Monday, 16 September 2013

Globetrotting in Haarlem

It was time for a trip outside Amsterdam. I'd set aside two days to visit places outside the city and had chosen Haarlem and Delft. So the third morning I caught a train from the nearby Centraal Station to this old city which is only twelve miles west.
Haarlem is actually the provincial capital of North Holland, which includes Amsterdam, and historically was more important. It's still the seat of the local Catholic bishop, whose title was only recently changed from Bishop of Haarlem to Bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam. At its
heart is a huge square, the Great Market, which is dominated by an equally huge church - the Great Church. I'd seen artists' depictions of this square before, and as I walked down from the station to the town centre, it was a bit like walking into a painting. The square was slowly filling up with people. The weather was the only grey day of my A'dam trip, and cafe-frequenters were a bit slow to step out maybe... but I took my place with croissant and cappucino. Soon the scene was lively with mainly locals, but some visitors. I have to admit Dutch does not seem to be the most attractive language, and as I don't understand it there was little chance to eavesdrop on local chat!
The Great Church - St Bavo, the same as Ghent Cathedral - is Dutch Reformed. It's big but rather bare, like other churches I visited in the Netherlands. This throws into relief the beautiful metalwork in the screens and also the carved stalls. Having absorbed the Square and its parts, I wandered down the main shopping street towards perhaps Haarlem's main artistic treasure - the Frans Hals Museum
Along the way I spotted an old door open and hinting at very interesting stuff inside. I checked and found it is a hofje, the equivalent really of our almshouses, and they are usually built around a courtyard, as this one is. It's called the Proveniershuis (right), and is an oasis of quiet and greenery in a busy street. Its history goes back to the Middle Ages when it was a convent, but it has housed old folk since 1707. Beautiful.
I pressed on to the Museum, which is located in another, but former, hofje. Hals was a Haarlem local and the Museum has 12 of his paintings, plus others by different artists. The displays are first-class, and it's all on one floor. I've always been keen on Frans Hals, with his free style, less constrained than many of his contemporaries. He seems to be able to achieve so much with few strokes. There are several of his large group portraits, mainly of boards of trustees of the hofjes and the suchlike, plus several single portraits, and one pair of a husband and wife. I particularly liked "The Regentesses of the Home for Old Men" (below), a rather honest portrayal of what looks like some tough ladies.
It was time for a bite, and so I relaxed in the cafe, part of a modern wing added on. I returned to the square via a canal-side walk, which are everywhere in much of the Netherlands. By now it was getting a little darker overhead, so I didn't dawdle in the Square again, but made my way back to teh Station, Holland's oldest apparently, and so back to the huge, busy - and not too attractive Amsterdam Centraal Station.

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