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.