When planning a trip to Haarlem in the Netherlands one must consider a couple of things. Firstly, how to get there, then what to do when one’s there. Living in South London I have two options. I could fly, it’s only an hour or so in the air, but a lot of time hanging around and travel to and from airports. Then of course there’s the Eurostar, a straightforward journey, no changing until I reach Amsterdam Centraal from Kings Cross St Pancras in less than four hours. No brainer. And apart from the ample leg room in business premium there’s the breakfast and constant flow of hot refreshments to keep you going. My start was an early one, just past 6am but it afforded my arrival around 11am (allowing and ‘extra’ hour for the time difference) at Amsterdam Centraal Station.
A 15-minute train ride later and I was in Haarlem, just west of Amsterdam, much quieter, smaller but still full of canals and those beautiful waterside buildings that have been there for centuries. The walk through the mainly pedestrianised Haarlem from the rail station was a delight. Low rise, beautiful architecture, plenty of bars, restaurants, and shops (mostly independent) and a general feeling of calm with the world, and then I checked in at the Amrâth Grand Hotel. A four-star stalwart of convenience and comfort.
Eating good food in Haarlem is an easy task and enlightening. Like so many other countries in Europe they consider seasonality and have respect for their food and the land that provides it. A new kid on the block that is doing just that is Restaurant Dané, a two-minute walk from my hotel on Riviervismarkt 17-19. My spicy open chicken sandwich was perfect for lunch, followed by some elegant cheeky chocolates, there’s seafood, steak tartar and smashed avocado also on the menu. But if you’d like to up it a gear in the evening then why not take in a seven-course tasting menu with paired wine flight, a bargain at €135.
Haarlem is of course not all about food, there’s plenty of culture too, and in a couple of days you can cover a lot of ground. I headed for the Frans Hals Museum which is pretty much in the centre of town on Groot Heiligland. It’s the oldest public gallery of art in the Netherlands. Housed in an elegant 17th century building, it provides small room after small room of rich Dutch masters. Here you’ll find the famous Regents paintings (and Regentesses) by Frans Hals which are impressive and works from a variety of artists dating from the 1500s to 2000s. An enriching and purposeful journey through a Dutch and European history of painting.
Wandering through Haarlem I came across what are known as Gardens of Eden, kind of alms houses run by and for women only. These safe havens were once a common feature and some are still run on the same principle, a safe place for women regardless of background or age, offered a refuge from the world outside, often from violent men. They centre around a square or garden which are well kept and for a communal space for the residents.
The city keeps giving the unusual, a converted prison, built in 1901 that once housed 200 cells, said goodbye to its last inmate some years ago and has become a hub of the community. Koepelgevangenis has rentable space for small and large tech businesses, bars, a restaurant, and cinema. Its green credentials are good too, it has broken all records on insulation with the use of high-tech insulation, so it barely costs anything to heat. They have kept one cell as it was so you can see the conditions prisoners had to live in, initially it was one to a cell, which to me looked quite roomy but it was changed it to two to a cell, so definitely more cramped. The new inhabitants have made excellent use of the space creating wonderful offices and work rooms all centred around a massive open space in the middle.
A highlight of my trip was certainly an unusual one. I travelled northeast of Amsterdam and took a boat to Zuiderzee Museum, a 75-year-old living museum, near Enkhuizen. Constructed on what was once sandbanks this village is made entirely of old buildings that have either been dismantled brick by brick or arrived whole for the sole purpose of recreating a turn of the last century community. One of the first to arrive was a magnificent chapel originally built in 1841 from Den Oever. You’d never know it started life in another part of the country, such is the seamless design of the village. And to keep it ‘real’ it’s populated in the daytime by artisans plying the trades of old.
I saw a very competent basket weaver who had only been working her craft for a year, a blacksmith who, using authentic methods of manual air pump and coal fire produced wares for the village such as gates, doorknobs as well as items you could buy. They were big on smoking fish as well, so there’s that available to eat (the salmon, hot smoked was some of the finest I have tasted) as well as herring. The whole place has a very appealing ‘I wish it was like this everywhere nowadays’ feel to it. Simple tasks take on a beauty and have direct relevance to the community. Maybe that’s the watchword of the Netherlands, they rate community and consideration of fellow citizens very highly, maybe that’s why everyone is so happy here.
Neil Hennessy-Vass is a widely published globetrotting food and travel writer and photographer and one of our regular writers and contributing editor.
Photographs by Neil Hennessy-Vass