There are cities that Google will tell you to explicitly visit, and then there are some places that you need to do a bit of homework to be worthy of it. Haarlem is one of those latter cities. Living in Belgium, I have probably (over)exploited day trips to The Netherlands and decided against Amsterdam for the weekend. As a millennial, I am guilty of owning an Instagram account mostly to follow travel and dog/elephant accounts. There was a focus on Haarlem from one of my favourite accounts (@Iamsterdam) last month and this caught my interest.
I have a weakness for quaint Dutch towns and a weakness for products from Albert Heijn, a Dutch supermarket chain, especially for their oddly interesting flavours of organic chocolates and stroopwafels. All these reasons combined, made me fight the urge to sleep in on a Saturday morning.
Haarlem is only 15 minutes away from Amsterdam by train, and connections are there every 15 minutes. Stepping into Haarlem, I was ready to embark on a treasure hunt. The city charmed me with dainty boutiques lined across narrow lanes. To me, Haarlem was a shy sibling of Amsterdam who loves the limelight. With a dying phone and a hungry stomach, I grabbed lunch in a cosy café and soaked in the much needed sunlight.
Like most of the European cities, Haarlem also has a city center (no brownie points for guessing) and there was a market set up on that Saturday as well. You could find everything, from beautiful ceramics, to oriental lamps to fresh cheese and pesto. And I always awe at Netherlands because they seem to be ahead of the rest of the world in terms of transport (their train networks are fuelled by sustainable energy), and I realised that even the tiny makeshift shops at the market place accepted card payments (I work for a payment technology company so was a bit proud of it).
You might think I’m describing just another Dutch town, but behind these conventionally pretty houses, there are courtyards (called hofjes) that you can enter and take a stroll. There are around 20 courtyards (oldest dating back to 1395) secretly scattered around the city behind these houses.
It takes a bit of searching around and a lot of courage to randomly knock on a door hoping the residents open the doors to their courtyards. I bookmarked the hofjes on my map (https://www.holland.com/global/tourism/destinations/more-destinations/haarlem/hofjesroute-courtyard-itinerary.htm) and although Google (mis)informed me that there was nothing particularly special about these addresses, I opened the doors to what felt like Narnia. These hofjes were once almshouses founded by the wealthy to house poor, unmarried women and these tiny houses share a courtyard.
Just a tip: Most of them are closed during Sundays and open till 12 noon on Saturdays.
It felt a bit weird to randomly open these doors but once you’re inside, the calm and serenity quickly get rid of that initial hesitation. It is important to remark that although they are open to the public, you are expected to respect the privacy of the owners, these are mainly habituated by old women who enjoy sipping their tea in silence and greet the visitors with a warm smile. Small mundane things like automatic doors and pressing a ginormous red button to open the courtyards excited me.
Like most Dutch cities, you can always go on a canal tour or bike around the city, or simple walk around the cobblestoned pathways (tip: ditch your heels) and enjoy what this town has to offer. Dutch people are helpful and if you ever feel lost (or run out of data on your phone), you can always ask your way around. Haarlem was one of the prettiest cities I’ve visited and the less touristy city with secret courtyards definitely makes it a town to go on an adventure.
About the author
Harini Jayashankar is a Chennai bred girl who moved to Belgium in 2015 for her studies (but more importantly for the chocolates and fries). She spends an awful amount of time on the internet searching for holiday destinations in Italy and (re)watching ‘The Office’ when she’s not on holiday. She now works for a payment technology company and performs with her violin. Harini also occasionally likes to go down the existential crisis hole and tries to socialize with friends who have pets. You can find her on Insta as @harini.j0302
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