Discovering Haarlem's history
Polly Allen visits Haarlem, and finds the quiet counterpart to Amsterdam full of culture, period architecture and world-class museums and galleries
It’s on the wall of a converted attic B&B, above El Pincho tapas restaurant, that I find the best summary of Haarlem: ‘The river curvaceous/ And canals deserted/ The city feels like a blanket’. These words are part of a mural lovingly created by the owners who, like other Haarlem residents, are proud of their quiet but cultured city, with much of its architecture preserved, and world-class exhibits in its museums and galleries. This mini Amsterdam minus the crowds is little-known by international tourists, who follow the herd to the bright lights of the capital or the widely-praised pottery in Delft. They have no idea what they’re missing out on.
Take Haarlem’s hofjes, or almshouses: each is a little oasis of calm. I met few other people as I walked through, and it felt like I’d stepped back in time. Though privately occupied, most hofjes can be visited, or at least seen from the street.
The city archive is based next to one of the oldest hofjes, as I learned from Wouter Schelfhout, a city guide since the 1990s. He also took me to the most modern hofje, a wood-clad contemporary development in stark contrast to its centuries-old counterparts. Though Haarlemmers aren’t afraid of modernity, they’ve preserved the past with quiet pride.
Remembering the Siege of Haarlem
For eight months, from October 1752 to July 1753, Haarlem held out against Spanish invaders and bore the brunt of their force. Tactically speaking, the Spanish focus on Haarlem allowed other Dutch towns and cities to regroup and strengthen their defences during the Eighty Years’ War.
Find the siege memorial on Stationsplein square, in front of the train station and the bus depot. It depicts city governor Wigbolt Ripperda with Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer, an aristocratic widow who supplied wood and fighting women to the cause.
Building on this history, the Dutch slang word kenau initially meant bravery and toughness, but evolved to become derogatory, similar to ‘bitch’. Historians from 1872 onwards have questioned Hasselaer’s role, arguing there isn’t enough
evidence to prove she fought. Whatever her truth, women and children did help defend the city, but were rarely praised; I’m grateful to see at least one remembered.
The 14th-century Grote of St. Bavokerk, Haarlem’s most important church, holds evidence of the siege: a cannonball imbedded in one wall, and a memorial behind the altar which mentions eating cats, dogs and mice when starvation took hold - apologies to vegetarians and vegans, but it’s fascinating stuff. When the Spanish took Haarlem, their revenge was harrowing: Dutchmen were tied back-to-back and thrown into the River Spaarne to drown. A ‘Tied Men’ statue on the riverside remembers the horror.
Haarlem’s Golden Age
The Golden Age really was a golden time for Haarlem: merchants prospered; artists flourished with new techniques for more realistic portraiture, dramatic landscapes and dark still life paintings; the city was at its most powerful. Tulip Mania had struck the whole of the Netherlands, with the economy boosted by exorbitant trade prices for tulip bulbs, and Haarlem wasn’t exempt. Golden Age artists like Frans Hals and Judith Leyster, one of the few women to be admitted to Haarlem’s Guild of St. Luke, often painted tulip merchants and collectors. Walking down the street where Leyster once lived, or past the same Vleeshal (meat hall) that Hals saw, now part of a museum named after him, brought me closer to their world.
Hals is Haarlem’s most famous son, known worldwide for his dark and expressive paintings
The Golden Age really was a golden time for Haarlem: merchants prospered; artists flourished with new techniques for more realistic portraiture; the city was at its most powerful
such as The Laughing Cavalier (1624). He spent most of his life in Haarlem and is buried in the Grote Bavokerk. Whilst his work would draw art-loving crowds on its own, the dual-site Frans Hals Museum commissioned contemporary artists to respond to his paintings and hung the works together for the exhibition Rendezvous with Frans Hals, which I caught during my visit. This dynamic approach breathed new life into Hals’ style, provoked debate amongst visitors and attracted a younger crowd, drawn to oil paintings by Kerry James Marshall. I particularly loved a tongue-incheek series of film trailers, Where is Rocky II?, by Pierre Bismuth, attempting to uncover the location of a lost Ed Ruscha installation in the unforgiving Mojave desert. This autumn’s exhibition, Frans Hals and the
Moderns (showing until 24 February 2019) covers some of the world’s most famous artists who cited Hals as their inspiration: Manet, Singer Sargent and van Gogh.
World War II (WWII) Haarlem
The Netherlands suffered bitterly in WWII under Nazi rule from 1940-1945: it’s no urban myth that starving Dutch people resorted to eating tulip bulbs as food shortages intensified. Haarlem had a huge Resistance network, in which one family, the ten Booms, played a major part. On paper they were unlikely to arouse suspicion: Caspar ten Boom, the devoutly Christian owner of a watchmaking shop in the city centre, and his two spinster daughters in their early 50s, Corrie and Betsie, plus other children nearby. Above the shop, the ten Booms hid 800 Jewish people between 1942-1944, passing most onto other Resistance members when it was safe
to move, but four Jews were hidden in a specially constructed ‘Hiding Place’ in Corrie’s bedroom. By day, they roamed the house, kept safe by an alarm system installed by the Resistance network to warn of unexpected visitors.
A Dutch collaborator reporting to the Nazis betrayed the ten Booms in 1944; they were sent to prison, where Caspar died and Corrie was placed in solitary confinement. From there, Corrie and Betsie endured another prison and then the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where Betsie died. Fortunately, the four Jewish people survived, having fled 72 hours after the Nazi raid. Corrie’s book of her family’s Resistance efforts,
The Hiding Place, touched readers around the world, and put the ten Boom house firmly on the map for many visitors – myself included - since the museum opened in 1988. Be warned: entry is free, but by group tours only, pre-booked at least five days in advance. The Hiding Place has been faithfully recreated and seeing its scale brings home the desperation of those hidden here.
Hannie Schaft was another Resistance member who made her mark, known as ‘the girl with the red hair’. Schaft supplied her many Jewish friends with false ID cards, and she carried out attacks on Nazis and Dutch collaborators, making her a major target. Executed just three weeks before the end of the war, aged just 24, Schaft’s defiant last words to her bumbling executioners were: “I could shoot better.” I recommend visiting her statue in Kenaupark, a short walk from the station, followed by a calm riverside walk to the city centre.
Whatever your historical focus, or your cultural interest, Haarlem has you covered, but with less crowds and noise than its more publicised rival cities. As the saying goes, it’s always the quiet ones…
Top left: Hofje van Bakenes
Far left: The statue of Wigbolt Ripperda with Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer on Stationsplein by sculptor Graziella Curreli
Left: Laurens Coster statue with Bavokerk behind
Top right: Exterior of the Frans Hal Museum
Right: Sections ofPortrait No. 524-531 by Anton Henning at the Frans Hal Museum
Above: View of Haarlem SintBavokerk from the south (Turfmarkt), looking over the Spaarne river