Charity appeared to be the biggest winner as I stood and cheered around 200 men, women and children as they raced around Haarlem’s cobbled Grote Markt dressed in snazzy Santa Claus outfits last weekend.
Amid shrieks of laughter and joy, the more serious side to the evening helped swell the local coffers, the runners urged on by family members and well wishers before they raced into the nearby bars which were filled to overflowing until well into the wee small hours.
With the terror threat still active in neighbouring Belgium following last month’s massacre in Paris, in the Netherlands the Christmas spirit is in full flow with markets and festivities taking place in most towns and cities.
Rather than stay in bustling Amsterdam, I headed instead to Haarlem, the provincial capital of North Holland and a city that attracts far fewer tourists but which offers a much cheaper alternative on a three-day break.
Having flown into Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport from London-Luton on the mid-morning easyJet flight, to reach Haarlem I headed towards the country’s capital on one of the frequent express trains before changing at Amsterdam Sloterdijk to catch the local Sprinter service which terminates on the coast at nearby Zandvoort.
Booking into the Golden Tulip Lion d’Or which looks out over a large square, the four-star hotel is just metres from the city’s art nouveau train station, the square itself doubling as a busy bus terminus.
The Lion d’Or is a classic city hotel with 34 comfortable bedrooms while the building itself actually dates back to 1810. It is very convenient for the city’s large shopping area and its entertainment district while it also offers a superb tasty breakfast which set me up nicely for a day of sightseeing.
Directly opposite the hotel’s entrance is an impressive bronze statue of Haarlem’s heroes, Captain Wigbolt Ripperda and Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer, the pair having helped defend the city from the Spanish between 1572 and 1573. Meanwhile next to the railway station there’s the largest underground cycle park in the whole country.
Approximately 150,000 people live in Haarlem which makes it among the Netherlands’ ten largest cities and with Amsterdam a mere 15 minute train ride away (it costs €8.20 return), during the week it’s rather busy commuter belt territory.
Heading off into the heart of the city and bypassing the Grote Markt – the aforementioned cobbled market square which is dominated by the enormous St Bavo’s Church – I had a pre-arranged meeting with Michel Hommel at the world famous Teylers Museum.
Overlooking the Binnen Spaarne river, the 18th Century museum is the oldest in the Netherlands. It was built in 1784 thanks to a legacy from wealthy trader, merchant and banker Pieter Teyler who was interested in all things pre-historic, scientific and artistic.
Teyler, who was of Scottish decent, never married but his passion for fossils, minerals, collecting coins and medals, books and paintings has left a wonderful legacy.
With most objects still displayed in their original cabinets, it’s the buildings wonderful galleries and architecture that impresses, its main lecture room being a carbon copy of that at the Royal Society.
“We have a unique library and some of the rarest books in the world,” said Michel proudly. And I was also lucky enough to be shown a copy of the enormous double elephant-sized (64cms x 97cms) highly illustrated book called ‘Birds of America’ by John James Audubon (1785-1851). Back in 2010 a similar copy made more than £1million at auction.
There is also a new modern wing which has a restaurant and currently houses three separate art exhibitions featuring those freezing cold Dutch winters of the past.
One exhibition is dedicated to influential landscape artist Andreas Schelfhout who specialised in winter scenes while another depicts the golden age of Dutch winter landscape painting between 1780 to 1915 and features artists like Jacob van Strij and Jan Mankes.
While most works are of skaters on the vast canals – which today hardly ever freeze over – in around 1880 more than 500,000 people from a total Dutch population of four million were destitute and those long harsh winters obviously took their toll. Then when the thaw finally occurred, the flooding of the low lying landscape became widespread and dangerous.
Open every day from 10am except Mondays, the Teylers Museum’s ‘Real Winters’ exhibition runs until March6, 2016 – see www.teylersmuseum.nl/en
For dinner that evening I made my way to the smart Seymour Brasserie & Bar on Korte Veerstraat where I was met by owner Ray Waasdorp. However it was Isabelle Hageraats who looked after me and suggested a starter of scallops with a beetroot coulis and macadamia nuts at €14.5. That was followed by a locally-caught main fish dish of plaice at €21.5 while I finished off with a stunning cinnamon pannacotta at €7.5 which was to die for!
The following morning I was joined by Sarah Marshall from the Press Association and was met by local guide Lard van der Pal. He took us on a 90 minute Haarlem highlights walking tour which featured the aforementioned Centraal Station built in 1908, featuring rather ornate first, second and third class passenger waiting rooms.
We visited traditional almshouses, the earliest dating back to 1395. They were built for Dutch widows while Lard also explained about the city’s 10th Century defences as the province of North Holland often came under attack.
