It’s only fifteen minutes from Amsterdam by train, but Haarlem has a very different pace and feel from its neighbour. A former cloth-making centre, it’s an easy-going, medium-sized town of around 150,000, with a good-looking centre that is easily absorbed in a few hours or on an overnight stay. In 1572, the townsfolk sided with the Protestant rebels against the Habsburgs, a decision they must have regretted when a large Spanish army besieged them in December of the same year. The siege was a desperate affair that lasted for eight months, but finally the town surrendered after receiving various assurances of good treatment – assurances which the Spanish commander, Frederick of Toledo, promptly broke, massacring over two thousand of the Protestant garrison. Recaptured five years later, Haarlem went on to enjoy its greatest prosperity in the seventeenth century and was home to a flourishing school of painters, whose canvases are displayed at the outstanding Frans Hals Museum, located in the almshouse where Hals spent his last, and according to some his most brilliant years.
Haarlem is also within easy striking distance of the coast: every half-hour trains make the ten-minute trip to the modern resort of Zandvoort-aan-Zee, while frequent buses serve the huddle of fast-food joints that make up Bloemendaal-aan-Zee just to the north. Neither is particularly endearing in itself, but both are redeemed by long sandy beaches and the pristine stretches of the dune and lagoon, crisscrossed by footpaths and cycling trails, that make up the nearby Nationaal Park de Zuid-Kennemerland.Read More
- The Frans Hals Museum
Nationaal Park de Zuid-Kennemerland
Nationaal Park de Zuid-Kennemerland
The pristine woods, dunes and lagoons of the National Park de Suid-Kennemerland stretch north from Zandvoort up to the eminently missable industrial town of IJmuiden, at the mouth of the Nordzeekanaal. Bus #81 leaves Haarlem bus station every thirty minutes to cross the national park via the N200 before reaching the coast at the minuscule beachside settlement of Bloemendaal-aan-Zee. En route, several bus stops give access to the clearly marked hiking and cycling trails that pattern the national park, but the best option is to get off at the Koevlak entrance – ask the driver to let you off. Maps of the park are available at Haarlem tourist office, and there are three colour-coded hiking routes posted at Koevlak (and indeed all entrances). The most appealing is the 4- to 5-kilometre (1hr) jaunt west through pine woods and dunes to the seashore, where the Parnassia café (April–Nov), provides refreshments with a view of the North Sea. From here, it’s a 1.5km walk back to Bloemendaal-aan-Zee, where you can catch bus #81 back to Haarlem (or of course you can do the whole thing in reverse).
You could do worse than spend a day exploring Haarlem’s hofjes – small, unpretentious complexes of public housing built for the old and infirm in the seventeenth century. The best known and perhaps most accessible is the one that was home to Frans Hals in the last years of his life and now houses the Frans Hals Museum. But there are others dotted around town, most of them still serving their original purpose but with their gardens at least open to the public. The most grandiose is the riverside Hofje van Teylers, a little way east of the museum of the same name around the bend of the Spaarne at Koudenhorn 64. Unlike many of the other hofjes, which are decidedly cosy, this is a Neoclassical edifice dating from 1787 with solid columns and cupolas. To the west, the elegant fifteenth-century tower of the Bakenesserkerk on Vrouwestraat is a flamboyant, onion-domed affair soaring high above the Haarlem skyline, that marks the nearby Bakenes Hofje, at Wijde Appelaarsteeg 11: founded in 1395, it is Haarlem’s (and indeed the country’s) oldest hofje, with a delightful enclosed garden. Five minutes’ walk away, the Hofje van Oorschot, at the junction of Kruisstraat and Bartelijorisstraat, dates from 1769 and is also rather grand. To the south of here, the Brouweshofje, just off Botermarkt, is a small, peaceful terrace of housing with a courtyard behind, and windows framed by brightly painted red and white shutters, while the nearby Hofje van Loo, on nearby Barrevoetstraat, is equally diminutive, and open to view from the road.