HAARLEM has long been hailed as one of the Netherlands’ most beguiling cities. It was once home to the painter Frans Hals the Elder and other luminaries of the Golden Age of Dutch art, and the city still looks remarkably like its portrayal in any number of 17th-century paintings. But its medieval heart is humming with activity.
In the Grote Markt, extravagant Gothic and Renaissance buildings flank the square; St Bavo’s soars up like a homely matriarch; and the tables of bistros tempt all who venture here. Only a stone’s throw from Amsterdam, Haarlem is dreamily classy.
It is also one of the Netherlands’ grand dames of culture. So, first, I head for one of its two world-famous museums. Near the Grote Markt, on a street lined with historic almshouses, I find the Frans Hals Museum. Hals lived in Haarlem almost all his life, and his soaring talent and creative panache earned him “most famous resident” status.
In among the museum’s black-and-white tiled floors and mellow wood panelling, it is a thrill to take in the genius of this virtuoso and some of his renowned peers. His animated portraits of Haarlem’s 17th-century well-to-do, and the handsome members of its civic guard in their dashing uniforms, transport me back to Hals’s world.
The Netherlands’ oldest museum is next. Facing the River Spaarne, the Teylers Museum, founded in 1784, houses the collection of Pieter Teyler van der Hulst (1702-78), a Haarlem silk merchant and banker. He gathered a terrific, eclectic array of fossils, old scientific instruments, and Old Master drawings and paintings.
The museum building is a delight in itself: it has a lofty Oval Room and ancient display cases. And, like the Hals Museum, it has an airy café, where I pause for a much needed tea break.
istockphotoPeople enjoy drinks in the Grote Markt square, with a view of St Bavo’s
IN PURSUIT of some fresh air, I walk along the river and chance upon the vast Molen De Adriaan. This is a proper Dutch windmill, and it looms splendidly over the river. Later, I cross the Gravestenenbrug, the much-photographed double drawbridge over the Spaarne, dodging the cycling locals, and find the 15th-century city gate, the Amsterdamse Poort, the last of 12 original gates, situated in a peaceful area that has some fine buildings.
The next day, it’s off to the home of Corrie ten Boom, a local heroine who, with her family of devout Christians, hid Jews and members of the Dutch Resistance from the Gestapo in the Second World War.
The guided tour starts in the sitting room, which has lace curtains, old family photographs, and 1940s décor. But it is the sight of the tiny compartment behind the false wall in her bedroom, where people hid in the dark, that will stay with me. The family paid dearly for their bravery: several were captured and perished in a concentration camp. Corrie survived and later toured the world, promoting peace.
Afterwards, I explore Haarlem’s other side: repeatedly voted “Best Shopping City” in the Netherlands, its streets are flanked by cosy boutiques. This is the place to browse for fashion, homeware, and antiques, and I wander the streets around Haarlem’s longest shopping street, Grote Houtstraat.
istockphotoThe Molen De Adriaan windmill, on the River Spaarne
FOR a break, it is not hard to find bistros and bars with plenty of atmosphere. Brinkmanns, on the Grote Markt, is a 19th-century favourite; then there is the smart Jopenkerk Haarlem, a converted former church; and Proeflokaal De Blauwe Druif, the oldest surviving pub in the Netherlands.
Before I leave the city, I explore more of Haarlem’s leafy courtyards, many of them built on the sites of church establishments. Small, pretty oases of green, some can be glimpsed only through iron railings.
Residents in general seem to have green fingers. Many houses are adorned with flowering pots, or swathed in wisteria. And near the city lie vast bulb fields that attract flocks of visitors every spring, when Haarlem holds a flower parade.
The occasional peal of bells is a reminder that anyone searching for something spiritual in Haarlem will not be disappointed. There is the vast new cathedral, also dedicated to St Bavo, the city’s patron saint, and the 17th-century Nieuwe Kerk, which stands in a quiet square on the site of an old convent. But I am especially taken by St Bavo’s, in the Grote Markt, which has stood here since the 16th century, and where Hals and Teyler are buried.
Taking pride of place at the front of the church is a marvellous Müller organ: a vast red-and-gold affair, once played by Mozart and Handel. I’m in time for a free concert, and join a throng of locals for an evening recital. In the soft light, with the music pouring over us, it’s a perfect way to end a spell in this entrancing city.
Haarlem is about 20 minutes by train from Amsterdam, and can also be reached by the 300 bus from Schiphol Airport. Buses and trains run frequently. The Haarlem Tourist Office (www.haarlem.nl) is situated in the Town Hall in the Groke Markt; it sells tickets for Haarlem’s museums at a discount, and also combined tickets for the Frans Hals and Teylers Museum. Holland’s Museum Year Card can be bought at most museums. Canal cruises of the city are also available. The Amrath Grand Hotel Frans Hals is a four-star hotel a few minutes walk from the Grote Markt. Doubles from €157.50 a night (www.amrathhotelhaarlem.nl). British Airways flies to Amsterdam from £34.00 each way (www.britishairways.com).