The official city limits themselves stretched just one kilometre in every direction and today those boundaries are marked on its streets by slightly raises stonework. Every day the bell at the top of St Bavokerk traditionally chimes out its warning at 9pm to let the city’s inhabitants know that its medieval drawbridge would be raised and that its portcullis gate would be lowered to keep the city safe.
A short walk from the Grote Markt took us along Janstraat towards the city’s ‘red light district’. Located in a backstreet called Begijn, it’s nothing like Amsterdam’s as it’s just a house front with two red lamps signifying its presence. It’s more a courtesy to the local residents while Lard tells me its €5 just to get through the front door!
Crossing the Binnen Spaarne on the Catharijnbrug (Catherine Bridge) we had lunch at Restaurant Zuidam (www.restaurantzjuidam.nl) located just off the Scheepmakersdijk and right on the water’s edge. The building itself is on the site of an old Haarlem shipyard and is easily spotted from a distance as it’s right next door is a huge wooden windmill.
Restaurant owner Jan told us that Windmill De Adriaan is actually a replica of the original which burned down on April 23, 1932. However the city finally agreed to begin work to rebuild it in 1999 and it opened as a museum on April 23, 2002, exactly 70 years to the day after it was destroyed.
Meanwhile Jan’s own impressive wooden restaurant building was put together as a youth project by Haarlem’s out-of-work youngster to give them training and today it has a really good reputation. Its menu is pretty impressive as was the delicious pork tenderloin sata with peanut butter, fries and mayonnaise at €16.
Following lunch we travelled by taxi to the moated Muiderslot Castle located on what is really a small island in the town of Muiden. It’s around 15 kilometres southeast of Amsterdam off the main A1 motorway and located in the mouth of the River Vecht.
We were met there by Imre Bésanger who gave us a guided tour around the restored and renavated UNESCO World Heritage List castle which was being preparing for the Christmas season.
Dating back to around 1285 and built by by Count Floris V, its most famous owner was Dutch poet, historian and playwright Pieter Corneliszoon ‘PC’ Hooft (1581-1647) who is regarded by many as Holland’s answer to William Shakespeare.
“By all accounts he was quite a character,” said Imre. “He also insisted that you sleep sitting up so that blood wouldn’t overpower your brain.”
Imre also retold stories of Hooft’s infidelity, while in that true non-prudish Dutch style, the castle cheekily plans to hold an erotic weekend around Valentine’s Day next year!
“We always struggled to get foreign visitors coming to the castle,” he said. “But since we began calling it ‘Amsterdam Castle’, we now attract 30 percent more and that figure is growing year on year.”
There are plenty of activities for children who earn a special medal if they can find various clues around the castle’s many rooms. We both loved the game sitting on jousting saddles while many of the castle’s furnishings and paintings are on loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
A special Charles Dickens evening is being held in the Knight’s Hall this Christmastime while the actual tour takes you from the Golden Age right up to the present day.
To reach the castle, buses run from outside Amsterdam’s Centraal Station while during the summer months it’s possible to arrive by boat and approach the castle across what was formerly known as the Zuider Zee.
Ferries run daily between April 4 and November 1 (except Mondays) from Amsterdam’s Marina IJburg and for €20 for adults (€15 children 4-11 years) it includes admission plus a guided tour. It takes around four hours overall – see www.muiderslot.nl or www.amsterdamboatexcursion.com
Back in Haarlem we enjoyed a beer tasting session at a special pre-Christmas festival at the Jopenkerk. Opened just five years ago, Jopen is the only brewery in Haarlem, a city where once there were more than 120 and it is housed in the disused Jacobs Church, hence Jopenkerk.
Jopenkerk has also won the best looking bar in the Netherlands award, thanks to its highly polished hop boilers behind the bar counter and its well-appointed restaurant which is open from 10am to 1am every day.
It also brews up to as many at 36 different types of beer while our tasting session was rather special as our adviser Mariella presented us with a plate featuring six different dishes designed to compliment three selected beers.
A blonde Indian Pale Ale (an IPA of 4.5 per cent) was first after we downed an oyster and a salmon taster. Next came steak tartare plus a stew in a bun together with a 6.5 dark beer… then it was cheese and rich chocolate tart accompanying a 9 per cent offering.
Sampler plates and small third-pint beer tasters are always available and while we tried a couple more ‘bevvies’ at the festival, it was back inside the restaurant for evening dinner and a taste of their 15 per cent Hoppenbier, a recipe that was originally brewed back in the Middle Ages.
Passing back through Haarlem’s Christmas Market to the station, we caught the Sprinter to colourful Amsterdam. The city certainly sparkled under the Christmas lights, the music drifting down the streets where the smell of mulled wine should have warmed everyone up.
Sadly the weather didn’t play its part and the atmosphere changed from that of a magical winter wonderland to a slightly dreary evening as we queued for the Holland International canal cruise.
