July 8th, 2004



Hortus in Haren
To the Secret World of Ming
Glory long since lost

When we went on the Kamakura Walking Tour back on our honeymoon in September, arnoudens mentioned the "Tuinen van Ming" in Hortus Haren after he saw the pictures. So it was still on our list of things to see and do.
When we were drawing up a program of what to do this week, the Groninger Museum came up -- and I accosted ankie via MSN to ask her whether she knew anything about the museum and the Gardens of Ming. To my surprise, she said that the Ming-gardens were within walking distance from her parents' house. So I ask her to serve as our guide for the day, and she graciously accepted the challenge!

Yesterday was the day. We had planned to be on the road at 08:00, but it turned out that we couldn't drag our sorry asses out of bed on time. We left one hour late, but that wasn't too much of a problem for ankie. After taking the scenic route (read: we got a bit lost and saw quite a bit of Haren) we arrived at her parents' house. We were received very hospitably, and ankie's mother explained a bit about the history of the Hortus. It seems the Hortus (short for "Hortus Botanicus", 'botanical garden' in Latin) is struggling to keep from going under.
We had a nice stroll through Haren (the Wassenaar of the North, apparently -- I should have worn a polo shirt with the collar turned up!) and ended up at the Hortus. We went straight for the greenhouse, and found out that a lot of areas had already been cleared out because there was too little money to properly maintain those areas. Biggest hit were the insect-displays (roaches! spiders! [though spiders aren't insects, as everyone knows] preying mantises!).
There were also a lot of parrots around. Parrots that were abandoned or living in squallid conditions were rescued and placed in cages in the part of the greenhouse that showed their natural biotopes. They seemed remarkably content, though the whole greenhouse breathed an atmosphere of decaying glory: parts of the greenhouse weren't maintained all that well, some parts had been cleared...

After doing the tour of the greenhouse, we went into the 'Secret World of Ming', a small park built in the style of the townhouse of a civil servant in China -- presumably in the Ming period, which would make not quite the right period for Judge Dee, but close enough!
The buildings and structural elements were wonderful: the (handmade!) mosaics on the floor, the cloisters, the waterfall, the buildings, the bridges (one of which had a bend in the middle of the water. There's this superstition that evil spirits can cross water only in a straight line, so a bend in the bridge fixes that quite nicely), the water. But the garden itself was nothing special, it even seemed a little un-kempt. Lots of (low-maintenance) shrubbery that had started to grow just a little out of control, hardly any flowers. We did get some wonderful ideas for our own (future) garden, though!
We had tea at the Ming teahouse (named 'The groaning of the dragon'...) and then went to the train station to catch a train to Groningen.

We had originally planned to visit the various musea in Groningen (most notably the Groninger Museum [which, incidentally, looks more like something that landed than something that was built by human hands] and the comic book museum), but when we arrived it was already past 15:00, so it was hardly worth it. So instead, we went into the city center and checked out some fun shops.
Groningen seemed to have an infinite supply of alternative toy-shops (you know the type: lots of wooden toys, 'do-it-yourself' toys -- and hardly any of that plastic crap that gets sold as toys in mainstream toy shops). My favourite has to be the dinosaur excavation kit: a brick of plaster with small plastic dinosaur bones embedded in it. You have to carefully scrape away the plaster (just like a real archeologist!) to uncover the bones. Then, with a bit of glue, you can make your own dinosaur skeleton for display! I don't know who comes up with toys like these, but I thought it was a very creative spin to the whole dinosaur-thing.
I also bought an Atari-shirt at a cartoon shop. They had lots of other cool shirts too (Dexter's Laboratory!), but alas: not in my size.

We walked around the city centre some more -- most of the buildings are pretty authentic, not like the city center of Nijmegen that got bombed by the Americans in '44 ("We thought it was Dresden!") and re-built in boring concrete. In the end, we ended up at the NewsCafé for a drink, and we also had dinner there on the first floor. The restaurant was designed in lounge-style (with accompanying music), and the food was fusion-like. We all had a nice dinner (though I would have preferred to have a few more vegetables at my disposal -- luckily ankie wasn't adverse to sharing some of hers!). When we got outside, it was turning colder already, so we walked back to the train station and caught a train back to Haren. There we said our goodbyes to ankie and travelled the two hours back home...

It was a fun day, if a bit tiring... We walked quite a bit! ankie proved to be a fun and knowledgable companion, we should meet up again sometime, we'll show you around Nijmegen!

It's too bad the Hortus is in such a bad shape. If I were in charge, I would re-organise the stuff to serve two purposes: education and special events. With the right educational programs, one could draw school classes from all around. With the connection to the university, it should be possible to develop some great educational programs for primary school and highschool students.
Also, the Hortus has two very special locations: there's the 'restaurant' in the greenhouse (which was actually closed down) and the Ming teahouse. One could rent those locations for parties and receptions, for example for weddings! If one were to make a deal with a caterer, even more money could be sqeezed out of those locations. That money could then be used to renovate some of the attractions and maintain the gardens.
I'm sure it's not that easy, or else someone would already have done it...
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