Place: De Haar CastleArticle by Tom Bijvoet
De Haar Castle (Kasteel de Haar) in the province of Utrecht is ‘undutch’ in its extreme opulence. Until 2000, the castle was owned by the baronial Van Zuylen van Nijevelt de Haar family. It had been owned by ancestors of these last aristocratic owners of the vast property since at least the late 14th century. So the Van Zuylen van Nijevelt de Haars were by no means parvenus within the ranks of the dwindling and rather reclusive remnants of the Dutch aristocracy. Very few families can boast to be members of the ‘Oude Adel’ or ‘Old Nobility’. Most Dutch nobles descend from soldiers and rich merchants who did favors for King Willem I in the early 19th century and were ennobled by him. Although the nobility of The Netherlands plays no formal role within society, it is recognized and membership is strictly legislated. Unlike countries such as Belgium and the United Kingdom, the Dutch monarch does not create new nobles (with the exception of his own family, so that the royals can marry commoners who are then given titles like ‘Prince’ and ‘Count’). The last non-royals who were ennobled, in 1939, came from a prominent Haarlem family.
Dutch aristocrats in general do not go in for ostentatious displays of wealth. They like to keep a low profile and let their good manners, highbrow accent and unusual pastimes speak for themselves. Especially the Protestant families like to downplay their ancestry. But Baron Étienne van Zuylen van Nyevelt van de Haar, who was thirty years old when he inherited De Haar Castle in 1890, was not so modest. Catholic and living in Belgium, he clearly had a different view of the aristocratic lifestyle. (After the United Netherlands split in 1831, some Dutch noble families stayed in Belgium where the socio-cultural climate was friendlier to the often French-speaking low country nobles, especially if they had property holdings there). He had married into the fabulously wealthy Rothschild family and had the means to transform what was essentially a ruin into the lavishly decorated and furnished palace that is one of the province of Utrecht’s most popular tourist destinations today.
As early as the 12th century, a fortified tower stood where the castle is now. Over the centuries in successive waves of construction, destruction through wars and weather and subsequent reconstruction, the building developed into a structure that was, on the outside at least, very similar to the current De Haar Castle. But when Barone Étienne inherited it, it had suffered severe neglect for two centuries and been uninhabited for almost one. Backed by the Rothschild fortune, the new owner started a renovation project that was to take about twenty years to complete. He hired Pierre Cuypers, the most admired Dutch architect of the time and responsible for Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and Central Station among many other monumental buildings, to plan and oversee the project.
No expense was spared, and when Cuypers was done, De Haar Castle, despite its outward appearance which was based on the original Late-Medieval structures that had stood in its place, was one of the most modern buildings of its time. It had electric lighting powered by its own generator. Its steam-driven central heating system was a marvel of the day and is currently classified as an ‘Industrial Monument’. The kitchen with its twenty-foot-long cooking furnace was designed to prepare the lavish banquets that the new owners put on for their multitudes of high society guests who would stay in the castle’s two hundred rooms. Some furnishings were designed in Cuypers’ studio, and many others were collected by the family from all over the world, giving the castle, with its outward appearance of a romantically re-imagined medieval castle, a grandeur and opulence that fit with the over-the-top lifestyle of the owners.
Because Baron Étienne wanted a fully grown garden, hundreds of mature trees were brought in. The English Landscape Design styled gardens required the relocation of the entire village of Haarzuilens, which was torn down and rebuilt three-quarters of a mile away. It was modelled after the original by Cuypers, with a village green and a village pump. Its houses to this day all sport window shutters in the colors of the Van Zuylen family.
All this luxury was essentially put in place to be enjoyed for just one month of the year. Annually in September, the family descended on the castle and threw their lavish parties, an invitation to which was highly sought after throughout European high society. Cooks and chambermaids were brought in from France, the hair and beauty salon were stocked with perfumes and cosmetics from the best Parisian houses, and chauffeurs stood at the ready to drive guests wherever they wanted to go. This tradition was continued well into the second half of the 20th century by the Baron’s children and especially his grandson Baron Thierry. Among the more famous guests were Brigitte Bardot, Gregory Peck, Roger Moore, Maria Callas and even Dutch soccer hero Marco van Basten.
But all good things must come to an end. In 2000, Baron Thierry sold the castle and the grounds to a non-profit foundation financed by a number of Dutch charitable funds. When in 2011 the Baron died, his daughters also ensured that the ownership of the art collection and furnishings, which had been on long term loan from the family, were formally transferred to the foundation. Only a manor house on the property remains in the hands of the Van Zuylen van Nyevelt van de Haar family, thus ensuring a historic continuation of more than seven centuries of involvement with the property.
The castle is open year-round for visitors who can marvel at the trappings of extreme luxury. Many events are organized in and around the castle. One of the more remarkable recently initiated events is a course in castle etiquette. Close to Utrecht and Amsterdam, Castle de Haar is centrally located and easily accessible, a perfect destination, combined with a stroll through the village of Haarzuilens, for a day trip.
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