The province of Noord-Brabant in The Netherlands is all about Vincent van Gogh these days. This is where the world famous painter was born, where he made a lot of his works and where he left all sorts of tracks to go and discover. Trot Op! hopped across the border and went searching for the artist himself.
Imagine being a mind-boggling genius at something, without getting even the slightest nod of appreciation for it. This isn’t only the sad story of this very blog, but also what Vincent van Gogh – one of the most tragic figures in the art world – had to endure his entire life. Today, van Gogh is seen as arguably the most influential artist of the 19th century. His works sell for tens of millions and four different of his paintings were once the most expensive in the world. When he was trying to make a living more than a century ago, things didn’t go quite as easily. He sold just one painting in his entire career, and this at the unbeatable price of what would now be €100.
“Imagine being a mind-boggling genius at something, without getting even the slightest nod of appreciation for it. This isn’t only the sad story of this very blog, but also what Vincent van Gogh had to endure his entire life.”
Van Gogh was a loner and felt like a misunderstood failure. This started as soon as he was born, on the exact same day as his stillborn brother a year earlier. Also a Vincent. The poor fellow was serving as a replacement for the irreplaceable before he was even well and truly there. He suffered from numerous depressions, kept wandering around indefinitely and was a complete fool in all things love. He had a self-destructive side as well. The most striking story is his well-known quarrel with fellow painter Paul Gauguin in France, who had slept with the woman (read: prostitute) Vincent had a crush on at the time. Out of sheer anger, he cut off half of his own ear, and then went to present it to the lady in question wrapped up in a newspaper. A statement as good as any, I guess. Even when he committed suicide at the ripe old age of 37 things did not go as planned. He shot himself in the chest with a revolver, but missed the heart by an inch. As a result, he died in complete agony two whole days later. No, life hadn’t exactly been smooth sailing for Vincent van Gogh.
A weekend in Brabant: 5x in the footsteps of Vincent van Gogh
Because of all this wandering, van Gogh lived in a number of different places throughout the years. In Amsterdam, London and Paris, for example, but he could also be found in the Borinage around Mons for a while and even in Antwerp (where he started his real heavy drinking) before finally making his most famous works in sunny Southern France. The region where he felt most grounded – he grew up there and came back several times – is North Brabant, a Dutch province just across the Belgian border. In recent years, local tourism started focussing intensively on van Gogh here. Every place the man ever lived, where he vaguely knew someone or where he once forgot his hat after a night out, now has a museum or a statue celebrating him. It doesn’t stop there however. The region where he painted countless landscapes now has a vast national park named after him, with several van Gogh hiking trails mapped out in it. If he could see how big his name has gotten today, and how much money is being made with it, he’d probably have a laughing fit. In short: lots to discover on van Gogh in North Brabant. Which is why I decided to go and have a look myself. I did so again in the pleasant company of Caroline from Veggie Wayfarer – herself a fine piece of art. As we ventured out, the weather was kind enough to put us in the appropriate Vincent van Gogh mood: grey and dreary. This couldn’t possibly go wrong!
1. Zundert: the cradle of Vincent van Gogh
Van Gogh’s story begins in Zundert: a village almost glued to the Belgian border, mainly known for the fact that they grow a whole lot of strawberries there. This is where Vincent was born and spent almost his entire childhood. To honour his connection to the town, some serious effort was made. On the little church square bearing his name, a modern statue of him and his brother Theo (the only one who always kept supporting him) was put, and the bigger square in front of the town hall boasts a huge mosaic of his self-portrait. You can only fully see it with a drone (or via Google Maps) but it’s impressive nonetheless. On the same square – on the spot where he was born – you’ll find the Vincent van Gogh House. This is a modest museum which doesn’t offer very much as far as his art is concerned, but where you’ll learn a lot about the fascinating life of the man. Especially when you get a guided tour from Jacques van Tichelt: one of the driving forces behind the museum and someone who tells stories with knowledge and passion. Jacques told us how surprisingly recent the van Gogh hype actually is. When Queen Juliana came to inaugurate the statue in 1964, a van Gogh exhibition was held in the parish hall. Dozens of his original paintings were exhibited here, guarded by a single man who took the key to the door home in the evening. This would be completely unthinkable today: an almost unguarded art treasure worth hundreds of millions of euros. No insurance company would take the risk. Also in Zundert, but nothing to do with van Gogh is Restaurant bij de Nonnen. Haute cuisine and you can order a surprise menu of four to seven courses. Disappointingly few nuns though. www.vanghoghhuis.com www.bijdenonnen.nl
2. Nuenen: potato gobblers and a real-life Starry Night
