mövenpick Hotel ‘s-Hertogenbosch is located on the waterfront of the beautiful Provinciehuis lake, just outside the historic medieval centre of den Bosch, providing an ideal base for a city break. The recently renovated, Green Globe certified hotel features 92 upscale bedrooms, and its spacious lakeside terrace offers a perfect spot to relax after a day exploring this fascinating city. Double rooms start from £68 per room per night, based on two sharing (room only, excluding taxes). For further information and reservations visit www.movenpick.com
For your calendar
Bosch Grand Tour (December 2015 – April 2017)
In 2016, seven prominent museums in Brabant will present a contemporary exhibition programme under the name Bosch Grand Tour. A tour of discovery featuring contemporary art, design and culture in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Breda, Eindhoven and Tilburg. www.boschgrandtour.nl
Bosch Parade (16, 18, 19 June 2016)
Floating parade of contemporary artistic creations inspired by Jheronimus Bosch’s world through the centre of the Medieval city. www.boschparade.nl.
Bosch’s World (4, 5 June 2016)
During ‘Bosch’s World’ the audience will be introduced to the late Middle Ages in a playful manner. With music, theatre, children’s games, crafts, a market, game songs, food and drink, lectures and exhibitions around the Jheronimus Bosch Art Center and the Groot Tuighuis. Visitors will feel as if they are in ’s-Hertogenbosch in Bosch’s era.
Bosch Requiem (6 November 2016)
The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Netherlands Radio Choir and soloists led by Markus Stenz will play the world premiere of a piece composed especially for the commemorative year. With an essay by Robbert Dijkgraaf. At Saint John’s Cathedral in ’s-Hertogenbosch.
Bosch beast (11 December 2016)
The spectacular closing spectacle in the city featuring the lighting of the Bosch beast and surprising musical accompaniment. www.boschbeest.nl.