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A history lesson

1574: The eighty-year war. The dutch town of Leiden is besieged for the second time within a year by the Spanish army, led by Valdez. Unfortunately for Leiden, there were only two months between the end of the first siege and the beginning of the second siege. Two months in which the city council forgot to prepare for an eventual new siege. There was not enough food within the city walls, not enough weapons, and the people even failed to tear down the wooden constructions used by the Spanish during the first siege. Because of all of this, Valdez had no trouble to lock down the city in a very short town.

Still, some people managed to sneak through the lines and succeeded to get mail to the prince of Orange, with the help of pigeons. The prince replied with words of breaking the siege, trying to talk courage into the hearts of the people of Leiden.

Alass, also traitors managed to sneak in and out of town, reporting to Valdez about the awful conditions people had to live in. Hunger struck, and also the plague. Thousands of people died and Valdez tried to get Leiden to surrender by promising them help and food. Many desperate men started to give in, but the leaders of the city did not. One myth even speaks of the mayor offering his own body to feed the people. In the end, Leiden does not surrender. The city leaders send Valdez a note with the saying "The birdcatcher who wants to cheat, lures the bird with fluteplay sweet."

Victory arrives through the hands of the Prince of Orange, who decides to make holes in the dikes of Holland, trying to flood all low patches of land, including the area around Leiden. A hard decision, since lots of acres of fertile land will be lost for a long time. At first, the water doesn't rise. Only when the wind turns south and gains in force at the beginning of October, does the water flow into the Leiden area, allowing the flatbottomed Dutch fleet to approach the city.

In the night of 2 to 3 october 1574, a part of the weakened city wall near the Koepoort (Cow's gate) collapses with thunderous noise. The Spanish, fearing a break-out and the rising water, flee in panic. The people of Leiden discover soon after that the Spanish army must've left in a hurry, because some cooking fires are still burning underneath pots with a mixture of potato, carrot, onion and meat, hence called 'hutspot' (mixpot). At 8 am on the morning of October 3d, the fleet of the liberators enters the town, bringing white bread and herring for the famished population. Leiden is free again.

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Believe it or not: this fact is STILL celebrated every year. Nowadays, the celebration consists of a huge funfair and music and beer everywhere, many inhabitants of Leiden eat 'hutspot' on the night of Oct 2nd, and the party goes on until 4 in the morning. I just returned from the festivities, and I can say, it rates up there with Mardi Gras or Spring Break or Carnival when it comes to the atmosphere and the number of people in the street. My ears are still ringing.

For the few people in Leiden who like to be real history freaks, there's the Reveille at city hall at 7 am, followed by the distribution of white bread and herring at 8 am, both of these events on the morning of Oct 3d. I hope they'll forgive me for skipping that part.

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