Van Gogh spent two years of his life the rural town of Nuenen. He made a quarter of all his paintings here. Most of them are not his most famous works. There are a lot of fairly subdued landscape paintings among them – some of the subjects can still be seen today when walking the listen pole route running through the village. The most known piece he made in Nuenen is The Potato Eaters: a dark and almost caricatural painting of a couple of peasants chomping down on some potatoes. The new Vincent van Gogh Village Museum can be found in the town centre. This is a modern museum focused on the years he spent here, and his dealings with his family. The most interactive part of the museum is the Light Lab. This has less to do with van Gogh, but he is still used as a guideline. Here you will learn – through all kinds of practical experiments – how light, shadows and colours can influence a work of art, which is very interesting to see. Even more spectacular is the van Gogh-Roosegaarde cycle path that runs through a meadow between Nuenen and nearby Eindhoven. During the day it looks perfectly normal, but at night the little luminescent stones worked into it light up in the patterns of Vincent’s Starry Night. You can read all about it in the blog post on Eindhoven I made this spring. www.vangoghbrabant.com/nl/home/nuenen
3. ‘s-Hertogenbosch: admire the only original van Goghs in Brabant
‘s-Hertogenbosch (shorter: Den Bosch) is a city you don’t hear much about in Belgium. It’s the capital of the province though, and on top of that quite cosy. It’s full of old little streets, there are couple of canals running under some buildings, and they have a very large and intricately decorated church. By far the nicest part is Korte Putstraat: a very narrow alley with only restaurants and bars on both sides. We went for dinner here in Noemme: a beautiful little restaurant offering quite some vegan options, where you can also order fresh cocktails. The local delicacy is quite tasty as well. A Bossche Bol is the size of a large tennis ball and consists of a chocolate casing filled with crème fraîche and diabetes (the latter is a joke). The link with Van Gogh is somewhat less obvious in Den Bosch – the man never lived here – but in the imposing Noordbrabants Museum you’ll find the only original works by him in the entire province. Twelve of them are here, showcased in their own hall and supplemented by personal letters, photos and other documents. His style here is almost unrecognisable from his later works: everything is quite subdued as well. Hieronymous Bosch on the other hand, is actually from ‘s-Hertogenbosch: a much older painter who made even more psychedelic works than Vincent. Strangely enough, the big ear with the scissors you can stumble upon in Mariënburg Park here, has nothing to do with van Gogh, is from one of Bosch’s paintings. www.hetnoordbrabantsmuseum.nl www.noemme.nl
4. Hike through living paintings in the van Gogh National Park
A year or two ago, North Brabant officially opened the van Gogh National Park. This wasn’t that hard to do, because it doesn’t have a gate and there isn’t a fence around it. The park is not an enclosed entity, but covers almost half the province (basically all the space between Breda, Tilburg, Den Bosch, Eindhoven and Helmond). The aim was to take the landscapes that inspired van Gogh and present them to the general public. On the VisitBrabant website, ten cycling and five walking routes are available for you to explore, two of which we tried ourselves. Our first tour started in Helvoirt – a village he made several paintings of as well – and ran for fifteen kilometres through forest, meadow and fen past all kinds of viewpoints. We, on the other hand, mainly ran through the pouring rain – which was not too pleasant. We had better luck the next morning with the walking route through Etten-Leur where van Gogh took his first steps as a painter. It runs in a loop that starts and ends in the Menmoerhoeve, almost all of it over unpaved roads. The Menmoerhoeve is a farm that started receiving guests in recent years. You can eat here, go for some camping, walk through the butterfly garden and even help take care of the animals. www.visitbrabant.com/nl/routes/themaroutes/van-gogh-routes
5. Breda:cosy, surprising and alternative
For Belgians, Breda is perhaps the best-known city in North Brabant. The link with van Gogh is a little more vague. His grandfather was a preacher in the central church, but Vincent never lived here himself. In the Blind Walls Gallery (140 murals scattered throughout the city) two works were dedicated to him, and the Yellow House is a cultural centre with a name referring to van Gogh, but that’s about it. Breda is more than worth a visit though. It’s a shopping destination par excellence, and its central market turns into one vast terrace during the weekend. The Holy Moly Club in the city centre is a festively decorated restaurant – with many vegan options as well – that also serves as a nightclub, and where you can watch live comedy while eating. Stek is my favourite place in Breda. This former industrial lot is now home to a collection of small businesses in colourful and often self-made shacks. From a barber, a baker and a record store to a fortune teller, someone who makes utensils from disposable plastic and a few organic restaurants. Very pleasant hippie atmosphere here: even Van Gogh might have liked it. www.holymolybreda.nl www.brackbreda.nl www.stekbreda.nl
Hotels in Noord-Brabant and further information
In Den Bosch we stayed at Landgoed Huize Bergen. This is a large hotel divided over several buidlings in a big yard, with the central one exuding classic English countryside vibes. Very pleasantly furnished inside. www.huizebergen.nl
In Zundert we slept in B&B ‘t Doktershuys: a new bed & breakfast right in the town centre, in what used to be the local doctor’s house. They offer just four rooms, all of which are intricately decorated and equipped. The breakfast is large and tasty. www.tdoktershuys.nl
For more information about Van Gogh in Brabant, go to: www.vangoghbrabant.com.
For more information about Noord Brabant itself: www.visitbrabant.com.
Fancy some other Dutch trips? Read my articles about cycling in Amsterdam, strange museums in Amsterdam, Haarlem, Schouwen-Duiveland, Utrecht, Eindhoven, Flevoland, South Limburg and the Wadden Islands.