Haarlem: A medieval charm

DSC_0274Not many would know that before Amsterdam became the hub as we know it today,  a city just a 15 minute train ride away was actually the original capital of Netherlands. By Netherlands’ high standards, Haarlem has very few canals; so eventually as the importance of ports increased, the capital moved to Amsterdam and that is precisely the reason why traces of the medieval era are quite common to stumble upon in this charming city. In the few days I spent here, I was truly smitten by the wonder called Haarlem.

If a city can have a prize for the best cafes, Haarlem would walk away with top honors. Innumerable cute cafes line the cobble stoned pathways and during the days I stayed, sun or shine, I visited plenty of them and relished my cuppa.  Haarlem is best seen on foot. How else is it possible to chance upon some piece of history around every corner? Take for instance, the old pharmacy store that still looks the same from the last 200 years because they refused to get demolished under an expanding city or the bustling Grote markt (Great Market) bang in the center of the city while historic monuments abound the square.

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“Gapers” of exotic looking people on the doors of pharmacies in the medieval era usually depicted medicines of exotic origins!

To me though, the most fun and fascinating piece of history in Haarlem was to treasure-hunt idyllic gardens (called hofjes) discretely hidden away from just a perfunctory overview of the city. The courtyards are surrounded by houses whose original purpose was to provide accommodation for elderly women from back in the 14th century. The entrance to these courtyards are nothing showy. Doors one would easily pass by on the streets in fact lead to simple and well maintained courtyards. Originally private spaces, today these government maintained courtyards are truly fantastic small spaces to walk about.  Wouldn’t it be nice to retire into such homes?

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The Spaarne river meanders through the city and from one end, a very pleasing sight to behold is the working windmill of Adriaan. The view of the city from the top of the windmill is quite spectacular too. For alternate history though, the Corrie Ten Boom museum is a must. If Anne Frank was a direct victim of the Nazi oppression in the World War, Corrie and her family chose to be one. They helped hide Jews in a small alcove in their house during the difficult times and paid the price for it when the Gestapo were tipped off. Corrie survived the concentration camp but all her family died. It is said that at a time, six to seven Jews were always hidden away. Even during the raid, her family was caught but the people hidden in her house weren’t. After her ordeal in the camp, she went on to tell her story and spread the word of love to the rest of the world (she traveled to over 60 countries) until her death.

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This is a large brewery which was originally a church. The stained glass windows give it away 🙂

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A direct 10 minute train journey from Haarlem is all it takes to reach the coastal town of Zandvoort aan Zee. On a sunny day, the beach is packed. It being a colder day that I chose to venture to the beach, there were not many people, but the beach looked very pretty and clean and the dark grey skies made the scenery look quite dramatic. I had a nice long walk along the beach, had some breakfast at a café close by and made my way back to Haarlem by noon, just in time to escape some showers. How easily accessible both Amsterdam and the coast are! Did I mention that the cafes in Haarlem are even prettier than the ones in Amsterdam? Since the weather was inclement, it was a perfect excuse to go in and out of a few.

The last few hours in Haarlem were spent souvenir shopping, writing postcards to friends from all over and taking some photographs and chatting away the evening with the delightful locals. Thus I ended my small but extremely nice vacation in Haarlem.

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