Walking the streets of historic Haarlem

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.

Wigbolt Ripperda and Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer statue, Haarlem, Netherlands

Wigbolt Ripperda and Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer statue, Haarlem, Netherlands

Bakenesserkerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Bakenesserkerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Spaarne River, Haarlem, Netherlands

Spaarne River, Haarlem, Netherlands

Old meat hall, Haarlem, Netherlands

Old meat hall, Haarlem, Netherlands

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.

Laurens Jansz Koster statue, Haarlem, Netherlands

Laurens Jansz Koster statue, Haarlem, Netherlands

Old town, Haarlem, Netherlands

Old town, Haarlem, Netherlands

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Bakenesserkerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Bakenesserkerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

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.

Grote Kerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Grote Kerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Haarlem has a red light district but this is just bizarre, Haarlem, Netherlands

Haarlem has a red light district but this is just bizarre, Haarlem, Netherlands

Grote Markt, Haarlem, Netherlands

Grote Markt, Haarlem, Netherlands

Grote Markt, Haarlem, Netherlands

Grote Markt, Haarlem, Netherlands

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.

Old town, Haarlem, Netherlands

Old town, Haarlem, Netherlands

Broek or Trousers, Haarlem, Netherlands

Broek or Trousers, Haarlem, Netherlands

Tourist shop, Haarlem, Netherlands

Tourist shop, Haarlem, Netherlands

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.

As cold as your Ex's heart, Haarlem, Netherlands

As cold as your Ex’s heart, Haarlem, Netherlands

Bakenesserkerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Bakenesserkerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

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.

Jopenkerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Jopenkerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Jopenkerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Jopenkerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

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.

Time travel in Haarlem

Haarlem is often dismissed as, “Amsterdam without the tourists” or “Like Amsterdam, just smaller”. This classic Dutch town doesn’t deserve either of these epithets. It does deserve recognition as a beautiful and fascinating city in its own right though. It may not have the size and international renown of Amsterdam, but it’s no pale imitation of its more famous neighbour. I was captivated by Haarlem on my first visit, and the times I’ve spent exploring its cobbled streets since have only made me like it even more.

Haarlem Centraal Train Station, Netherlands

Haarlem Centraal Train Station, Netherlands

Grote Kerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Grote Kerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Spaarne River, Haarlem, Netherlands

Spaarne River, Haarlem, Netherlands

Town Hall, Grote Markt, Haarlem, Netherlands

Town Hall, Grote Markt, Haarlem, Netherlands

Need an excuse to come here? The Frans Hals Museum provides one, and then some. This world-class museum is Haarlem’s cultural centrepiece. Housed in a 17th Century almshouse it is a love poem to the Dutch Golden Age, and contains some of the period’s finest artworks. Born in Antwerp, but most associated with Haarlem, Frans Hals is one of the most important artists of his era. Small and compact, the museum is a joy to explore.

The building itself is part of the experience, and Hals’ work truly stands out in these surroundings. He specialised in portraits and the museum owns five of his famous Haarlem civic guard portraits, an entire room dedicated to them. Elsewhere the museum is undertaking a large conservation project on several of his other works, you can watch conservators carefully removing old yellow varnish from them.

In one room I watched a video that explained that I was looking at one of the most important paintings of the 17th Century. In front of me someone delicately applied solvents to the layer of varnish hiding the brilliance of the paint underneath. Solvents that applied wrongly could do serious damage to the paint. You need nerves of steel to be a Frans Hals conservator.

Restoraion work, Frans Halls Museum, Haarlem, Netherlands

Restoraion work, Frans Halls Museum, Haarlem, Netherlands

Paintings, Frans Halls Museum, Haarlem, Netherlands

Paintings, Frans Halls Museum, Haarlem, Netherlands

You don’t need to visit museums to discover the Dutch Golden Age in Haarlem though. Glorious architecture from the 14th Century onwards surrounds the central square, the Grote Markt. On one side of the old market sits the 14th Century Town Hall, while on the opposite side of the square is the incredible Grote Kerk, or church of St. Bavo. It’s an enormous building with origins in the early 14th Century, although most of what you see today is from the 15th and 16th Centuries.

