Each year, I do a feature for a special travel-themed January issue of City Pages in Wausau. Since they do not publish their content online, I also post here for those at a distance who do not have access to a hard copy.
After more than a dozen years of destination features in the annual City Pages “Get Outta Town” edition, people often ask about where our last adventure took us or what’s next. When the answer this year was “Haarlem,” it led to a reactions like “Why in the world would you want to go THERE?” The reason is pretty simple, since people hear “Harlem” and they think about a New York City borough famous for being a center of Afro-American culture or the hometown of a comedic basketball team that has been bringing their antics to sports arenas around the country for decades.
Most Americans may know that Manhattan was purchased from the local Indian tribe for trinkets back in 1624. What isn’t remembered as well is that it was the Dutch who did the deal. New York City used to be New Amsterdam and back in the day, Harlem was even spelled with an extra “a” in deference to its original namesake in the Netherlands. The city of 156,000 is a 20-minute train ride from Centraal Station in old Amsterdam.
We’ve visited Amsterdam a number of times and while we enjoy it, we were looking for a different experience. Haarlem fits the bill nicely. It’s beautifully historic and built around canals like Amsterdam, but it has far less in the way of drugs, prostitution, buskers, street people and tourists. It’s spiffier. Good food is easier to find. You get more for your money on the lodging side. Even more importantly for us on this particular trip, Haarlem is more relaxed for bicycling than weaving along the often hectic, crowded streets of Amsterdam, which is five times as large in population and hosts more than 15 million visitors annually.
Regardless, there is no need to exclude one for the other because it’s easy to visit both. Amsterdam is an easy non-stop on Delta from Minneapolis or Detroit and depending on how you schedule, the layover time from Central Wisconsin Airport is minimal, resulting in around 11 hours from wheels up in Mosinee to wheels down at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. Better yet, the fare difference out of CWA runs somewhere between negligible to non-existent.
We spent our first day and night in Amsterdam within walking distance of the train station and then headed to Haarlem the following morning. Train travel in Europe is efficient, comfortable and cheap. Our train in from the airport was around $5 per person and travel to Haarlem was about the same. (There are ticket vending machines, but you’ll need to have a chip in your credit card to use them, so be sure that you have one of those if you want to avoid standing in line at a ticket window.) There are half dozen trains an hour between Amsterdam and Haarlem. From the Haarlem station, we could see the spire of the Grote Kerk (great church) of St. Bavo near our hotel and we had our heading set for a nice walk through the historic central city to our digs. We passed bakeries, cheese shops, art galleries and the occasional girl in a red light-lit window with fishnet stockings.
Established as a city in 1245, Haarlem is the capital of the province of North Holland. Its long history includes everything from a Spanish siege and Black Death in the Middle Ages to Nazi occupation in the 20th Century. Today, it is a picturesque city that offers not only its carefully preserved, historic ambiance, but great night life, wonderful dining, artisan cheeses, Old World beers, some interesting museums and a diverse retail scene that includes everything from designer labels to an iconic, bustling Saturday public market in the town square.
Our hotel is operated out of an office tucked away on a side street between the Grote Kerk and the Spaarne River and it isn’t really a hotel at all. Instead, Haarlem Hotel Suites and Brass Hotel Suites together comprise 18 separate, serviced apartments in the old central city at rates ranging between around $120 to $175 per night. For around the middle of that range, we had a living room, bedroom, a full bath and outdoor deck overlooking the old church in an apartment that was up two flights of steep steps above a Middle Eastern restaurant. (Like many of the centuries old structures in the Netherlands, there are no elevators and the stairways are about as handicapped accessible as an extension ladder.) There was nothing to indicate it was a hotel property behind our anonymous-looking door on Lange Veerstraat. The street is narrow and lined with shops, bars and restaurants; pretty noisy at night with music and voices trapped in the canyon of wall-to-wall brick buildings. Nearly across from us, patrons of the High Times Café contribute a constant aroma of reefer into the atmosphere. Most of the traffic is pedestrian, with the occasional scooter and a constant parade of bikes.
Bicycles were part of our mission here and we were not disappointed. For around $12 a day, we rented single-speed bikes, together with two separate locking systems that were each far more industrial-strength than what is typical around central Wisconsin. (If you want to look like a tourist, you can get a helmet, too. None of the locals wear them.)
