Our houseguests in Amsterdam have queued for Rembrandt, van Gogh, Anne Frank and the canal boat trip. They’ve visited the red light district, for sociological research purposes of course. ‘So what else should we see?’ they ask.
‘How about Haarlem?’ I suggest.
They’re puzzled. ‘We’re not going to New York till next week.’
‘Not “Harlem”, “Haaar-lem”, the original one. It’s only twenty minutes by train from Amsterdam. An hour by bike if you feel energetic. No gospel choirs, but there’s the Teylers Museum. And Frans Hals, and some nice hofjes.’
‘Okay, Haarlem,’ they say. ‘On the train, if you don’t mind. What are hofjes?’
Haarlem Station is the oldest and surely the most beautiful in Holland. Polished wood, stained glass and decorative tiling reek of an era when travelling by train meant luxury, rather than something you do from necessity when your car’s being serviced.
As we walk from the station to the centre of Haarlem, the light is noticeably different from Amsterdam’s. It’s a more open, warmer and…well, a lighter light. Perhaps it’s because the buildings here are smaller, two or three storeys instead of Amsterdam’s usual four.
We reach our first hofje. Hofjes are housing complexes for the needy, which were originally erected by rich burghers who wanted to do good, and be seen to be doing good. Many are now national monuments, but often still lived in by single women. The 17th century Hofje van Oorschot encloses a charming formal garden, open to the public on weekdays.
A little further on, St Bafo’s Church towers over the city square. With its cobblestones, step gables and cafes with outdoor terraces, the Grote Markt of Haarlem looks as much Belgian than Dutch. That’s no accident; Belgians designed most of it. Early in the 17th century, Flemish refugees fled north to escape the Spanish occupation. Weavers and merchants brought Haarlem its wealth, and artists including Frans Hals from Antwerp and architect de Key from Ghent made it look good. Over a hundred artists worked here in the early 1600s, and over a quarter of private houses had paintings on the walls.
As well as their taste in art, the Flemish brought their taste in beer. Haarlem’s Spaarne River was polluted, so dune water was imported from the northern Netherlands province of Drenthe, turned into beer (the healthy alternative) and drunk by everyone, even children. Average 17th century beer consumption in Haarlem was a staggering two litres a day, which makes us seem like pathetic underachievers. The poor however, could usually only afford ‘small beer’, low in alcohol. Haarlem Lite.
After a coffee in the art deco Grand-café Brinkmann, we’re ready for the museums and more hofjes.
As a child, I was very taken with the painting, The Laughing Cavalier. It’s in London, and I’ve only seen it in books. Frans Hals painted it in Haarlem. The Frans Hals Museum, also a pleasant hofje, was during Hals’ lifetime a home for old men of limited means. The rules were strict. Old men weren’t allowed to take more than one jug of beer to their rooms at night, which apparently caused some friction with those in charge.
Hals painted portraits of the committee members of the Old Men’s Home. They’re a particularly ugly lot. One male patron looks like he’s had his two litres of beer for breakfast, and more for lunch. The rumour was that old Hals was a resident of this home, and that the unflattering portraits are his revenge on his benefactors, perhaps for rationing his alcohol. In fact he never lived here. He was just an artist who chose to paint the truth, rather than crank out a pleasing portrait for anyone who paid the commission, as most of his contemporaries did.
As well as Frans Hals’ portraits, the museum has Ruijsdael landscapes, amazingly detailed still lifes by Pieter Claesz, and a useful explanation (in English) linking the art to its history. On the day of our visit the museum also has a temporary exhibition of dismembered terracotta corpses, human and animal, with tulips sticking out of them. Interesting enough if you like corpses, but I much prefer Frans and Pieter’s work.
A short stroll down the Spaarne is the Teylers Museum, a favourite of mine. It was Holland’s first museum, begun as the private collection of Mr Teyler van Hulst and opened to the public after his death in 1778. Outside, it’s a rather pompous grey edifice. Inside, the building glows. Creaky wooden floors, polished cabinets and ornate staircases are lit by natural light from the glass cupola above.
Though it has a tasteful new wing, this remains an old style museum. There’s little organisation or interpretation, but the objects are so beautiful and intriguing you don’t need to understand them. There are brass telescopes and scientific instruments in one hall, and a jumble of fossils and minerals in the next. There are ancient world globes with bad guesses at the Australian coastline. Eclectic Mr Teyler clearly had a great time putting it all together.
The mezzanine houses a library of leather-bound volumes. You need special permission to open them, and there’d naturally be a serious overdue book fine if you borrowed one and forgot to return it, but it’s nice to see them. On display is an ancient medical encyclopaedia showing how to deliver babies with mediaeval instruments. If you’re pregnant, look away now!
We have time left for one more wander in the bright little backstreets of Haarlem. There are no crowds and no queues. People chat. Haarlem seems happy that someone came along to visit, and we’re well pleased with our day.
In a final open hofje we meet a couple of lady residents sunning themselves in the garden over a cup of coffee. ‘Do you mind tourists coming through your backyard?’ we ask.
‘It’s part the deal,’ they say. ‘In return we live in a lovely place.’
People commute to work in Amsterdam from here. A twenty-minute train trip. An hour on the bike. I could live in a Haarlem hofje too.