Amongst its other glories, the Grote Kerk is home to one of the most famous organs in the world. The work of Christiaan Müller, when finished in 1738 it was the largest organ in the world. Handel travelled here twice to play it, and a 10-year old Mozart also played it. It even gets referenced in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. We were lucky to see the organ and church interior, it isn’t normally open on a Sunday but this year Sunday opening is allowed in July and August…and someone was playing the organ.

Grote Kerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Grote Kerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Muller organ, Grote Kerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Muller organ, Grote Kerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Muller organ, Grote Kerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Muller organ, Grote Kerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

A short walk from the Grote Kerk brings you to the Spaarne River upon which sits another superb museum. Established in 1778, the Teylers Museum is the oldest in the Netherlands. Pieter Teyler van der Hulst was a wealthy merchant of Scottish descent who bequeathed his entire fortune to the advancement of the arts and science. The museum has an eclectic collection ranging from dinosaur bones and fossils, to a memorable range of early scientific instruments, to two galleries filled with the works of Dutch artists.

Haarlem, Netherlands

Haarlem, Netherlands

Tulips, Haarlem, Netherlands

Tulips, Haarlem, Netherlands

Spaarne River, Haarlem, Netherlands

Spaarne River, Haarlem, Netherlands

Haarlem, Netherlands

Haarlem, Netherlands

Teylers Museum on the Spaarne River, Haarlem, Netherlands

Teylers Museum on the Spaarne River, Haarlem, Netherlands

Luckily, the banks of the Spaarne River are also home to a number of cafes and restaurants. When you’ve had enough culture you can stumble a few yards down the road to a pavement table, watch the world go by and have a beer from Haarlem’s award-winning Jopen Brewery.

Scrooged, a visit to Haarlem’s Christmas Market

I’m not a natural shopper, there’s precious little in the experience that’s enjoyable. So the prospect of wandering around an outdoor market for hours on end in the freezing cold is not something that I take lightly. My general approach to the now seasonal torment of Xmas markets is to seize the opportunity to sample as many varieties of mulled wine (glühwein in Germany or the Dutch bisschopswijn) as possible.

Grotekerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Grotekerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Choir at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

Choir at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

It’s not even that I like mulled wine, but if you’re going to be dragged around an Xmas market with 10,000 other tourists it’s wise to do so in a slightly inebriated condition. Time passes so much more quickly that way and it dulls the senses to the endless chirruping of carols. While we’re on the subject, if carols are so bloody great why don’t we sing them the rest of the year?

Mulled wine stall at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

Mulled wine stall at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

Dickensian band at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

Dickensian band at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

Dickensian band at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

Dickensian band at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

I blame Germany for this whole Xmas market nonsense. I’m sure there was a time when they were purely local affairs: a few stalls selling plucked geese and glühwein in steins. Not anymore. Thanks to places like Cologne it has become a multi-million euro business that sees people leave the warmth of their homes and head to northern Europe, just to buy some wooden ornaments that were probably hand crafted by a machine in a workshop somewhere a long way from northern Europe.

Stall at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

Stall at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

Stall at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

Stall at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

Stall at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

Stall at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

Shopping for gifts isn’t even the primary reason for Xmas markets. My experience has been that Xmas markets are places you go to eat and drink at multiple stalls selling the sort of food that doesn’t typically come with a vegetable accompaniment.

I’m as keen on a sausage in a bun as the next person. It doesn’t, however, constitute a reason for crawling out of bed to join thousands of other bewildered people as they trawl around a lot of stalls in the freezing cold. Xmas markets are like full contact sports; expect to be barged, pushed and beaten in the melee of people trying to get to the front of a very long queue to drown their sorrows with glühwein.

Stall at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

Stall at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

Decapitated Santa at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

Decapitated Santa at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

Stall at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

Stall at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

So it was that I found myself on a train heading towards the town of Haarlem. I’ve been to Haarlem before and it’s a lovely place that, on a Saturday, has a very good ‘normal’ market in the Grote Markt. I figured if they can do a reasonable market week-in-week-out, they might be able to put on a good Xmas market.

I returned home without any gifts but with a warm glow inside and feeling a little tipsy from the intoxicating fumes of excessive mulled wine consumption. Santa with an accordion may well have been a hot wine and clove-induced illusion.

