The Netherlands, particularly due to it’s liberal outlook and lively capital of Amsterdam, is a party hotspot of Europe. It’s not just tourists but the locals here too enjoy to party to the latest trends in techno, electronic or house music.
And while the calendar is packed with festivals there is none that compares to the annual Koninginnedag. Also referred to as Queen’s Day (the literal English translation), this public holiday is held to celebrate the birthday of the Queen of The Netherlands. It also serves as the national day of the country.
Koninginnedag is number one on every dutchman’s list of parties. The year 2013 was extra special, as the current Queen Beatrix had previously announced her retirement to the throne. This Koninginnedag, the Prince Willem-Alexander is crowned King Willem-Alexander during an inauguration in Amsterdam. From 2014 onwards this day becomes Koningsdag, or King’s Day.
Amsterdam becomes heavily populated with party-goers on any given Koninginnedag so this years was to be even greater with the inauguration taking place. But the festival is really heavily celebrated all over The Netherlands. I spent mine in the town of Haarlem, roughly fifteen kilometers west of Amsterdam.
The celebration really begins with Koninginnenacht (Queen’s Night), which takes place the night before Koninginnedag. Here, people go out to clubs and bars around town until the early hours of the morning. It was certainly busier than your average Saturday night in Haarlem this night and we didn’t get back until around four in the morning. There was really nothing abnormal about Koninginnenacht, just that everybody participates and so makes for a great atmosphere.
What I didn’t realise though was that this was to be backed up immediately on Koninginnedag the day after. I pulled up surprisingly well after a long night before and so was feeling excited about the prospects ahead. The plan was that one of the friends of my Couchsurfing host was in possession of a boat, and we would cruise along the canals of Haarlem relaxing and enjoying a few more drinks.
These plans fell through however. So, along with a visiting Belgian by the name of Benoit, we decided to head into town as it was to be busy there. What better way to do it than by bicycle? This is the dutch national day after all. But a dilemma arose. There were four people, and two bikes. Let me correct this; a dilemma arose for Benoit and I.
Here in The Netherlands the locals are experts at riding bicycles around the place. They’ve been doing it since the age of five or six and on a daily basis. They ride through groups of people at a high pace with little care in the world, and they often doing it while transporting a friend on the back, who hangs their legs to the side and goes along for the ride.
Benoit and I, on the other hand, were not so experienced. Particularly at the transporting passengers part. Well, we had to try, and so I took the saddle and Benoit hopped on the back. Immediately things went awry and the bike began to lean violently to the right. There was no righting this ship and so Benoit wisely bailed. The handle bars had now turned ninety degrees clockwise in a foolish attempt to balance myself and I as the rider had become stuck under a falling bicycle.
I had a microsecond to decide – allow the bike to fall on top of me or attempt to fling myself over the handlebars? The split decision was made. An ugly flop over the handlebars had me flying further than I had anticipated. The hard brick road was coming quick so I braced myself by throwing out my left leg, landing directly on the knee.
The momentum had me rolling into the middle of the road, but this is The Netherlands, the motor vehicles are rare and I avoided and even worse fate. As I looked up, I saw Benoit on the ground also. His exit had not been so graceful either. Luckily Benoit has an amazing sense of humour, as we both saw the lighter side of it and shared a laugh. None of the surrounding Dutch seemed to find the funny side of it however, and just walked on by with strange looks.
All this meant that I was to spend my Koninginnedag hobbling around with a limp, as my knee turned out to be worse than immediately suspected. This was not to stop me however, and after our disastrous start we decided to walk into town instead.
Once there, the streets quickly became busy. Some were at a standstill with a congestion of people, while others remained refreshingly quiet. Restaurants and cafés were reaping the full rewards of the festivities with packed terraces all over. The streets filled with a sea of orange as all the locals were sporting their national colour with pride.
Small, temporary bars selling beers and hamburgers lined the streets and around every corner was an improvised stage providing music to the crowds. Then there were the markets. Personal markets. People on the side of the streets with their old junk for sale. They were simply everywhere. It was as if the day had doubled as the day of the garage sale. You could find anything here, old VHS cassettes, vinyls, shoes and more. I later learned that it’s only on Koninginnedag that people are permitted to do this and also free of charge. Why this law came about I’m not sure, but the locals embraced it wildly.
It all became a bit too hectic, considering the night before, and so Benoit and I found a table on a terrace under the sun where we could slowly enjoy a few beers and watch the people walk by. This was a big relief for me, as my knee really required a rest after so much walking.
Watching the people from the table you could really see that this was a proud day for the Dutch. Old women walked past in glittering orange suits and heart shaped sunglasses – orange too of course. Television sets were set up to show live coverage of the King’s inauguration.
Now late afternoon, Benoit and I went back to search for the Couchsurfing host. Once found, we were informed more partying was ahead. One of those improvised stages was set up in a square in town and the DJ was playing electronic music. The place was overflowing with revelers who still seemed to be running on full energy. The sun was out and it provided a really fun and good atmosphere.
Eventually, after a couple of hours it was time to call it a day. A Koninginnedag. My first, and probably my last due to the inauguration of the King. The date changes next year, albeit by just three days I think, but I have no doubt that the local Dutch will be just as happy to celebrate their King as they had done their Queen by drinking, dancing and selling whatever old junk they can.