The name may conjure up images of 1930s jazz clubs, brownstone buildings and people who know how to do the shuffle. The original Haarlem though is a charming old city with cobbled streets, a grand square bordered by beautiful buildings and is laced with atmospheric waterways. Some describe the capital of North Holland as a mini Amsterdam, but it has a character all of its own.
We experienced some of the city the evening we arrived, crossing picturesque canals to reach the Grote Markt central square, where there were plenty of dining establishments to choose from.
However, our proper exploration of the city started walking east along the footpath beside the Kloppersingel canal.
The canal marks the northern edge of mediaeval Haarlem and was built in a zig zag shape to accommodate defences on its south side. We walked as far as the River Spaarne where we turned south to arrive at a viewpoint looking across to the city’s chocolate-box windmill, Molen de Adriaan.
The original mill was built in 1778 to crush stone into waterproof cement. In the 19th century, it had a change of use to grinding tobacco and later it became a grain mill. The windmill burnt down in the 1930s and it was many years before it was rebuilt, the current building finally opening in 2002. Molen de Adriaan now houses a museum and event space. Despite its absence for over half a century, it is now difficult to imagine Haarlem without its picturesque riverside windmill.
From the River Spaarne, we turned westwards and walked alongside the Bakenessergracht and Nieuwe Gracht canals. Although central, this was a quiet part of the city with few people or traffic to disturb us. We encountered more cyclists than motorists, but that is not unusual in Holland. There were plenty of boats parked and a few actually moving on the Nieuwe Gracht. Grand old town houses and civic buildings lined this canal.
In no time at all we reached the Kruisbrug bridge and turned towards our next destination, the Corrie ten Boom House.
We had pre-booked a tour of this World War Two resistance safehouse after reading good reports. We weren’t disappointed. We learned how the ten Booms were a devout Christian family and Corrie was the first female watchmaker in town. As we sat in the living room, our superb guide brought to life the stories of what happened in that very house 75-80 years earlier. As the family noticed Jews and opponents of the Nazis were disappearing from town, they made it their mission to do all they could to help. Their house became a hiding place for Jews and dissidents, who stayed there until they could be moved to a safe location. We saw skirting boards used to hide extra food ration cards which were donated by the resistance. We learned how at meal times they pretended it was somebody’s birthday to justify the large number of people present to any prying eyes out in the street. We saw the secret compartment behind a wall where people could hide in an emergency. In all, 800 people passed through this house on their way to safety. The end came in 1944 when the ten Boom home was raided after an informant had betrayed the family. The secret compartment was finally utilized by 4 Jews and 2 resistance fighters who hid as Nazis ripped apart the house looking for them, unsuccessfully. Convinced of their presence, the Nazis posted a local police guard on the house and left, thinking they would have to come out sooner or later for food. Luckily, the policeman posted on the 2nd day was also a member of the resistance, so all 6 escaped. The ten Boom family were not so lucky. All except Corrie died in concentration camps. After the war, she emigrated to America and toured with Billy Graham preaching the importance of forgiveness. Billy financed a film about the ten Boom house called “The Hiding Place”. It is difficult to describe in words what an incredibly moving experience this tour was. Some visitors were brought to tears and F was inspired to buy a biography of Corrie ten Boom. The visit was simultaneously depressing and uplifting, showing how cruel humans can be and also the incredible sacrifices people make in order to help others in need.
While in Haarlem, we also paid a visit to the Netherlands’ oldest continually operating museum. Teylers Museum was opened in 1784 and contains an eclectic collection of fossils, artworks from the Renaissance and Dutch Golden Age, coins from all ages and the earliest machines to generate electricity. The museum is centred around the 18th century grand Oval Room with impressive balconies and an atrium.
When Holland was part of the French Empire, Napoleon himself came to see the museum. The curators were very keen to impress him, particularly with their electric machines, while trying to communicate to him the importance of not impeding their research by imposing taxes! Our audio guides transported us back more than 200 years to this visit, where we became the French Emperor and the voices of the curators escorted us around Teylers. It has been remarked that I bear a passing resemblance to Bonaparte.
Haarlem’s St Bavokerk is renowned for having one of the largest organs in the world. It has been played by both Handel and Mozart, but on the occasion of our visit, there was a recital from somebody a little less talented. We didn’t exactly hear many banging tunes, but did experience how the amazing sound can fill the church. The organ is even mentioned in Herman Melville’s novel “Moby Dick” in this line describing the inside of a whale’s mouth: “Seeing all these colonnades of bone so methodically ranged about, would you not think you were inside of the great Haarlem organ, and gazing upon its thousand pipes”. Originally a Catholic cathedral, St Bavokerk became a Dutch Reformed church after the occupying Spanish were thrown out. The locals had become a little displeased when Spanish forces killed thousands of mainly Protestant civilians in the city. The church contains a very old food bank. Bread was dispensed to the poor of the city from a long table beneath the organ pipes.
Although particularly inspired by the Corrie ten Boom House, F’s favourite part of our stay in Haarlem was a visit to the seaside. 11 minutes away by train is Zandvoort aan Zee. Sporting a long sandy beach, Zandvoort is to Haarlem and Amsterdam what Margate is to London, or Coney Island to New York. The beach was crowded on the hot afternoon we were there, but we found a space and then went for a dip in the sea after locating a stretch free of jellyfish! S and I later found a pleasant beach bar from where we could keep an eye on F.
As she was inspired enough to write about it, I shall leave further description of this resort to my daughter:
“The beach at Zandvoort is a lovely place to relax on a hot day, use your phone or read a book. The ocean may be full of Jellyfish, so watch your step! But when you’re left alone on this beach you can relax as the heat hits your skin. There are many beach cafes and restaurants, as well as food trucks on the beach, so a bite to eat or a drink are never far”.
Suffice to say I think F enjoyed it! We finished where we had started, crossing the Kloppersingel canal on our way to the station where we boarded a train to our next destination of Dordrecht. A blog on that will be coming soon.
Haarlem is the capital of North Holland, Netherlands, about 24kms west of Amsterdam
There is a regular train service from Amsterdam Centraal which takes about 15 minutes. There are high speed train services from many European cities to Amsterdam, including London. Amsterdam Schiphol Airport can be reached by train via Amsterdam Centraal. Very well developed cycle routes run between Amsterdam and Haarlem and onwards to Zandvoort
If you enjoyed this, you may like to read my blog on Amsterdam