Singing Santa at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

Singing Santa at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

Stall at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

Stall at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

Stall at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

Stall at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

I’m being unfair. Haarlem Christmas Market was a lot of fun. There were choirs and musicians to enliven things, although the seriously out of tune junior choir was enough to send me back for another glass of bisschopswijn. It wasn’t too crowded. There were more sausage in a bun stalls than even I’d anticipated, but there were also a lot of hand made gifts on sale. I had the most delicious cinnamon-flavoured stroopwafel hot from the griddle.

Lone singer at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

Lone singer at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

Chocolate stall at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

Chocolate stall at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

Modernist snowperson at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

Modernist snowperson at Haarlem Christmas Market, Netherlands

Plus, and for once in this post quite seriously, the Haarlem Xmas Market was used as a fundraiser for the Hands Off Our Girls campaign, which works to end sexual violence against women and girls during war or in conflict zones. Not a particularly Christmassy theme, but definitely worth supporting…and the mulled wine at their stall was by far-and-away the best I tasted all day.

Cycling the North Sea Coast (III)

The difference a week makes.

August moved effortlessly into September and the hoards of tourists who had been inhabiting the North Sea Coast of the Netherlands suddenly, without fanfare, vanished. One day the cycle tracks, beaches and beach-side bars were buzzing with activity along this coastline, the next an eerie quietness descended. Where did everyone go? Alien abduction? Where is Sherlock Holmes when you need a ginormous know-it-all?

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Not that I’m complaining, fewer people is rarely a bad thing when you’re trying to enjoy nature. This is my first summer in the Netherlands so everything is still a little new. I hadn’t realised that such wondrous beaches existed in Northern Europe, let alone that hundreds of thousands of people would make their way here from across Europe to enjoy them.

Now though, the long decline into autumn and winter has begun; like birds heading south the North Sea’s summer visitors have migrated. The cycle tracks and beaches on the coast between The Hague and Haarlem to the north are much quieter; the beach-side bars that were host to a party crowd are closing, deconstructed and packed away until next year. Once again the coast is the preserve of local cyclists and dog walkers.

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Razor clam shells on a North Sea beach, Netherlands

Razor clam shells on a North Sea beach, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

I picked up my earlier route at Noordwijk and cycled towards Zandvoort on the coast, then inland to the city of Haarlem. The journey is, to say the least, picturesque. Passing through kilometre after kilometre of rolling sand dunes, I occasionally stopped to walk over the dunes onto wide sandy beaches with hardly any people on them. I imagine in winter, with a gale blowing, these beaches will be inhospitable places. On a sunny September day, they are glorious.

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Jellyfish on a North Sea beach, Netherlands

Jellyfish on a North Sea beach, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Arriving in Zandvoort is something of an anticlimax after the beauty of the journey. This is as close as the Netherlands gets to imitating the horrors of Torremolinos in the 1980s. At the height of the tourist season the beach can look like a seal colony, with thousands of people packed close together. Then there is the architecture.

There is a near universal truth that architects seem to lose their reason and sense of aesthetics when given the job of building by the sea. Almost every seaside town I’ve ever visited has been home to some of the most bizarre and fearfully ugly architecture known to humankind. My general theory is that architects, inspired by the liberating views of the ocean, do their drawing blindfolded. Zandvoort has not escaped this fate.

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

This isn’t entirely Zandvoort’s own fault. During World War II this area was considered strategically important, so the German Army built a series of fortifications here as part of the Atlantic Wall sea defences. To do so they first levelled around three kilometres of the town along the waterfront. Zandvoort had once been an upmarket resort with grand hotels and a wealth of beautiful buildings. By the time the German Army had finished, it had been devastated.

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Crossing from South Holland into North Holand en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Crossing from South Holland into North Holand en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

The beach at Zandvoort, Netherlands

The beach at Zandvoort, Netherlands

Amidst the general destruction of Zandvoort, the most iconic moment came when the the town’s ornate water tower was blown up. There is a grainy black and white photo capturing this moment on the town’s official website. Leaving Zandvoort behind I headed inland towards my final destination, Haarlem, which, as Harlem, has given its name famously to part of New York and numerous other places.

Snowman in summer, between Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Snowman in summer, between Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Haarlem train station, Netherlands

Haarlem train station, Netherlands

I often sing the praises of the Dutch cycling system, but the journey into the centre of Haarlem was poorly signposted and once in the town I did several circuits trying to find the train station. This at least gave me the opportunity to see quite a lot of this historic town, whetting my appetite to return and explore more thoroughly.