The next two weeks I will be living in Haarlem. We are staying in my sister and brother-in-law’s house who are gone on holidays. I will write a bit about our cycling, walking and sightseeing adventures here. We don’t have access to a car; it is not necessary as distances are short and we have public transit passes to get further away. Haarlem is a wonderful small town, situated about 20 km west of Amsterdam and only about 8 km from the North Sea beaches.
Pleasant to walk and cycle
Haarlem has a very long history. It was granted city rights in 1245 (!). In 1477 it already had 11,367 inhabitants; today the counter stands at around 155,000. It is a very pleasant dense town, walkable and cyclable, without the pressures of Amsterdam. Whereas Amsterdam is overrun by tourists to a point that the city has to plan how to deal with the ever increasing numbers of tourists, Haarlem is still a ‘normal’ place to visit. Ask Randy Kemp, an Ottawa Wellington West BIA director, whom I suggested to stay a few days in Haarlem earlier this year. He preferred it over Amsterdam.
Lots to do
There is lots to do in Haarlem and it surroundings. There are endless cycling opportunities, there are over 1200 buildings on the state’s monument list, there are a number of summer festivals, there is great shopping (although my shopping is usually limited to cheese), nice restaurants, often in some 400 year old back yard and of course the endless bee lines of cyclists.
It is a joy to watch people on the Grote Markt on a warm day: you’ll see dads with kids on the bars, on the back seat or in a cargo bike. Students cycle by, three or four abreast, cell phones in hand; women in flower dresses on oma bikes are rushing across the square, tourists are trying to figure out if there is any system in moving around the square (there isn’t, other than that cyclists expect you to continue and they will estimate how to bike around you).
A bit of history
On 11 December 1572 the Spanish army besieged Haarlem; the city’s defenses were commanded by city-governor Wigbolt Ripperda. Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer, a powerful widow, helped defend the city together with some three hundred other women. (Her name lives on in colloquial Dutch. Originally, it stood for female bravery, but as social role models developed, the word kenau came to stand for “shrew” as in “Man, that woman is Kenau”). There are doubts though if the story is not somewhat mythical, as it has proved difficult to find references to her heroism in other accounts from that time)
The situation worsened on 29 March 1573: the Amsterdam army, faithful to the Spanish king, controlled Haarlemmermeer lake, effectively blocking Haarlem from the outside world.
On 13 July 1573, after seven months of siege, the city surrendered. Many defenders were slaughtered; some were drowned in the Spaarne river. Governor Ripperda and his lieutenant were beheaded.
Despite Haarlem’s ultimate fall, the fact that the Haarlemmers had been able to stand for seven months against the whole Spanish array inspired the rest of Holland to resist the invaders, and their prolonged resistance allowed the Prince of Orange to prepare and arm the rest of the country for war eventually pushing the Spanish out of what is now the Netherlands. (Wikipedia)
Yesterday, Karen and I visited a dozen Haarlemse Hofjes. The hofjes (almshouses in English) are wonderful places to step back in time. The hofjes were built by wealthy people and run by ‘regents’ to house poor people (often women). They are mostly in the centre of Haarlem, behind doors that you wouldn’t ever open if you wouldn’t know what’s behind it. The oldest one goes back to 1395, the latest one -designed by well known Dutch cartoonist Joost Swarte- is from 2007. They are all arranged around an inner court and appeared very well taken care of.
Some ‘hofjes’ only host four people, others a dozen and the Proveniershof has 38 (and a place where you can have coffee and cake). They’re all little green oasis in a bustling medieval town, concealed retreats really. The gardens are full of hortensia, buxus hedges, roses, buddleia (butterfly trees) and ground covering perennials. There are wooden benches, buckets, quiet corners in the shade and grass patches in the centre. All very quaint.
We picked up a map ( 50 cents but free online in PDF, see bottom of this blog post) from the VVV tourist office at the Grote Markt and ventured out on a wonderful sunny day. The walk takes about 2-2,5 hours (we took our time). You get to see most of the hofjes from the inside, a couple can be viewed through the gates. The residents generally don’t mind when you come in, but ask you to respect their privacy by not peering through the windows.
This last hofje shows that even in the 21st century, there is a demand for hofjes. I read a great coffee table book a couple of years ago about smaller houses built around meadows and court yards (but I forgot its title). I think this 600 year old concept still stands today.
Read more on Haarlem and the Hofjes:
Haarlem has a self guided almshouses tour here (PDF, in English). Count on about two hours.
Haarlem in Wikipedia
Hofjes in Wikipedia, with sub links to every single hofje in Haarlem