Once onboard for what should have been one of the weekend’s highlights, there was instant disappointment as several of the artistic exhibits were affected by the heavy rain and galeforce winds.
This year over 300 submissions had been made to take part in the fourth Amsterdam Light Festival and from this, just 35 participants were selected. The 100 light scullptures are showcased through the Water Colours boat route and the Illuminade walking route. Actually the latter would have been a better option had the weather been kinder as we could hardly see out of the cruise boat’s windows as they quickly steamed up!
The Amsterdam Light Festival runs until February 1, 2016 – see www.amsterdamlightfestival.com – and features the very best light artists from Holland and around the world. With the theme of ‘Friendship’ it brightens up the city’s canals every night, the beautiful artworks being located along the Amstel River or the historic canals in the city centre.
Had the weather been better then we could have made our way to Amsterdam’s Christmas Village which is set against the iconic backdrop of the Rijksmuseum where guests can find live entertainment and an abundance of delicious festive food.
And if it’s exhibitions you crave, then until January 17 you could visit the Van Gogh Museum close the Rijksmuseum where there is a unique display of similarities between world renowned artists Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) and Edvard Munch (1863-1946).
Another new attraction will be the impressive ‘I amsterdam’ Store which is set to open in Amsterdam Centraal Station at the beginning of 2016.
Instead we returned to Haarlem for the duration and were met the next morning by sunny skies and litter bins full of broken umbrellas!
As a mid-morning treat, we popped into the Barista Cafe – www.baristacafe.nl – where I tried a special White Mountain Chocolate and was able to fill my glass with chocolate nibbles and lashings of cream. A real snip at just €3!
Finally we enjoyed a trip around Haarlem’s vast Christmas market – it’s a two-day affair only on December 12/13 – listening to the choir while drinking a traditional gluhwein. After that we checked into Bart Dijkers restaurant along the Warmoesstaat just off the Grote Markt for a final lunch.
There we shared a tasty platter comprising Dutch bitterballen and kroketten served with a mustard dip along with shrimp-laced spring rolls and crispy cheese sticks which we dipped into a sickly sweet and spicy sauce before tucking into a delicious bowl of Bart’s mustard soup which set us up for the journey to Schiphol Airport.
En route we passed by a fabulous shop in Haarlem’s main street which had 360 different types of cheese on display while sadly I didn’t get the time to visit the Frans Hals Museum or to the house of Corrie Ten Boom, the brave lady who hid several Jews in a secret compartment during the Second World War until she was betrayed to the Gestapo in 1944.
Similar to the more famous Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, Corrie survived Ravensbruck concentration camp – unlike 30 of her friends and family – and her house is now a museum with a free entrance although donations are always welcome.
It probably means that I will have to return again another time to Haarlem and the Golden Tulip Lion d’Or, for besides it being ideal for buses and trains to Amsterdam, the North Sea beaches at Zandvoort are just 10 kilometres away as is Leiden and the Keukenhof Gardens while Volendam, Delft, Den Haag and the cheese markets at Alkmaar and windmills of Zaanse Schans are all within easy striking distance.
From January to July 2016, the Netherlands will hold the presidency of the Council of the European Union, placing Amsterdam at the heart of international relations for six exciting months.
But as a final quirky aside, the Dutch nation are reckoned in general to be among the tallest people on earth and anyone under 5ft 3in visiting some of the male toilets might find the urinals rather a long way up. You have been warned!
Haarlem Fact File
Alan Wooding stayed at the Golden Tulip Lion d’Or, Kruisweg 34-36, 2011 LC Haarlem – tel: +31 (0)23 532 1750 or www.goldentulipliondor.nl/en – on a bed & breakfast basis.
He visited the Teylers Museum at Spaarne 16 – tel: +31 (0)23 51 60960 www.teylersmuseum.nl/en and the Amsterdam Light Festival aboard a Holland International cruiser whose booking office is at Prins Hendrikkade 33a (directly opposite Centraal Station – wwww.canal.nl/en/water-colors-cruise) and Muiderslot Castle at Herengracht 1, 1398 AA Muiden – tel: +31 (0)294 256 262 www.muiderslot.nl/en
He dined at Restaurant Seymour, Korte Veerstraat 1, Haarlem – +31(0)23 2010 260 or www.seymour.com – and Jopenkerk, Gedempte Voldersgracht 2, Haarlem – +31 (0)23 533 4114, www.jopenkerk.nl – while lunches were taken at Restaurant Zuidam – +31 (0)23 844 7593 www.restuarantzuidam.nl – and Dijkers, Warmoesstraat 5-7, 2011, Haarlem – www.restaurantdijkers.nl
Special thanks to Haarlem Marketing, to Simone Sagi of the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions (NBTC) and to the Press Association’s Sarah Marshall for her delightful company.