Travel Stories

HOLLAND: Adventures in Haarlem

The other week Polly and I took a trip to Haarlem, wandered the streets, saw blossom and cats and beautiful window displays. We ate croquettes and tapas and things we probably shouldn’t have eaten. We bought souvenirs from the second-hand market and postcards from everywhere we went, and a very kind man gave me a tea towel. What a dream.

I’m glad I make notes and take photos of everything, because really, some days when half of my face has swollen up and I’ve accidentally smashed my exhaust pipe off on a pot hole, it’s a joy to be reminded of how lucky I really am.

Everything looks lovely in the Spring. Blossom, sunshine, baby chicks, even the sight of the airport information screen showing a three hour delay, once your bleary early-morning eyes have managed to focus on it, of course.

The reason, the man in the queue said, was that there was ‘too much wind in Amsterdam’, and of course I sniggered, like the child I am, until I remembered that’s where I was heading. Somehow the wind issue was overcome, the flight was brought forward, and in no time at all I was clutching a bar of Tony’s Chocolonely and waiting for Polly at Schiphol airport.

A quick train ride from Schiphol to Amsterdam Slotterdijk, a change and on to Haarlem, and we were straight out of the station and across the square to our hotel – the Hotel Lion d’Or.

I’ve stayed in their sister hotel, the Nova in Amsterdam, it was the ideal city location for me when I was reviewing at Unseen last year, and when they invited me to visit their hotel in Haarlem I didn’t even take a breath before I said yes, yes please!

What’s the first thing you do when you arrive somewhere new? I usually check out the carpets and look for ginger drinks.

Polly and I ate apple and cinnamon pie (I drank ginger tea) in the bright and spacious bar with dark blue walls and green velvet sofas. Gold trimmed china in the reception desk, pictures and plants, big leafed and small. It was all very lovely.

We found our way to Teyler’s Museum. Purpose built in 1794, the building itself is incredibly beautiful both in its architecture and its interiors. The cabinetry and cases are stand-alone stunning, not to mention the actual artefacts.

Rocks and shells, fossils and bones. Scientific instruments made of brass and wood, coins and medals, and books – an incredible collection of historic volumes, and prints and sketches, and all the paintings too. (Like The Legend by Cornelis Kruseman – that little face).

A rather magnificent couple of hours enjoyed in the oldest museum in the Netherlands.

We wandered around the streets finding our way quite easily, saving a map in our minds, remembering where we’d seen nice shop windows and places to go back to. Canals and bicycles. Haarlem is like a more open, scaled down, less populated Amsterdam. I pulled faces at a baby in a tea shop. Polly rewarded me with an old 50¢ photograph of a stranger with nice hair in a charming bookshop, Antiquariaat Hovingh.

In the evening we ate a tapas dinner at El Pincho. Right on the corner of the Grote Markt. Bistec Salteado, Chorizo Asado and Patatas Bravas, followed by a weighty baked cheesecake. We watched the world go by as the bright sun went down behind the pointy roof tops.

I was relieved to sleep so well. I never know how I will fare on the first night in a new place. It was quiet, amazingly quiet. And, (without wanting to sound like a weirdo) I didn’t feel compelled to wedge a chair up against my door before dozing off. Result.

I ate a doughnut for breakfast. Polly had fruit, so it was pretty balanced.

We were heading up to the Grote Markt to meet a man called Walter, probably talking about cats that look like owls, when we heard the beeeeeeeeeep of a bus and then SMACK! It drove straight into a woman on her bike. ‘Oh shit!’ A little dog popped up out of the basket, the bike lying in the middle of the road, the woman lying still on it, a puddle of blood around her head, one leg moving in peddling motion, going nowhere. It was surreal. Poor Polly thought she was dead. ‘I am sorry I am English. Stop trying to move her!’ I commanded, apologetically.

The police came, then a paramedic, then an ambulance. The area was taped off. The woman was bandaged up and loaded onto a stretcher, rushed away. The little dog was looked after by a policeman who had the same hair style. I gave a statement and my card (which I normally think is fun, but in these circumstances ‘I’m Karen Harvey, I do good things’ seemed a bit stupid) and then we carried on, to Walter.

Walter has been leading guided tours since 1990. That’s proper vintage. Haarlem has around 1200 listed buildings, so I guess it takes a good few years to become an expert.

Speed walking after Walter, with his black beret and pointy umbrella, we looped through the streets and lanes, passed the ornate looking Meat Market, and the less decorated Fish Market, into a church and out passed the Hofjes, through pocket parks to look back up at the church tower and it’s crowning onion, and then, after a story about the miracle of Haarlem and ‘a nun bleeding wine from her tit’ (Walter’s words, not mine), we were delivered to the Corrie ten Boom House.

If it weren’t for Polly I wouldn’t have gone to the Corrie ten Boom House. It’s not that I don’t care about the holocaust, it’s just that sometimes I care too much and I don’t want to have to deal with those emotions if I don’t have to.

The story of Corrie ten Boom was horrifying, heartening and empowering. Corrie and her family sheltered around 800 people during the Nazi occupation of the Second World War.

One day the Gestapo stormed the house, they arrested the ten Boom’s and stayed for 47 hours. When they eventually left, those hidden behind the false wall in Corrie’s bedroom escaped to safety. In prison Corrie received a letter, written on the back of the stamp were the words, ‘All the watches in your closet are safe’.

