Jewel of the Golden Age

Walking around the squares and streets of Haarlem on the first morning of my visit, I felt I’d strolled into a scene from a painting from the Golden Age of Dutch art. Much seems to have remained from the times when Frans Hals and other Old Masters made the place their home. Grote Markt The Grote Markt looks resplendent in the soft, autumn light. Flanked by Gothic and Renaissance buildings, it’s the stately fulcrum of the town. Yet it is the narrow, meandering streets, lined with 17th century brick houses, that soon enthrall me. This is the tranquil townscape the Old Master captured, that Vermeer in nearby Delft left imprinted on our minds.

The city is compact, easy to get around and flat – it is the Netherlands after all – and is an easy twenty minutes by train Amsterdam and forty minutes by bus from Schiphol airport. Traffic is minimal but I have to remember to look out for the locals scooting along on their bikes. The Grote Markt quietly hums with activity and the cafes that also surround it are busy. Grote of St Bavokerk Luckily, I arrive in time for a free organ recital in the Great Church of St Bavokerk, which looms up on one side of the square. This turns out to be a great way to see this 15th century church and experience its vast red and gold Muller organ. Reputedly one of the most stunning in the world, it was played by Mozart and Handel and the music booms out and washes over us in a stirring recital.   

But one of the great attractions of Haarlem is its museums and galleries and I have several in my sights. The Frans Hals Museum I find only a five minute walk from the Grote Markt, (most things are) on a street lined with historic alms houses. Inside, the museum’s mellow wooden panelling provides the perfect backdrop to the world’s largest collection of the work of Hals, Haarlem’s most famous resident. Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem The faces of the city’s great burghers stare out from the canvases and provide a great impression of how prosperous the city was in its heyday. It’s a joy to walk around and savour Hal’s prodigious talent and that of some of his colleagues whose work is also on show. 

Not far away, overlooking a broad canal, lies the Teylers Museum, famed for the eclectic collection of its founder, Pieter Teyler can de Hulst, a wealthy 18th century businessman. Housed in a building which is an exotic delight in itself, its the oldest museum in the Netherlands and many of the collections are shown as they were in the 19th century. I browse through several rooms devoted to its awe-inspiring collection of fossils. Other lofty rooms contain its great collection of paintings and Old Master drawings, (most of the originals are kept out of the light but some are displayed in temporary exhibitions). Teylers Museum, Haarlem Like the Frans Hals Museum, the Teylers has an airy cafe and enticing shop where I stop to relax. 

With just a short stroll up the canal from the Museum, I find a huge windmill and the old gate of the city.  Lying on the River Spaarne and with plenty of canals, water is a calming feature of the town and it’s a joy to follow their meandering courses for a time. Old churches rise up here and there and their bells occasionally peal out over the roof tops. Haarlem Streets often give off to leafy courtyards. It’s hard to believe that not so long ago, this town’s life became decidedly fraught. Near the Grote Markt, lies the Corrie ten Boom House and a guided tour of this modest family home, becomes a highlight of my visit. During World War II the home of this Christian family became a refuge for hundreds of Jews and Dutch resistance fighters hunted by the occupying Nazis. In Corrie’s bedroom I see the false wall behind which prisoners hid from the Gestapo. Eventually six family members were seized by the Nazis. Three perished but Corrie survived and spent the rest of her long life touring the world promoting peace. The house is kept much as it was in the 1930s and 40s and amid the old photos and furnishings, you get a palpable sense of those harrowing times.

Haarlem shopping night event But Haarlem is more than just history. Taking a break from its stunning museums, I wander around its shops. It’s not for nothing that Haarlem is known as the best shopping city in the Netherlands. The city if full of cosy boutiques that sell fashion and jewellery to suit all budgets and interior design and antique shops. Many streets too, especially Lange Veerstraat and Zijlstraat and the Botermarkt, are flanked with bars and restaurants, some famously ancient, and there’s all kind of fare on offer. I sample several and am given a warm welcome. They make for a good way to pause and soak up the atmosphere of what I’ve found is one of the Netherlands most beguiling cities.

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Kirker Holidays   

Photos courtesy of Haarlem Convention Bureau

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Diana Bentley

Freelance travel writer & broadcaster

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