In the days when New York was known as New Amsterdam, Haarlem gave its name to the district of Harlem, the Anglicised version of the original Dutch, Nieuw Haarlem. That was back in 1637, when Nieuw Haarlem was little more than a few wooden houses and it’s twin back in Europe had a long and fascinating history.
Granted city status in 1245, Haarlem dates from the 10th Century. By the 17th Century it had grown wealthy from the manufacture of cloth and was one of the most important towns in the Netherlands. Being there today is like stepping back into the past.
Walking through the city’s Grote Markt and the narrow lanes of the old town, much of which is pedestrianised, history seems to be all around. Haarlem remains the commercial centre of North Holland, but many of its contemporary industries have long histories. A statue of Laurens Jansz Koster hints at one of its major industries – printing.
Laurens Koster was born in 1370, and Haarlem controversially claims he invented printing in 1423. This was a good 16 years before Gutenberg is alleged to have invented printing. The truth may be clouded by time, and quietly ignores the fact that China actually invented printing, but one thing is certain, printing remains part of the local economy.
Surrounding Koster’s statue in the Grote Markt is a wondrous array of historic buildings, including the 15th Century Grote Kerk; the Staadhuis, or town hall, dating from the 13th Century; and a variety of buildings from the Dutch Golden Age. Car free and on a day without a market, it’s a great place to start an exploration of the town, although probably only after having a coffee in one of the outdoor cafes.
Haarlem suffered devastating fires and natural disasters over the years, but it’s the seven month-long siege at the hands of Spanish forces in 1573 that has left an indelible mark on the city’s collective consciousness. The town sided with Dutch rebels against the Spanish crown during the Eighty Years War and paid a terrible price for doing so. Months of siege saw the city starving.
The siege only ended with the city’s surrender and payment of a huge ransom to the Spanish to prevent looting. This didn’t stop over 2,000 of Haarlem’s defenders being massacred. This history confronts anyone arriving at Haarlem’s central station. A statue of Wigbolt Ripperda, Haarlem’s governor, and Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer, a city merchant, who defended the city during the siege, stands near the station.
Historic Haarlem is only part of the attraction though. It’s a refreshing and vibrant place with with a fantastic cultural life, and good restaurants and bars dotted all around. Visit on Saturday and the Grote Markt will be full of market stalls, and a lively atmosphere engulfs the town. Head down narrow side streets and you’ll find a wide variety of shops, cafes and bars. It’s only perception, but Haarlem seems to specialise in upmarket independent shops. It’s a relief from the relentless conformity of the high street.
Haarlem is a fabulous town, something that isn’t lost on the increasing number of tourists who visit. It’s home to 150,000 people and attracts around three quarters of a million visitors each year. Walk over to the area south of the Botermarkt and you’ll find plenty of beautiful streets, good restaurants and nice bars, but you’ll not see many tourists.
This area is worth a visit, if for no other reason than to make a pilgrimage to the Jopenkerk, Haarlem’s church of beer. The Jopen brewery is something of an institution in Haarlem, and this modern microbrewery has its origins in centuries of brewing tradition. Its location inside a former church only adds to the fun of trying a few of the dozens of different beers they brew. The perfect way to round off a visit to the town.