Haarlem steps out of the shadows

Adrian Mourby on the Dutch city with an undeserved history of coming second

Haarlem. The very sound of its name conjures up images of the long-legged Globetrotters and black jazz greats. But this Haarlem is the sleepy Dutch town that, back in 1658, gave its name to Nieuw Haarlem, the New York borough.

Haarlem. The very sound of its name conjures up images of the long-legged Globetrotters and black jazz greats. But this Haarlem is the sleepy Dutch town that, back in 1658, gave its name to Nieuw Haarlem, the New York borough.

Lost somewhere on the Randstad, between Holland's relentless tulip fields and vibrant Amsterdam, Haarlem is rarely visited these days. A city when Amsterdam was still a fishing village, it has almost become suburbia, a brief train ride away, a morning's excursion of the kind that most visitors don't bother to make.

I set out for Haarlem from Amsterdam one sunny Sunday morning, on the first section of railway ever built in Holland, and found myself there almost before the journey had started. (In 1839, 12 miles probably seemed quite a distance along the iron road, but not today.)

Haarlem station was reworked between 1905 and 1908. The platforms are lofty Art Nouveau, with green and beige tiles depicting the glories of transport down the years. Better still, the buffet is baronial, with hammer-beams, leather-backed chairs and potted palms. Even the ceramic sign that marks the entrance to the Wachtkamer (rest room) "3rd classe" is decorated in a design that might have come from Liberty.

The walk from the station down Kruisstraat is less inspiring - here Haarlem's new role as a satellite of Amsterdam shows, with its low, modern shop buildings. But, thankfully, the Kruisstraat leads to Haarlem's Grote Markt and the town I'd come to see.

Set out in an irregular rectangle on what was once the jousting ground of Count William II, the Grote Markt has recently been repaved to make it pedestrian-friendly and is lined with shops and cafés. But look above the plastic shop signs at the façades of the buildings and the Markt appears almost unchanged since Gerrit Berckheyde painted it in stark winter sunshine 300 years ago.

I bought a cup of coffee from the Loft Café and sat outside the curiously pedimented Stadhuis (town hall) to take in the view of Haarlem's gables, stepped in Renaissance style or scooped up into graceful 18th-century necks. Above me, in a niche on the Stadhuis, stood the symbol of justice, a bosomy nymph wearing armour and a slightly dozy smile. Clearly, the exercise of justice was never too taxing a business in Old Haarlem.

The Grote Markt is remarkably well-preserved, spoilt only by the presence of a McDonald's. I wandered towards the cathedral where a statue of Laurens Coster (1370-1440) stands clutching some books. Little known outside Holland, Coster, a sacristan at Haarlem's Grote Kerk, is believed by the Dutch to have invented the printing press a decade or so before Johannes Gutenberg.

From Coster's statue, it is only a few steps to the Hoofdwacht, once Haarlem's town hall, then demoted to the role of the militia's headquarters, and now both a museum and home to the Haarlem Historical Society. Two members of that group welcomed me into this imposing sturdy building with its baroque balcony and outrageously prominent roof. The double-fronted ground floor was empty of furniture but lined with dark old oil paintings of Haarlem. Upstairs, however, the display became more interesting, with a large diorama of 16th-century Haarlem spread out before us.

Looking down on the city, it is clear how well-defended Haarlem was during the vicious Spanish siege of 1573. Built to the west of the river Spaarne, Haarlem cleverly channelled the river into a series of canals that run to the north past what is now its railway station, then down the western walls and finally across the southern flank, creating, in effect, an inland island.

Dominating the skyline is the Grote Kerk of Saint Bavo, where both Mozart and Handel are said to have played the organ. This was to be my next port of call, stopping on the way at the tiny Vishal (fish hall), one of two historic shops now transformed into art galleries. Butting up against the church, this single-storey 18th-century building was originally where fish was sold - while the market master had the dubious pleasure of storing any unsold produce in the cellar of his own home, the Vishuisje (fish house). This small mock-17th-century building is squeezed in next to the Vleeshal (meat hall), another imposing brick building, with stepped gables, white obelisks and stone oxheads flanking the main entrance, which is now an annexe to the Frans Hals museum, dedicated to modern art.

I had made a mistake in coming to Haarlem on a Sunday, for the church was closed, or rather, closed to those of us who did not wish to worship. That was a loss for me as this vast building contains some notable curiosities, among them what was considered to be the best organ in Europe.

I was sorry to miss seeing the pillar which apparently records the heights of Haarlem's tallest citizen - a giant called Cajanus - and of the smallest, a dwarf called Paap. I was also looking forward to seeing the chapel dedicated to the Noble Company of Dog Whippers, whose official duty was to keep Haarlem's noisome hounds out of the Grote Kerk.

Laurens Coster is buried in the Kerk, as is Frans Hals, Haarlem's most famous son. Hals wasn't born in Haarlem - he came here when he was 23 and painted many of his finest works in the city, including the Laughing Cavalier. Hals ended his life in poverty in one of Haarlem's numerous gasthuisjes (almshouses). For some reason, the old and destitute seemed to congregate in Haarlem in the 17th century.

On Groot Heiligland, the lodging for old men, known as the Oudemannenhuis, has been converted into the Frans Hals Museum. Here I saw lively portraits of the Haarlem Civic Guard, which predate Rembrandt's the Night Watch, along with several still-lifes and landscapes by lesser-known Haarlemites.

As I boarded the train for the journey back to Amsterdam, it struck me that, by championing Frans Hals, this quiet undeservedly neglected Dutch city is continuing its long tradition of coming second. The second most important city in 17th-century Holland, home of the other man who invented printing and of the best-known Dutch portrait painter after Rembrandt. But Haarlem is well worth a visit, all the same.

Getting thereAdrian Mourby flew to Amsterdam courtesy of KLM (tel: 0870 5074074) which offers return fares from £84. Haarlem is a 15-minute train journey from Amsterdam. Call Holland Rail (tel: 01962 773646).

Where to stayAdrian Mourby stayed at the DeDoelen Hotel (tel: 00 3120 5540600) in Amsterdam. Double rooms cost from Fl420 (£122).

Further information

Netherlands Tourist Board (tel: 020-7931 0661); e-mail: hollandinfo-uk@nbt.nl; net: www.holland.com/uk).

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