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Testing Europe’s cultural waters in Haarlem

In small-town Holland, cultural differences are obvious and travel is easy

Haarlem's busy main square, with its Great Church (Grote Kerk) towering overhead, is both the community's living room and marketplace...as it has been for centuries.
Haarlem's busy main square, with its Great Church (Grote Kerk) towering overhead, is both the community's living room and marketplace, as it has been for centuries. Photo by Rick Steves

I’m under the towering church spire in the tidy Dutch market town of Haarlem, tempted to eat a pickled herring. The sign atop the mobile van reads: “Jos Haring — Gezond en Lekkerrr” (healthy and deeeeeelicious).

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I order by pointing and ask, “Gezond?”

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Jos hands me what looks more like bait than lunch, and says, “En lekkerrr.”

I stand there — not sure what to do with my bait — apparently looking lost. Jos, a huge man who towers over his white fishy counter, mimes swallowing a sword and says, “I give you the herring Rotterdam style. You eat it like this. If I chop it up and give you these” — he points to the toothpicks — “this is Amsterdam style.”

As I take a bite he asks, “You like it?”

Even though I’ve noticed his van’s three “r”s on the word for “delicious,” I mutter the only polite response I can muster: “It’s salty.”

“Yes,” he says. “This is not raw. Tourists say this is raw. But it is pickled in salt. Great in the hot weather. You sweat. You need salt. You eat my herring.”

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Haarlem is a good place to start a European trip. In small-town Holland, cultural differences are obvious and travel is easy. I see the Netherlands as a cultural wading pool that slopes gradually into the more challenging waters of central Europe.

While mighty Amsterdam is just a 20-minute train ride away, cute Haarlem, with its Dutch masters feel, provides a more comfy base and a more genteel experience.

Amsterdam’s Anne Frank wrote her story in a world-famous diary and visitors must book well in advance to visit to her house. Haarlem’s Corrie ten Boom shared an equally inspirational story in her book, The Hiding Place, telling how her family courageously hid Jews from the Nazis until the inevitable day came when the Gestapo knocked on their door, too. A visit to Corrie’s home in Haarlem costs only a suggested donation and is as intimate as reminiscing with her family.

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Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum has a sprawling collection of great Dutch masters. Haarlem, however, fills a 17th-century pensioner’s house with a small, delightful collection of the quintessential Dutch master: Local boy Frans Hals.

While Amsterdam’s red light district is a rowdy cheering squad of hedonism, Haarlem’s is a quiet little cobbled zone where people remember their polite words and no one dares even litter. Amsterdam’s coffee shops are filled with pot enthusiasts from Sydney to Vancouver, while Haarlem’s caters to local students and old hippies out for a joint and a stroll before dinner.

Main squares in old Dutch towns are often named for either the dam (like Amsterdam’s Dam Square) where the town grew up, the big market (grote markt) that historically was held there, or for the weigh house (waag) that stood on that square. Haarlem’s main square is the Grote Markt. It’s ringed by a towering brick church and buildings — like the Waag — that remind all who visit that its economy was built centuries ago on trade.

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Much of the architecture of today’s “old Holland” is from the 1600s. That was Holland’s golden age — when merchants ruled the waves, stockpiled profits, and hired Rembrandt to paint their portraits. While Haarlem has its fancy old guildhalls and business has reigned here for centuries, the town’s strictly enforced building code assures that the church tower will always dominate the downtown.

On the Grote Markt, tent-like market stalls lead to red brick guildhalls. And above it all rises St. Bavo Church, better known locally as the Grote Kerk (Great Church). Like most medieval churches, it was built facing east toward Jerusalem. But once inside, all eyes turn to the western end, where its pipe organ, an Oz-evoking tower of musical power, reaches nearly a hundred feet to the ceiling. Cupids swing from the largest of 5,068 pipes while gilded angelic trumpeters seem stuck in an 18th-century game of Statue Maker. Mozart trilled here.

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Mondays and Saturdays are market days on Haarlem’s Grote Markt — a cheerful festival of flowers, bright bolts of cloth, evangelical cheese pushers, and warm, gooey stroopwafels. The carillon clangs with an out-of-tune sweetness only a medieval church clock tower can possess. Savouring the merry dissonance, and taking tiny Amsterdam-style bites of my Rotterdam herring, I wander deeper into the market, happy that Jos is piling chopped onion on herring, contributing to the amazing ambience of this scene.

Under high-stepping gables and yawning awnings, the square bustles just as it did in 350-year-old paintings. As it has been for centuries, it’s the town’s social and psychological hub, the civic living room. Dodging flower-laden one-speeds, I feel like part of the family here. I’m immersed in Holland — with raw-herring breath.

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