Nicely tucked away in the woods between the Dutch villages of Baarn and Soest, stands the somewhat forlorn Soestijk Palace. For centuries Dutch royals resided here, either in summer or full time. With the last residents long gone, the current owner (the Dutch state) ponders on a new destination for the once bustling estate. Until then, visitors can come and have a look at Soestdijk Palace and its soothing gardens.
‘You came to welcome us with a visit’, the tour guide enthusiastically smiles at me when I hand him my entrance ticket. I nod: ‘Actually, I live quite close but it never occurred to me to actually come and see the palace’. The tour guide affirms that this is why most visitors decide to stop by. Grandparents and parents play games with their grandkids in the palace garden, have some tea in the Orangerie and take a peek in what used to be a beloved summer residence and family home to our still popular royals.
From hunting lodge to summer palace
Soestdijk Palace started out rather small when the Governor of Amsterdam, Willem III (who later married Mary Stuart of England) had it built as his hunting lodge in 1650. While their husbands hunted in the adjacent woods, the wives would have tea in the gardens. When Holland was under French rule in the 18th century it became a garrison, but after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo the victorious Dutch king Willem II and his Russian bride Anna Palowna recovered it and made it a palace. Especially Anna Palowna was quite fond of Soestdijk and had the extensions added and the Palace refurbished.
Most royals were of the opinion that Soestijk was too far from everything: the government in The Hague, lively Amsterdam and life in general. But especially the female royals of Orange had a soft spot for the Palace. Regent princess Emma stayed here and guided her daughter Wilhelmina to become queen at the age of 18 and the last residents of the palace, Juliana and Bernhard, decided to make it their family home after getting married in 1937.
The last decades on Soestdijk Palace: no fairytale
I am way past the age of someone who believes that princes and princesses were meant to live happily ever after, the contrary being true quite frequently. And this was definitely the case for the last residents of the estate: Princess Juliana and Prince Bernhard, the grandparents of our current King Willem-Alexander. No guide will tell you about the terrible marriage of the royal couple, but it’s not a secret for us Dutchies.
Basically, when Juliana was ready for marriage she wasn’t the prettiest and socially a little awkward. And Bernhard was of impoverished German nobility who simply married the clumsy Juliana for her marriage. He treated her poorly, and while The Netherlands embraced and loved the warm-hearted Juliana when she became queen, Bernhard felt trapped in the quite empty role as prince consort, had several affairs and fessed up to having multiple illegitimate children with several women (he had a letter published, the day after he passed away).
In a documentary that was recently broadcast was shown how the princess and her husband lived in separate wings of the palace, where she worked hard and he kept busy with several charities he became a patron of. The most heartbreaking part of the documentary is Juliana, in her 80s trying to convince the interviewer that things weren’t so bad: ‘I was really, quite happy here. Quite. Honestly.’
Visiting the palace and the gardens
And somehow, this sense of sadness and loneliness lingers in the halls and rooms of the now abandoned palace. The bronze statue of Berhard and Juliana on the front lawn, waving and smiling, makes me even sadder as it must have been so far from the truth. Because even though Bernhard was supposedly a great father to his children and his grandchildren were all crazy about him, he brought little happiness to his wife who was carrying the burden of being the Queen of post-war The Netherlands.
After Juliana and Bernhard passed away, the Dutch government became the owner of the estate and with most of the belongings with the royal family, the palace rooms are now sparsely furnished. Though the stories behind the rooms are still pretty good. The hourly tours are led by enthusiastic volunteers. They are in Dutch, but I am quite sure that it’ll be rather easy to persuade them to explain things in English. Especially the Waterloo Hall and the Leuven Hall, decorated by Queen Anna Palowna in the 1800’s in memory of her husband King Willem II are beautiful.
But what attracted me most about Soestdijk Palace were its gardens. You can take a couple of long walks on the estate, passing ponds, fountains, pretty bridges, chalets, hundreds of rhododendron bushes, flower gardens and an old water tower. It was rather lovely to get lost in the woodland surrounding the Palace, and the gardens alone would be a good reason to visit. Though they’re not spectacular, they’re quite soothing.
Visit Soestdijk Palace, while you can
For years, the future of Soestijk Palace has been a point of discussion. What should happen with this large royal monument? Several events are hosted here throughout summer, like concerts and open air cinema, which (I have heard) are a real treat to attend. In a couple of years, the Palace will probably be transformed into a hotel and a venue for seminars and conventions. But until then, you can still visit the palace almost daily.
How to get to Soestijk Palace
You can take a train to Baarn, where several buses leave that have a stop near Soestdijk. For example, bus 572 to Soest, bus 70 to Amersfoort, 573 to Soest and 272 to Utrecht. From the station, it will take you about 10 minutes to reach Soestdijk. You will need an OV Chip Card to travel on Dutch public transport. Use this website to plan your trip.
Soestijk palace is tucked in between Utrecht and Amersfoort and can be reached from both cities, but also from Amsterdam.
Have you visited castles or palaces with sad stories, hidden behind the thick and shiny façade?