39 hours in Leiden
If I’m being honest, I felt slightly disappointed as I boarded the train from lively Amsterdam Centraal to Leiden- a tiny town about 20 minutes outside the city. I had promised a friend that if I was in the area I would visit where he grew up, and so off we went, for what we thought was going to be one quiet night. Nothing in the world could have prepared me for the next 39 hours. . .
First of all, the town is breathtakingly beautiful. From the moment we stepped out of Leiden Centraal (of course we got lost!) but I could feel how special this place was. It’s a university town with young energy everywhere you go. The streets are cobblestone and, like Amsterdam, stunning canals run throughout lined with floating patios for the numerous bars and cafes. After asking a number of locals for directions to the hotel, we quickly realized they actually have no idea how to read a map either! I instantly knew I had found my people.
Turns out our hotel was directly across (literally less than 50 steps) from the station we had initially arrived at. I’d like to rave about Hotel Ibis‘ amazing location, but to be honest I don’t imagine there is a bad location in the whole town. What I can say is that the hotel was perfect for us. The price was great (about 75 euro), the room was beautiful, we had a gorgeous view of a windmill from our window and the staff was beyond helpful (safely locking up our bikes and making us amazing breakfast spreads free of charge when we returned home from the pub in the wee hours of the morning).
Immediately after getting settled we sought out to rent bikes. Biking around Leiden felt more relaxed than the Amsterdam streets; no angry cycle bells when we stopped to take photos with the many windmills and bridges, everyone smiled as they biked past, life felt so easy. I think this was my first introduction to what I call the ‘Leiden effect’ – like a giant magnet that sucks you in and makes you never want to leave this place. Later I realized maybe it has something to do with the maze of streets going every which direction that gets you lost so you literally can’t leave! When returning our bikes the next day we drove up and down every single street for hours trying to locate our bike rental shop without success. We didn’t have the shop name or address (and that wouldn’t have helped anyways because no one knows directions there! Lol). Finally we got the right person to assist and laughed so hard when we saw how close the shop was and counted the number of times we had driven by it without recognizing.
Within minutes of sitting down at the bar in Barrera, Kristina and I felt as though we had made lifelong friends. Being from a small town myself, I felt pangs of nostalgia as I was introduced to person after person (everyone friends, everyone too kind to even explain, and everyone so proud of the town they live in).
As nighttime fell we got the true Leiden experience from the ‘night mayor’ himself. Being a Tuesday in the summer, we were warned that the town was ‘quiet’. . . well, I’ve been to Electric Daisy Carnival in Vegas twice and partied all night on Koh San road in Bangkok, but I think I would die if I returned to Leiden on a weekend. The pubs literally have no closing time. Bar dancing is perfectly acceptable. The beer is 6.5% and the shots simply don’t stop. We learned a whistle (half pint) is the best way to drink your beer so it stays cold. The afterburner shot (1 shot vodka followed by 1/2 shot tobasco) is actually surprisingly good! And that the absolute funniest and best memories happen when doubling (even tripling) on a bike at 4am.
You’d think the alcohol-induced promises made the night before would be void the next morning once reality set in, but it simply wasn’t the case. We went for coffees on the house at the most beautiful outdoor cafe.
And then were swept away on our new friends’ boat for a private canal tour. We enjoyed stunning views, drank bubbly and met up with other boats to socialize and swim. I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect hangover cure.
It really is amazing what can happen when you let life surprise you. How when you open up to the world the world opens up to you. I suppose the best friendships are the ones you never saw coming. . .