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Picturesque canals, historic sites make this city a Dutch treat

'S-HERTOGENBOSCH, the Netherlands -- Don't worry about trying to pronounce 's-Hertogenbosch. Even the Dutch don't. Instead, and thankfully, they refer to this lovely medieval city by its nickname of Den Bosch ("den boss").

With neither tulip fields nor windmills, this city of 132,500 is not a regular stop for American tourists. Den Bosch does get a large share of Dutch and German day-trippers and other European visitors drawn to its historic buildings, picturesque canals, and contemporary stores and restaurants. I stayed here for a couple of days in the fall while my Dutch boyfriend was on a business trip nearby. During the day, I was on my own, enjoying the absence of Americans in this typical, upscale Dutch city. But as one who barely understands "goedemorgen" (good morning), never mind "banketbakkerij" (pastry shop), I found it frustrating that here, unlike in Amsterdam or other, more touristy Dutch towns, very little visitor information could be found in English. Some travel guides for the Netherlands don't even mention Den Bosch.

The full name of 's-Hertogenbosch translates to "the duke's woods," the duke being Henry I of Brabant, who chartered the city in 1184, when a castle and large forest were here. Both are gone, but parts of the old city wall remain, along with remnants of ramparts and bastions that protected Den Bosch during the Eighty Years' War, or Dutch Revolt. Den Bosch is the capital of Noord-Brabant, the country's largest province, reaching across the bottom of the Netherlands. The city's most famous resident was Hieronymus Bosch, the painter of the torments of hell (and other religious visions) who lived from 1450-1516. Unfortunately you won't find any of Bosch's 25 existing paintings here, though a statue in the center of town salutes him.

If you arrive by train, the station is a short, attractive walk from the center of town. As in many places in the Netherlands, there are as many cyclists as there are pedestrians and maybe even drivers. You can go with the flow by renting a bicycle in the basement of the station, also the site of the indoor parking garage for bicycles. About 3,000 locals pay to park their bikes there daily, most of them then taking the train to work or school. The free parking is outside, where you find another sea of bikes locked on racks. For $10 a day, I rented an upright cruiser with a built-in lock that got me around the city in Dutch style, but you can easily walk the town center as well.

From the station stairs, you go directly up Stationsweg past a small, linear park and "De Draak," a stone pillar topped with a gleaming gold dragon. If you're up for a serious sugar rush, stop on the right at the Jan de Groot pastry shop (Stationsweg 24) for a famed "Bossche Bol," a softball-sized puff pastry filled with fresh whipped cream and dipped in dark chocolate. It's a local specialty, made famous by de Groot.

As you continue on, you cross a charming stone bridge over the river De Dommel, which feeds into the narrow canals -- creeks, really -- that thread through the city. Much of the canal system here, unlike in Amsterdam, is underneath the city and much smaller, its scale being part of the charm.

We were in Den Bosch just before the annual Maritiem, a popular gathering of boats, and already the canals were getting crowded with vessels of all kinds. The Visstraat runs into the town center; the side streets are brick and curve in ways that prevented medieval attackers from blasting down the street. At the T, take a right and you reach Markt, a pedestrian-only square that on Wednesdays and Saturdays is transformed into a huge open-air market with food, flowers, and assorted flea-market goods.

Just as you come into the town square, the tourist office is on your left. It's marked only with VVV ("vay-vay-vay"), the Dutch symbol for tourist information, so keep your eyes open or ask someone. (Most Dutch people, especially the younger ones, speak some English.) The office has limited information in English; make sure you get a street map and the highly detailed 90-minute self-guided walking tour. The VVV operates a small retail store with the nicest souvenirs in town (housewares and presentable T-shirts). The VVV office is in "De Moriaan," thought to be the city's first medieval brick building. The area's first buildings were of wood and on stilts, on a sandy beach between the Dommel and Aa rivers.

If you stand atop the few stairs at the VVV entrance, you get a good overview of the large, brick-surfaced market square, which is surrounded on all sides by majestic old buildings. The most eye-catching is Town Hall, with a classical Baroque facade built in 1670 to replace an earlier Gothic facade. Across the street is the Bosch statue. Streets lined with shops and cafes stretch out from the center; walk in any direction, and you find yourself on narrow, winding streets. In several spots you can dine overlooking the canal and next to a centuries-old arched bridge.

Den Bosch's architectural masterpiece and top tourist attraction is its massive Basilica Cathedral of Sint Jan (St. John the Evangelist), a surreal, anachronistic sight in the distance if you're coming by car from the highway. Guided architecture tours are offered only in Dutch, but literature is available in English at the information desk. The church dates to 1220; the late-Gothic basilica was built between 1380 and 1530, and a decade-long restoration was completed in 1985, when the town celebrated its 800th birthday. The exquisite exterior, decorated with dozens of fantastical creatures reaching toward the heavens and imposing gargoyles looking down, is one of the best known in the Netherlands. The church is 377 feet long, with 242-foot-high towers and 600 statues inside and out.

The city has several fine museums, including the regionally known Noordbrabants. The setting is lovely, as much of the collection is housed in the former residence of the governors of Noord-Brabant, and there's a sculpture garden out back.

If you're in Den Bosch between April and October, make sure you take one of the frequent volunteer-sponsored boat rides along the canal. I took two: one a tour of the canal system, the other a special art tour that goes by public art erected annually in the canal. These were the highlights of my stay, but because the narration was in Dutch, I missed out on the local lore. Still, I won't complain about the organizers of these trips -- all volunteers through the Binnendieze Foundation, part of the Friends of 's-Hertogenbosch. The Binnendieze is the system of inner-city waterways. It is hard to believe that in the 1960s, the waterways had lost their significance and become an open sewer. A decision to fill the canals was reversed in 1969, and instead the waterways were preserved, making Den Bosch an exceptionally special place to visit.

The canal tours, in small open-air boats that hold about a dozen people, last about 50 minutes and cost only 5 Euros, currently about $6.30. Make sure you spend another $1.50 on an English map with the course outlined. Without one, you won't know what you are seeing; I ultimately gave up and simply enjoyed the ride. The boat goes by or under shops, houses, and streets, and at several points it passes parts of the old fortress wall. For a brief time we exited the walled part of the old city to reach another floodgate, the entry point for water flowing into the city.

After one morning of nonstop sightseeing, I hopped onto my bike and headed away from the old city, crossing onto a large open green space with a network of paved bike trails leading to the next town. I rode several miles out, past farmland and flat countryside. Like so much of my time in Den Bosch, I often didn't know what I was looking at, but that didn't stop me from enjoying the scenery.

Diane Daniel can be reached at ddaniel@globe.com.

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