Leidens Ontzet: a day of freedom, fun, and boozing!

Every year, there’s one day that all Leiden residents look forward to, Leidens Ontzet (Relief of Leiden). On October 3rd, people treat themselves to a city-wide party full of food, games, carnival rides, and, most importantly: alcohol! 🍻

It might be the only day that Leiden’s large student population intermingles with the locals as they sing the Leiden anthem or the October 3 song of ‘Rubberen Robbie’ together in brotherly love.

It is truly the most beautiful day of the year. For the people who don’t know what we’re talking about, we’ll explain this exceptional phenomenon to you and clarify some crazy scenes you might see on this day.

The history of Leidens Ontzet

A pretty long time ago, the Dutch were at war with the Spaniards in the Eighty Years War (1568-1648). Like all wars during this time, this was about religion, independence, and power.

The ruler of the Spaniards, Catholic King Philip II, was a repressive old crook who didn’t want the Dutch to be independent. This was obviously ridiculous, and so the Dutchies rebelled against him.

READ MORE | Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder Amsterdam: The Eighty Years’ War and its Relationship with the Netherlands’ Clandestine Churches

The city of Leiden was attacked by the Spaniards for the first time in October 1573. However, under the guidance of Francisco de Valdez, they were distracted by Lodewijk van Nassau’s Dutch army.

lodewijk-van-nassau
Lodewijk van Nassau, younger brother of Willem van Oranje. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Van Nassau was the brother of Willem van Oranje, the Dutch freedom fighter. Therefore, he had to help his Spanish colleagues at the Mookerhei (nearby Nijmegen), where this Dutch crook was settled.

He then had to give up the siege of Leiden on March 21, 1574. But the Spaniards came back to lay siege to Leiden — with 5,000 men — and this time, it lasted until October 3.

In the meantime, the citizens of Leiden didn’t have enough food and diseases spread all over the city. Thousands of people died from starvation and the plague.

READ MORE | That time the Dutch ate their prime minister

The city secretary, Jan van Hout, and the leader of the troops, Jan van der Does, were stubborn as hell and didn’t want to surrender to King Philip II.

It was a heroic fight, especially when Mayor Van der Werf offered his arm as food to his starving people. Such self-sacrifice must certainly be remembered for eternity… even though it’s a myth.

Leidsch Ontzet van der Werff
Van der Werf offering his sword instead of his arm to the people of Leiden. Image: Museum de Lakenhal/Wikimedia Commons/CC 1.0

Van der Werf even has a park named after him with a huge statue dedicated to his honour.

On October 3, 1574, the siege came to an end because of Willem van Oranje’s genius plan. He decided to flood the surrounding areas of Leiden by making holes into the dykes of Holland to expel the Spaniards.

When the surrounding areas were flooded at the beginning of October, the ‘Watergeuzen’ (water rebels) were making their way to Leiden to set the citizens of Leiden free.

READ MORE | 11 Dutch songs to learn the language (and culture!) 

The Spaniards panicked because of the water and the Watergeuzen, and so they fled back to Spain.

The people came out of their houses to see if the Spaniards were really gone. The only thing the Spaniards left was a porridge pot with hutspot (mashed potato and vegetable dish), while the Watergeuzen brought herring with white bread into the city.

relief-of-leiden
The relief of Leiden. Otto van Veen/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

First thing in the morning, all the citizens went to the Pieterskerk, where they thanked God for this miracle that happened. And so we thank God for his effort until this day and honour this miraculous moment by drinking and partying as much as we can every October 3rd.

Did you know? Willem van Oranje proposed to establish the first university in the Netherlands as a reward for defeating the Spanish. In 1575, Leiden University was inaugurated in the Pieterskerk.

How to party the Leiden way

There are many ways you can enjoy Leiden Ontzet.

Eat some food

You may be asking yourself: is Dutch food even a thing? Yes, it actually is!

While the holiday technically starts on October 3rd, most people actually begin the festivities on the night of October 2nd. On this night, Leiden people eat hutspot (a dish of mashed potatoes and vegetables), then go out on the town for drinking and debauchery.

READ MORE | Dutch Quirk #38: Mush all of their dinner food (prakken)

When you wake up from your hangover on the morning of October 3rd, you can make your way to the Waag for FREE herring and white bread. 😋

hutspot-Dutch-dish
Just what you need before a night of celebration! Image: Depositphotos

After finishing this “Dutch delicacy”, you can head into the city and take a look at the magnificent Taptoe parade with lights and fun performances.

Ride some rides

After stuffing yourself with some Dutch delicacies, walk around the funfair in the city centre and lose your money trying to win a stuffed animal for your partner.

Here, you can eat some churros and deep-fried doughnuts and get on some roller coaster rides (though you may want to do the rides before eating the snacks 🤢).

Get drunk and watch some fireworks

Did we mention that you should drink alcohol all the time while doing these things?

Then, while getting a good buzz going, you can take a look at all the stages around the city where you can listen to all kinds of music, especially those you don’t want to hear when you’re sober. 💃

woman-taking-a-picture-on-her-phone-of-red-and-orange-firworks-in-the-dark-during-3-october-leiden
Expect fireworks, lots of fireworks. Image: Depositphotos

Then, just before midnight, you can watch a spectacular fireworks show at the Zijlsingel. 🎆

After that, you can slowly move to a pub that’s overly hot until the sun comes up.

If you’re somehow able to walk at the end of the evening, it’s allowed to go to bed before you pick up your herring and white bread (again) the next morning on October 4th. Then the fun is over, and you’ll have to wait another year to do it all again!

Have you been to Leidens Ontzet, or are you planning to go? Let us know in the comments below!

Editor’s note: This article was written in September 2017 and updated in September 2023 for your reading pleasure.

Image: Paul Arps/Wikimedia Commons/CC2.0

Jordy Steijn
Jordy Steijn
Jordy Steijn is a native Dutch who loves to write about sports, history and everything in between. Jordy has a particular sense of humor, which is sometimes hard to catch, lame or genious but mainly nothing but mere irony and which you could find in most of his articles (that are not about genocide).

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9 COMMENTS

  1. You forgot the “gerookte paling, ” smoked eel, and the fact that Leiden, as a reward for its heroism, was given a University, founded in 1575

  2. […] The relieve of Leiden, or better said – driiieeee oktober, is one of the most Leiden-ish events you can possibly be a part of when you’re living in Leiden. During the event Leiden will be transformed into an open-air party celebrating the end of the Spanish siege of the city in the 16th century. There’s a big fair, a grand party everywhere on the 2nd of October, hutspot and herring and beer (lot’s of it). Here’s our article on the Leidsch Ontzet. […]

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