Breda is one of those medieval ‘cities of kings’ that has been transformed into a modern city with a generous portion of ‘southern’ charm. Located in the province of Noord Brabant, it was founded at the widest junction where the river Aa meets the Mark. The Aa is now called the Weerijs while the Mark is still the Mark. Breda comes from the phrase ‘de Brede Aa’, in English; ‘the Broad Aa’, or ‘the Wide Aa’. More contemporary descriptions would place Breda at the corner where the A16 meets the A58 on route to either Antwerp or Rotterdam, depending on where you’re coming from. The town was founded in 1252. The municipal archives have the original document confirming the elevation of what began as a village to the rank of ‘town’. Basically, this means that since 1252, Breda has enjoyed the right to levy taxes, organize public markets, and settle disputes at court, as well as the right to construct city walls for its own defense.
On a more personal level, Breda is the town where I got married more than 30 years ago. Our honeymoon was right in the city (we were penniless and had no options, something which we now find amusing) and it was also in that first year that I learned what it meant to live in a Dutch city, speak Dutch, interact with the locals, and integrate properly into Dutch society. I couldn’t have been more lucky as Amsterdam would have been too ‘busy’ and Rotterdam even more so. We were married in the 13th-century Town Hall, where I found myself not only in love with my boyfriend-turned-husband but with his place of residence as well.
Perhaps more than anything else, Breda is also what the Dutch call an ‘Oranjestad’ or ‘Orange Town’, referring to the House of Orange. The Dutch royal house is actually called the House of Oranje-Nassau, Nassau referring to the dukedom in Germany, Orange referring to the dukedom in France that was also owned by the Nassaus. Engelbrecht I of Nassau was born in Dillenburg, Germany, and later came to Breda and married Johanna van Polanen, then only 11 years old, daughter of the Lord of Breda, Jan van Polanen. His marriage with her meant an automatic transfer of the title, which meant that he was now, among other things, Lord of Breda (and all her other possessions as well), the first Nassau to carry this title. The couple lived in the local castle and enjoyed the protection of its very robust, sturdy walls, and were later buried in the Grote Kerk about 100 m. away, in the city center. Generations later, during the Eighty Years’ War, with siege after siege threatening the existence of the House of Nassau, the royal family (although they weren’t royal yet at the time) decided that it would be prudent to move to the north, to Delft, where all subsequent royal burials have taken place, including that of the Founding Father himself, William of Orange, who was assassinated in Delft in 1584. Today, the ruling monarch is, among many other titles, the Baron (or Baroness) of Breda.
Like all medieval cities, Breda is a round town. You have a fairly small city center, with the castle moat forming a protective ring around it as the castle is within its limits, and then you have ‘the rest’, which expanded beyond the moat. Half a century ago, part of the moat was drained to make way for an underground parking garage. I still remember having used it occasionally. Then, towards the end of the 20th century, plans were finalized to bring back part of the medieval character of the town, so the parking garage was flooded and the moat returned. In the summer, boat tours make a huge profit, and the Haven is filled with terraces serving the usual beer and snacks.
The main attraction in the city center is, without a doubt, the Grote Kerk. Like all other churches before the Eighty Years’ War, it used to be a Catholic church. Today, it is officially Protestant, but that is no longer of any consequence, although one will not fail to note that there are no more images inside. It has been restored quite a number of times in the past 30 years and has a very Spartan interior. Whether or not one is religious or ‘of the faith’, it certainly is worth visiting.
The Grote Kerk, Breda city center. The back of the church is facing the Grote Markt and old Town Hall. (photos by Ella Wagemakers)
The castle is now being used by the KMA, or Royal Military Academy. It is largely off limits, except perhaps on special ‘Open Monument Days’, when the public is allowed entry. It is also possible to tour the grounds of the castle but one needs to make a reservation to do this. Every castle has a garden, and what was once the garden is now Valkenberg Park. A recent wave of renovations in the city, which included a total facelift of the train station, led to an enlargement of the park, so that it now stretches almost completely up to the train station.
The city center itself is, of course, filled with shops, bars, and restaurants. Breda also has its own annual festivals, including, but certainly not limited to, Carnaval, the Breda Jazz Festival, the Tranen van van Cooth (‘sad’ singalong music), and the Roodharigen Dag (or Redhead Days; an international festival for redheads, or gingers, but also for anything red). This is something I’ve never participated in as my hair used to be jet black and now is more grey than anything else. Like many other larger cities in the country, Breda also has its share of coffee shops. Of course. What would The Netherlands be without its coffee shops. As in everywhere else, these follow the guidelines strictly on pain of closure if caught breaking the rules. Breda being a border town (Belgium is but a few kilometers further to the south), many foreigners from as far away as Italy and Greece try their luck, to no avail. They are respectfully but firmly advised to drive further north to Dordrecht and Rotterdam.
Breda has a second castle outside the town proper, which not every outsider knows about. It is located at the edge of the large wooded area at the outskirts of the town, called the Mastbos. ‘Mast’ refers to the fir trees that dominate in these woods, and ‘bos’ means ‘woods’. This is Bouvigne Castle, and, at the risk of sounding rather cheesy, it looks simply romantic. Like the main castle, it is only open on Open Monument Days and is now being used by the local chapter of the Office of Water Management (my own translation), or Delta Water Board.
I still live here and it is home to me. I also still feel like a tourist when I go to town, but without the hassle that is usually associated with capital cities. After the royal family moved north, Breda slowly lost its prominence. It’s not that no one knows about it, just that it’s ‘less noisy’ than Amsterdam, or Rotterdam, or Utrecht, and is a lot less advertised. It’s along the southern border (although you can get to Amsterdam in less than an hour if you ride certain trains), so not many people bother to visit, except perhaps in Carnaval season. People speak with a certain accent, and it has a warm and friendly atmosphere. There is one thing that I miss, though – it no longer has a functioning windmill. As you know, I love windmills and think windmills are the ‘Dutchiest’ things in this country, and I oh so thoroughly enjoy windmill hunting. Perhaps it’s about time I visited the local archives and looked for an old photograph or illustration of it. In the city center, we still have the Molenstraat, presumably where the mill used to be. This absence of a windmill is the only minus point I can think of, when it comes to Breda.