Assen is a small Dutch city that has always weighed more than its weight. The original site of the Cistercian nunnery from the 13th Century, until it was dissolved in 1600. There were 600 inhabitants when Louis I, Napoleon Bonaparte’s younger brother, visited the town in 1809.
This tiny community was so welcoming that he granted city rights to it, gave money to help fund housing construction, and promised to build his summer house there.
But Napoleon grew so enraged by his sibling’s popularity that he annexed Holland into the French Empire and Louis fled into exile.
Head-turner: A Frida Kahlo statue on Assen’s De Vaart canal to promote the exhibition
Still, Assen’s new-found city status boosted its fortunes and it became capital of Drenthe province in 1814. The region’s wealthiest residents moved in and the Drents Museum was established in 1854 in the former governor’s house.
Today, the museum is one of the main reason tourists take the two-hour train ride from Amsterdam, and now it has trumped big-name galleries in London, Paris and New York to hold this year’s most in-demand exhibition. Viva La Frida! Life And Art Of Frida Kahlo is the first time two of the world’s leading collections devoted to the iconic Mexican artist have been brought together in one place.
The exhibition features 42 of Kahlo’s works alongside personal belongings, including jewellery, clothing, home-movie footage and a kohl pencil Kahlo used to accentuate her distinctive eyebrows, now immortalised on everything from cushions to mugs.
Kahlo’s personal effects are as important as her paintings to understanding her life and motivation. Her medical corsets were used to treat the permanent injuries she sustained from an accident on a bus as a teenager. Chanel perfume bottles were also used to soothe her persistent pain.
The accident left her unable to walk and she began to paint. The mirror was mounted above her bed by her father, so that her face could be seen in most of the artwork.
Annemiek Rens, the exhibition’s chief curator, says: ‘People are inspired by the way she dealt with life and all the difficult things she had to cope with, and how she translated them into something beautiful and powerful.’
It’s the Drents Museum that is hosting these prestigious collections. Siobhan Grogen writes, “The museum is one reason that tourists choose to travel two hours from Amsterdam.”
The portrait of the Mexican artist, who is well-known for her distinct eyebrows
The show has attracted more than 10,000 visitors every week since it was opened in October by the Netherlands’ Queen Maxima, wearing Kahlo-style flowers in her hair.
Most jump straight back on the train to Amsterdam afterwards, but there’s plenty to see beyond the exhibition hall.
Museum also has a contemporary art collection by Henk Helmantel, Wout Muller and other artists. It includes an interactive 18th Century home as well as a scary archaeological section. It also houses the oldest-known boat in the universe and the eerie 2,000 year-old bog body, the Yde Girl. This was discovered in perfect preservation in peat in 1897.
Just outside the museum is Assen’s oldest street, Kloosterstraat, which leads to the former nunnery garden in the heart of the city.
Shaded by soaring oak trees and carpeted in crocuses each spring, it’s now a popular picnic spot lined with some of the oldest buildings in Assen, including its first police station, now home to the popular In de Kloosterhof B&B.
In the opposite direction is an old jail, where residents freed members of Dutch resistance held captive by Nazis. Wander down Marktstraat and you’ll see stones in the pavement paying tribute to former residents who were captured by the Germans, marking their name and the date they were killed in Auschwitz.
Evenings are when the bars and cafes open up on Kerkstraat/Mark, offering a chance to sip beer while taking in the view over the canal or city harbour.
There’s plenty to see in the city beyond the exhibition hall, says Siobhan. The picture shows people sipping a cocktail overlooking the canal.
The street market is located just outside of the City Hotel de Jonge. Get up at 5 AM to go and visit it the following day. You can stock up on waxy cheeses, bread, and ham for a picnic and then rent a bicycle to tour the city forest, the network of cycling paths, and the three picturesque national parks in Drenthe.
Then you’ll begin to understand why Napoleon wanted to keep this blissfully unspoilt country all to himself.