Koningsdag guide: How to survive the 'orange craze' of Dutch King's Day
How can you get ready for the wave of 'oranjegekte' that hits the Netherlands on King's Day on 27 April? Long live Koningsdag!
King's Day (Koningsdag) in the Netherlands – previously Queen's Day (Koninginnedag) – is the biggest festival of the year, which celebrates the birthday of the Dutch King Willem-Alexander. No other Dutch public holiday is embraced with such enthusiasm and energy.
On every other day of the year, the normally conservative Dutch live by the common Dutch phrase ‘doe maar gewoon dan doe je al gek genoeg’, meaning 'just act normal, that’s crazy enough'. But all that is reversed on King's Day when 'oranjegekte' – orange craze – brings the nation together to celebrate their monarch. How can you join the Koningsdag festivities?
In 2016 festivities were dampened by rain and sleet in one of the coldest King or Queen's Day on record, although it can sometimes be a pleasant time of year. Revellers who plan to party the night before (King's Night), however, are sometimes advised to wrap up warmly. If it's a rainy day, umbrellas and wet-weather clothing are key to survive the King's Day festivities, which you can usually find in orange, of course.
1. Orange madness is how the Dutch pay tribute to their royal family – the House of Orange-Nassau. Most locals cover themselves from head to toe in orange clothing and wacky accessories, and wear it all with pride. Think orange wigs, crowns and face paint, which you'll also find offered on the streets (although likely at higher prices). As a rule of thumb, the more bizarre your outfit, the more you'll fit right in.
2. In preparation, you should learn the words of Het Wilhelmus, a poem written in 1574 about the life of William of Orange and his fight for the Dutch nation. This is the Dutch anthem, and you'll hear crowds bursting into spontaneous bouts of singing throughout the day.
3. Oranje bitter is the bright orange liqueur of the day, and when making a toast to the king, you should drink it straight. The colour comes from soaking orange peels in jenever (a type of gin), originally created in the 1620s to celebrate Prince Fredrick Henry’s victory against Spanish rule. Over time it has become associated with the royal family, since William of Orange became the first king.
4. Your King’s Day isn't complete without buying the local sweet pastry tompouce, loaded with cream and decorated with orange icing. You'll be joining the locals: on King's Day tompouce sales increase around 600 percent compared to any other day.
5. Just what are you celebrating? The holiday was first observed as Prinsessedag, or Princess's Day, celebrating the fifth birthday of Princess Wilhelmina, and later became Queen's Day, or Koninginnedag, once she was old enough to ascend the throne. The creation of this national party was due to the unpopularity of Wilhelmina’s father, King William III, and the Dutch government's desire to foster national unity. Judging by the orange craze – oranjegekte – that takes over the Netherlands each year, we might say the campaign was a success.
6. The Netherlands had never celebrated a King's Day before King Willem-Alexander ascended the throne in 2013, after a long succession of female monarchs. The first celebration in honour of Queen Wilhelmina was held on 31 August 1885. When her daughter Juliana took the throne, Koninginnedag (Queen's Day) was switched to 30 April, and the succeeding monarch – Queen Beatrix – continued to honour her mother's birthday, no doubt to the delight of Dutch residents seeing Beatrix’s birthday falls on the wintery 31 January. If the King’s birthday ever falls on a Sunday, as it did for the first-ever King's Day in 2014, then national celebrations take place on the Saturday.
7. The average street seller makes EUR 90 on King’s Day, so get into the true vrijmarkt (free market) spirit by claiming your piece of concrete and setting up shop – King's day is the only day of the year you can trade for free without a licence. In theory, you can set up your makeshift store just about anywhere, as long as you don't hinder traffice nor block entrances to homes or shops that are open. There are some exceptions, where local governments assign certain areas as off-limits or for children only, so check your local municipality website to be sure.
8. If you're short on bric-a-brac excess to sell, then handmade food items, busking or setting up games are also popular stall ideas, even the '10 cent voor een compliment’ game, where you pay 10 euro cents to get a compliment. It's not a free-licence-for-all, though, and there are some rules to what you can sell. No alcohol or perishable foods (with meat, fish, or dairy ingredients) can be sold unless you have a licence. Non-alcoholic beverages, however, are fine to sell.
9. For the best spot to sell your goods, you should ‘reserve’ it at least a day in advance by taping or chalking off your area on the street or pavement, with a small note 'bezet' or 'occupied'. But this is not allowed everywhere, particularly in the bigger cities such as Amsterdam, so make sure you check first before landing yourself a fine. In such cases, it’s first come first serve.
10. If you prefer browsing, then the true spirit of King's Day is to play the haggling game for any bizarre item you find. The selling frenzy usually starts at 7am, peaks around 11am and starts winding down about 4pm. You'll come across a lot of questionable second-hand items but there are interesting trinkets from the attics of old Dutch houses and good bargains to be found, for example, children's toys, prams and cribs. The best items are often sold early, so an early start is a must for serious bargain hunters.
11. 'Crowded' is an understatement for King's Day, particularly in the main Dutch cities. What might take you 10 minutes to walk on a normal day, can take an hour to meander on King's Day – but that's part of the fun, and there's plenty of markets to browse and performers to entertain you on the way. Amsterdam holds the biggest King's Day celebrations – in just one day, more than half a million visitors pack into Amsterdam's tiny streets and canals for the country's biggest street party of the year, almost doubling the city's resident population; some quarter of a million people arrive by train alone. 'Go with the flow' is undoubtably the mantra of the day.
12. Most touristic sites close down for the King's Day chaos, but if you need to escape the crowds for a short respite, you'll find some museums and sites open. In Amsterdam you'll find open The Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk Museum, the Anne Frank House, Artis Royal Zoo and Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam.
13. It's also a day for partying – Amsterdam council reports going through some 500,000 eco-cups in one day and in 2015 more than 135,000 tickets went up for sale for the main 12 King’s Day dance festivals. It's permitted to drink on the streets but you are not typically allowed to have more than one alcoholic drink in your hand at at time, and no drinks on trains. You'll have to leave your six-pack of beer at home.
14. If you don't have a friend with a boat, you can try your luck hitchhiking from a canal shore – in Amsterdam, Prinsengracht is usually a hotspot for boat parties. Don't pile up with booze beforehand, though, as law dictates that each boat can only carry one regular drink per passenger. Although, that might not be all bad news, seeing most boats don’t have a toilet – when you need to go, you can use an alcohol stop as an excuse to find the moored plasboot (‘pee boat’).
15. Public transport, taxis and cars are typically restricted through the main city centres; you'll typically find buses and trams rerouted to stop at city centre outskirts, so wear comfortable shoes and be prepared for lots of walking. In Amsterdam, park and ride services are offered for those who come by car.
Photo credits: DailyM (thumbnail), Garry Knight (Queen's Day celebrations) Algont via Wikimedia Commons (tompouce), Floris Looijesteijn (Royal family), NiederlandeNet (King's Day market), Eric Walter via Wikimedia Commons (boat parade).
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