Whenever somebody asks me advice on what to do in Amsterdam or where to go for a daytrip, I always say the same thing.
Get out of Amsterdam. Go to Haarlem.
Now, I don’t have anything against Amsterdam – I’ve actually come to really like the Dutch capital – but it ain’t the Netherlands. Non-Randstad people would probably say that Haarlem isn’t exactly a window into the Dutch soul either, but hey, we’re going with baby steps.
I adore Haarlem, much to Paul’s dismay. I first went in 2011, only a few weeks after I arrived in the country. One of Paul’s best mates, Marlon, is from the city and he showed me his hometown, clearly pretty happy that I truly loved the place. (For longtime readers of the blog, this was the day when I fell off my bike into a sand dune after admiring some cows. Yep.)
You might not understand why Paul was so disappointed that I fell hard for Haarlem. At first, I didn’t either. But Paul’s from South Holland; the province that claims to be the most Dutch of all, with rough guttural ‘ggghhh’s and dark, brooding architecture. North Holland – with Haarlem its capital – is known for its nasal-y, almost American ‘rrr’s and pretty bell facades. Apparently Rotterdam (South Holland) earns all the money, The Hague (South Holland) divides it and Amsterdam (North Holland) spends it.
At the end of the day, though, aren’t they both people from Holland? They’re from the centre of the Netherlands, the region many foreigners mistakenly label as the entire country. They’re mainly Protestant (compared to the Catholics in Brabant and Limburg) and share a common modern history of the Eighty Years’ War against the Spanish and all the VOC exploration. Plus, the two provinces together are only about half the size of the Melbourne Metropolitan Area. The Netherlands really is tiny.
They’re actually not much different, in my honest opinion. But I wouldn’t dare say that at an Ajax-Feyenoord football match.
I’ve been back to Haarlem a few times over the past couple of years, always looking for any excuse to visit the city. People often assume that if Paul and I weren’t living in Dordrecht we would be in Amsterdam, but that’s not true. I’d choose Haarlem over its famous neighbour any day.
I spent a week in Haarlem early last year; I did some volunteer work at a media company in the centre of town and spent my lunch breaks walking the streets. A couple of weekends ago, Paul and I headed up to see Marlon and we spent practically a perfect day wandering around, watching Ajax in a pub, stuffing ourselves with Thai food and even going bowling. It was a Sunday, yet shops were open and the city just had a great buzz to it.
So what’s so good about it, you say? If you’re asking me what makes it stand out from the couple of dozen Dutch cities I’ve visited over the past three years, I’d be a bit stumped actually. It’s historic, losing thousands of citizens and buildings in the Spanish siege during the Eighty Years War, only to face similar destruction in a massive fire a decade later.
But it’s no more historic than other cities of Holland like Dordrecht, Delft, Gouda or Alkmaar. It’s got nice old buildings, but so do most cities. It’s got canals, bikes everywhere and the odd pretty church. Like everywhere.
But it’s the little things. I love the way that the canals are looked at, front and centre, rather than simply running behind buildings. There hardly seems to be any main roads in the middle of town; it’s instead a jumble of little lanes and hard-to-find nooks and crannies. The best little spots, in my opinion, are the little hofjes; tiny houses arranged around a communal garden. Haarlem seems to be full of them.
The city’s the centre of the tulip industry, with its rural outskirts turning every conceivable hue come spring. The Haarlemers also seem to love the sun more than any other Dutchies; you’ll see them sitting alfresco in the middle of February, their necks craned and their eyes closed, trying to get a bit of Vitamin D.
And yes, it is quite hipster. A lot of young people who can’t afford Amsterdam’s high rents have headed out here (it’s less than fifteen minutes away by train) and you can definitely see how they’ve made their mark. Tattoo parlours rub shoulders with boutiques like Scotch & Soda, and you can find cafes which offer not only high tea, but also ‘high wine’. One of the first things you see when you head out of Haarlem Station (my favourite train station in the country) is a fries shop. No biggie, you think? They sell vegan-friendly, biological fries.
My favourite hipster institution in Haarlem has got to be the Jopenkerk. If you know a bit of Dutch or German, straight away you’ll see that word and think, ‘hey, how can a church be hipster?’ Well, this one is pretty special; a few years ago the Jopen Brewery bought the neglected church and turned it into a microbrewery.
The vats sit in front of stained glass windows and you toss back their signature brews on pews. It’s hugely popular and for good reason; it’s one of my favourite pubs in Europe.
Haarlem’s got plenty of museums, but I haven’t been into any of them. I haven’t seen inside any churches, save the Jopenkerk. I haven’t bought any souvenirs, gone on a canal cruise or even eaten any (biological or otherwise) fries and mayo. But it feels livable, comfortable and laid-back. I’m already plotting my return.