Friday, April 22, 2011

Haarlem, Not Harlem

It is always a strain to write while away. Time has to be divided between actually doing things and writing about them. The more we do, the more there is to write about, but then again the more we do the less time there is to write about it. What a cycle of indecision. Some day, I will just sit in a hotel room and write only about the experience for 20 hours to live the difference. 

With that said, Ron wanted to investigate outside of Amsterdam and had Haarlem in his bag of alternatives, so we took the train there. Tickets are only €7.50 each for a round-trip, quite the bargain. As with many cities and towns, when you arrive at the station, you wonder why you bothered coming at all. It took about three blocks walk to discover this city was charming. If one is into architecture, than Haarlem is a delight. I took dozens of photos of buildings that captivated my imagination. If only I could use a ruler and draw, I would have been an architect. Superior imagination would have helped too, so I guess I missed out all around.

We explored for about an hour, just wandering aimlessly, but that was only because we couldn't find the VVV, which is what the tourism office is called throughout The Netherlands. It is situated very deeply in the downtown area, so much so you can cover a good deal of territory before getting inside the door. I had thought there would not be a need at all, since the city is small and only 14km from Amsterdam. What could possibly be to do here? After the tourism woman gave us the brochures and the list and a pile of brochures, for which we were charge 1 euro, we would have needed to stay for 3-4 days to cover it all. Ron did a typical Ron thing. He loves tourism offices and getting the nitty-gritty details on everything under the sun, but then does not want to be bothered carrying any of it with him. She did give us a coupon for a complementary cup of coffee for 2 people at the V and D department store across the street and said they had a rooftop that overlooked the city. That was our first official post tourism office visit stop. 

The food hall is typical of many large department stores in Western Europe. They are really multiethnic restaurants catering to many tastes and cuisines. This keeps shoppers in the store longer too, with a better chance they will buy more merchandise. The prices are comparable with restaurants, so it is really convenience and not bargains that make the masses flock here. 

With the tourism guide in hand, we did a self-guided walking tour. One of the highlights strangely enough was visiting the almshouses. The oldest, non-religiously associated was built by Wouterus van Oorshot, a wealthy man who felt compelled to help those less fortunate after he passed on in 1769. There was no mention of his generosity toward the poor before he died. The almshouse consists of a courtyard where there is a central building and two wings, one on either side of it. Each of these wings have small apartments for those who are financially impaired, generally women over 60 years old who are not married. Visiting 5-6 of these almshouses took up a good part of the day. I felt a little creepy playing voyeur at almshouses. They are open to the public, at least the courtyards are, but the Dutch are so open with their living space. Large windows are common, yet they do not cover them with shades or curtains that are not sheer. They dare you to look in because they are never doing a thing in public view that they are ashamed of, so it is like a game. Peek in why dont'cha?

Haarlem: Teylers MuseumImage by harry_nl via Flickr
The Teylers Museum
For lunch, we sat in the central square at the old meat packers' plant to eat the sandwiches that we brought with us. Aside from the almshouses, we went to the old druggists where the yawning facial figure is gape mouthed; this is a traditional sign. They sell Haarlemmerolie or Haarlem Oil here which dates back centuries as a cure all for anything that ails you. This chemist shop dates back to 1849. Ron was overwhelmed with the Haarlem Oil and bought a small bottle, but when I asked him why he wanted it, he said "It cures gout." My response was simply, "Neither of us have gout.". He then proceeded to ask the woman if they shipped to various countries. Maybe he knows someone with gout who I have yet to meet.

The counts of Holland once occupied the building that is now city hall. Count Floris V stayed here when in the area to collect taxes. It was almost completely destroyed in a fire in the 14th century and when rebuilt was used as the city hall. The Teylers Museum is the oldest museum in the Netherlands. It is home to much of the collection of cloth merchant and silk producer Pieter Teyler van der Hulst. Past here is the Gravestenenbrug, a white draw bridge. Across the street from here are two monumental stepped gables dating from 1630. The building behind these gables was the De Olyphant brewery that dates back to 1550. A famous Haarlem beer called Jopenbier was recreated starting from 1994 using an archival recipe from the old brewery.

We didn't go into any museums as there was too much to see on the outside. After five hours of walking around the city, we had about had it. We stopped for a piece of 'pie', which actually was like a cake with raspberries, but delicious nevertheless. Had we known the city was so delightful, we would have planned our time better. As it was, we were just planning a half day visit, but the city's spell drew us in for longer than anticipated. This is a definite place to add to any trip to Amsterdam.

Then it was back to Amsterdam in what seemed like minutes on the train. We had no plans for dinner, but every restaurant's outside seating was filled to the brim. I cannot imagine Budapest filling so many restaurants seats so consistently. We walked blocks trying to find an outdoor table because the temperature really warranted sitting outdoors. Like in Budapest, most places do not have air conditioning. The weather has been spectacularly warm, so sitting indoors would be stuffy and uncomfortable. 

Finally, at one of the pancake houses, we found seating. Then it occurred to us why. It was run by Muslims, so no liquor, which meant no beer with dinner. Well, we could forsake beer with dinner, but the selection was limited. The chicken casserole was made with chicken wings. Wings in a casserole? I could not imagine. Then something else was prepared really out of sync with anything we could imagine, so Ron went for the fish platter and I had a 'gourmet' Dutch pancake with tomato and Gorgonzola cheese on it. It was tasty and different at the same time. 
A couple of blocks away, we stopped for a beer before doing our mandatory walk through the Red Light district. I had wanted to stop for a beer at some of my old haunts to see how they have changed, but they don't open until 10pm and would not start to fill until after midnight, long after we were tucked into bed. The memories will have to last me.
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