She was released from prison after four months due to an administration error. A week later all the women of her age were killed in gas chambers, around 90 thousand of them.

Corrie returned home and opened her doors to the mentally disabled who were in hiding. After the war she created a rehabilitation centre for anyone who needed it, and then spent the rest of her life travelling the world preaching. She died aged 91, on her birthday.

You really need to discover the full story for yourself, I can’t even begin to explain it or express how it will make you feel.

In stark contrast, crashing back to the modern day, we sat amongst plants, MacBooks and almond milk lattes at Native Café and ate cheese toasties.

At the Frans Hals Museum fabulous floral arrangements in purpose made vessels dressed each room to celebrate the ‘Museum in Bloom’. During the Golden Age (17th Century) Haarlem was the centre of the tulip trade, and Frans Hals was one of the most innovative and famous painters of that time.

A delight to see was Sara’s Dollhouse. A scaled version of an 18th Century home, a miniature museum of life. It’s quite magnificent.

We hobbled over to Jopenkerk (okay, I hobbled, Polly skipped) the brewery and bar built in a historic church that came close to demolition before Jopen came along in 2010 and saved it.

Polly had been invited to try the High Beer (like High Tea, but with beer, obvs) and I was allowed to observe with a soft drink. #beerallergy

Three beers, six accompanying plates. I watched Polly wrestle with her steak tartare and sip her way through to the Koyt beer. Made to an original recipe from 1407 Jopen Koyt is brewed with herbs, specifically Bog Myrtle. I had to have a taste.

Legend has it that, to avoid its hallucinogenic properties, Bog Myrtle can only be picked at full moon by nude witches. You learn something new every day.

I was hungry and Polly had researched an award-winning hotdog for me, so we headed to Thrill Grill. Whilst hotdogs with shredded carrots and hard buns don’t win any prizes from me (I felt like I’d fallen into the remnants of a day-old summer barbecue buffet) on the way there we happened on a pile of books being given for free outside an old Hofje. I picked up a lovely old 1930s hymn book. It’s all in Dutch, but I’ll give it a go.

Gratitude for somewhere safe and comfortable to sleep at the end of the day. I thought about the lady on her bike, about Corrie ten Boom, about the power that each person has within them – if they only choose to use it. And then I went to sleep.

Another day, another doughnut.

We walked the long way, following the river and then winding through picturesque streets, to the Grote Markt, and St Bavokerk.

The 30 metre tall organ has 5068 pipes and the floors are made completely of grave stones, about 1500 of them, covered in famous and interesting names: Frans Hals, Pieter Teyler, Hofie van Noblet… hmmm, that’d be a good name for a cat.

Lunch at the Grand Cafe Brinkmann (which is apparently a bit of an institution and known for its impeccable service. Seems we went on a bad day) and then more of a wander through the streets of interesting independent shops, before arriving at the ice-cream parlour we’d been eyeing up since our arrival in the city.

Not far from the station, and our hotel, we discovered Het Dolhuys, an experimental museum of psychiatry with an emphasis on experiences.

The medieval building, once an institution for lepers and lunatics, is now a place of education and reflection. In terms of interaction, communication and display excellence, this has to be one of the best museums I’ve visited.

One of the first rooms we reached was full of old laundry cupboards, each door we opened revealed items relating to a person, and an audio recording of them telling their own mental health story. Even though we couldn’t understand the language we still picked up so much of the persons emotion in the tone of their voice (and then we read the information booklet).

It’s here that you can see some of the very few remaining  isolation chambers, ‘Dolcellen’, that were used in the 16th Century to lock up those who were seen as busy or aggressive lunatics. The interior of the cell was dark and cold with a thick outer door and a barred inner door. The only furnishings; a wooden crib and a poepdoos (poo box). The only light and air came from a small hatch at the top of the chamber, and the only warmth in the depths of winter was from heated stones that were placed inside. As if life wasn’t already hard enough for those poor people.

The museum is a brilliant reminder of how far studies in psychiatry have come, and how much we still need to do to support and understand mental health and wellbeing.

In the evening we ate with Marcel at Bij Tholen. White asparagus croquette with parsley sauce. Was this the best croquette I’ve ever eaten? It might well have been. Send more croquettes and I’ll tell you.

Bij Tholen has a seasonal menu serving mostly Mediterranean and Dutch food, but every few days they like to add in a special and the changing menu reflects what’s local and available. Indian lamb Korma with a coriander and garlic naan it was then!

I took a woman’s birthday photo and stroked a ginger dog before we headed off into the night, full of food and cheer.

Poor Polly was really ill in the night. Whilst I cancelled our plans for the day Polly managed a few sips of peppermint tea and some tiny crumbs of bread. The hotel team were lovely, they were genuinely concerned for her, and even though we were due to check out, they said she could just stay in the room as long as she needed to.

Polly took an earlier flight home, I headed into Amsterdam to look at a gallery for Shutter Hub, and just like that our Haarlem adventure was over, for now.

Check out my souvenirs!

Lucky postcard, 50¢ photo of woman with good hair, squirrel fork from the secondhand market, 1930s Dutch hymn book, Sara’s Dolls’ House book from Frans Hals museum, and a bottle of legendary Jopen Koyt!

With the greatest thanks to Visit Holland and Haarlem Marketing for supporting this trip, and to Hotel Lion d’Or for hosting Polly and I for three nights in their wonderful hotel. As always, my opinions are my own.