The Dutch handle a large share of their day-to-day travel using bicycles and it is not just because the terrain is unusually flat. Rather, there has been a long-term public policy commitment to bicycling as part of a balanced approach to transportation infrastructure that includes pedestrian, private vehicle, public transit and bikes. The result is a separate network for bicycles that includes dedicated paths which are really miniature roadways, complete with bicycle traffic signals. It might sound like it would be confusing – particularly in a city with the added aspect of dozens of drawbridges to accommodate the constant flow of boat traffic on the waterways – but it’s not. In fact, it is a lot easier to get around on a bike than it would be in a car, at least in the central city, where parking a motor vehicle any larger than a scooter is challenging, at best.
We hit the bicycle paths armed with a map and we only managed to get lost once along the way. It was no big deal to procure some navigation help from one of the locals in a park, since essentially everyone seems to speak excellent English. A 52 degree latitude could place a person in North America somewhere along the shore of James Bay and well north of where the great majority of Canadians live. In Haarlem, the leaves were not yet changing in early October and thanks to the temperate maritime climate, we enjoyed weather in the high 60s to low 70s. We peddled many miles and it’s a great way to see the city up close and personal, but what makes it even better is to stop from time to time.
Haarlem has an outsized selection of cafes and restaurants, many of which offer outdoor seating. If you think Friday night fish fries in Wisconsin are great, you would be in paradise with the fresh seafood that is available when you are within minutes of the North Sea. Fish, scallops, prawns and oysters are staples on many menus and that’s enough to keep me happy, but there is always more. The Dutch are also skilled brewers and while they export half of the beer that they produce, we can vouch for some of what they keep behind for themselves. When we stopped at a non-descript bar with an attractive-looking array of tables along the street under a wide awning, we were happy to find a great menu that included fresh cod and a wonderful selection of beers on tap. Pricing is reasonable and standards are fairly high. (In cities with high tourist traffic, we’ve sometimes encountered restaurants that we felt were being kept alive by one-time visitors, of which there can be a good supply. In Haarlem, repeat local business is a far more necessary ingredient for sustained success and it shows.)
Speaking of great food, the Saturday market on the town square in the shadow of the Grote Kerk is more than just a place to pick up fresh produce. It offers everything from funky clothes to artisan cheeses and quite a bit in the way of ready-to-eat foods prepared on site. Flounder? Raw oysters on the half shell? Vegetarian fare? It’s all there and there is no need to make any other plans when the market is in session. We picked up a half kilo of freshly prepared shrimp to munch on while we toured the densely-packed expanse of tents and booths and months later back home, we’re still eating the cheese.
Beyond the Grote Market, there is the Grote Kerk itself. It is named for St. Bavo, the patron saint of Haarlem, who spent the first part of his life in the Seventh Century as a self-indulgent noble before experiencing a conversion, giving his wealth to the poor and becoming a monk. A statue of St. Bavo presides outside over the great market square. The present church opened in 1520. It is cavernous and it defines the skyline of the old city, but the focal point inside is the organ built by Amsterdam organ builder Christian Muller and decorated by the Amsterdam artist Jan van Logteren between 1735 and 1738. Herman Melville cited it in his immortal novel, Moby Dick, as he compared it to the mouth of the great whale: “Seeing all these colonnades of bone so methodically ranged about, would you not think you were inside of the great Haarlem organ, and gazing upon its thousand pipes?” Famous musicians who have played the organ have included Mozart, Handel and Mendelssohn. It is massive, with 60 voices, 32-foot pedal-towers and an ornate facade. But bringing things up to nearly the present day, the carillon in the bell tower plays Elvis Presley’s “Love me Tender” on the half hour.
We didn’t feel ready to leave Haarlem on the day before heading back to the U.S., but with an early morning flight out, we thought the safest bet was to spend the last night close to the airport. We took the train to Schiphol and caught the hotel shuttle. But what made it an even better call was that the hotel had a fleet of bicycles available for free use. Located along a rural bike route that began in a suburban commercial area, it quickly transitioned into a scenic ride through herds of grazing sheep, past neatly-tended farms, ponds full of waterfowl, orchards heavy with fall fruit and well-kept Dutch country homes. Paved with a centerline, it was like being on a country bicycle highway and although we were using it on a quiet Sunday afternoon, it was built to handle plenty of commuters on weekdays.
Returning home to Wausau, those painted “sharrows” on Grand Avenue created a stark contrast between where we had been and what we had returned to. But for those who would like to have a better idea about what is possible with a multi-dimensional approach to transportation instead of a nearly total focus of resources on private motor vehicles, a little globetrotting to Haarlem will provide an unforgettable perspective – and a very nice time, too. You won’t need a car.