Netherlands II: Trading Places

Haarlem and Amsterdam are good cities to ponder the Dutch Golden Age, when a backwater became a superpower, with some remarkable things happening along the way. The story illustrates how everything affects everything else, usually with unintended consequences. Catholic Spain kept its hold on the Spanish Netherlands, now Belgium, and expelled all Protestants, Jews, and non-Catholics of every stripe. Antwerp and Bruges kicked out their most mercantile peoples, and Amsterdam took them in; they entered a steep decline and Amsterdam boomed. Where other states were run by aristocrats or churches, the Netherlands were run by middle-class merchants. With no altarpiece commissions, the painters turned to domestic subjects, with thrilling results. More interested in trade than evangelism, they eclipsed the Portuguese as seafaring explorers, and were the only people permitted to have contact with Japan in its two centuries of sakoku. The Dutch East India Company arguably laid the foundations of globalised capitalism that we so dearly cherish today.

If Leiden was a Dutch Oxford, perhaps Haarlem is York. Now eclipsed by its offspring in the new world, Haarlem is a historic city in its own right; but with the sprawl of Amsterdam’s suburbs, the two are almost at touching distance and the journey from one central station to another takes about 15 minutes. Haarlem was busy with visitors in the afternoon, but its landmark squares were much quieter at night; I wondered if it had become a dormitory town for the capital, or if most of the people were tourists on a day-trip from their Amsterdam base. Although it is now a small part of the whole, we stuck to Haarlem’s old and formerly walled town; an island surrounded by moats on three sides and the serpentine Spaarne river to its east. Our flat was just the other side of a bridge across the Spaarne, beside a lovely big replica windmill. Interestingly, traffic was often held up by the middle section of the bridge rotating 90 degrees, to allow tall ships to pass through.

One detour, suggested by our host when we asked for a lunch recommendation, was something we’d never have found ourselves: walking away from the centre takes you down an unpromising road of small industrial units, and under the train tracks heading into Haarlem Central. Pass the train tracks, and to your left someone has created an artificial beach on the Spaarne with a café/bar. When a high-speed train raced in overhead it felt rather surrealist. All families on a Sunday lunchtime but probably the place to go on a summer night.

Whenever we made the short walk into town, standing above the centre were the twin crowned spires of St Bavo and Bakenesserkerk; one black, one white, otherwise identical. Again a dark church and a light one. I quickly became very fond of the short walk, over a couple of bridges, behind churches and down quiet residential alleys with low-key bars and this mysterious establishment.

Haarlem station was a surprise, as most of the ones we had used on our travels were abstract modern; empty cubes formed of white plastic piping, and so on. Haarlem instead featured what looked like an Edwardian twist on Scottish Baronial, all turrets and battlements on the outside, and some very winning art nouveau inside with illustrations to match.

Head south from the station to get into the old town, where you will inevitably feel the gravitational pull of St Bavo Church and the famous Grote Markt. I got a kick of out of remembering the Kenneth Clark clip where he shows a painting of this square, and then ‘walks into’ the painting. It seems humdrum to us but Clark points out that to paint your town instead of Bible scenes was audacious. “Like so many things that we take for granted, it goes back to a revolutionary change in thought.”

The statue is of Laurens Coster; everyone else thinks Gutenberg invented the printing press, but Haarlem reckons that Coster got in before him, and here he holds aloft a letter on a stamp. The truth usually turns out to be that Chinese were doing it centuries before the West. Either way, it’s an enchanting square like those in the best towns of Flanders, and the snack van does herring rolls, which beat hot dogs and burgers every time.

Around the centre of Haarlem, very old buildings and modernist ones coexist. In places like Bruges, you get the impression that half the houses are new but have been designed so as to fit in with the medieval look. Haarlem, for the beauty it contains, is far less precious about this.

Again a lot of the houses had cute pictorial plaques; some seemingly as old as the houses, and some modern additions in the old style. I prefer them to London’s space invaders.

Of the museums on offer we chose the Frans Hals, in the almshouses where the great portrait painter lived out his old age. It’s quite expensive, and according to the prices quoted in my guide books it seems to go up a few Euros each year, but it is extremely well done. There’s a wide collection of Golden Age masters hung in beautiful rooms like the leather-panelled one below, antique items like a huge dolls’ house, a separate room for Hals’ great corporate group portraits, and voluminous flower arrangements to go with the information -and satirical paintings- about the great Dutch tulip bubble, when the price of a single bulb rose to the same as twelve hectares of land then just as quickly collapsed, ruining many a speculator. I don’t feel able to judge as I’m sure our grandchildren will react with disbelief to stories about London property in the 2010s. Today I walked past a cheapo estate agent on a St Pancras estate advertising a flat for £26,000 a month.

There are some pretty curious paintings amongst all the classics, including the more niche Biblical characters (Onan spilling his seed) and one of a monk groping a nun to ‘test’ whether she will lactate, and a lascivious Baby Jesus who looks like he should be posing on a tiger skin. There’s even some interactive fun with a painting of Breughel’s proverbs, where you can click on a screen below to see the Dutch proverb being illustrated.

Alongside Frans Hals’ house, Haarlem’s main draw is the church where Frans Hals is buried; St Bavo in the Grote Markt. This C15th church is prodigiously tall and has the unusual feature of an octagonal, multi-tiered tower rising out from the joint of its crucifix shape. As in Leiden, the outer aisles have shop units facing the square, as if huddling for protection around the skirt hems of a vast matriarch. On our arrival from the station, as we negotiated the twisting streets the sudden ‘reveal’ of the church was a magical moment akin to stumbling out on the cathedrals of Padova or Orvieto, and it really made me feel all the awe of a country bumpkin from centuries past on a pilgrimage into the big city. I saved the interior for towards the end of my stay.

On entering the church, the first thing I noticed was the incredible ceiling, with the unusual feature of six-pointed star patterns within cedar vaulting.

The second thing I noticed was undoubtedly that vast organ. Mozart, Handel and Mendelssohn all played on it, and Melville invokes it in Moby Dick as he flails for objects that could compare to the inside of the whale’s mouth. Its extravagant rococo detail seemed oddly Catholic to me (although I suppose the City Churches of London have their trumpeting angels too, and some of the detailing is just Grinling Gibbons after a paint job). I would have loved to hear it played but there wasn’t much of that going on during my visit.

The church is long enough that it took me quite some time to see everything, and each stretch of aisle feels like a church within a church. One curio was the Dog Whipper’s Chapel; the town’s catcher of stray dogs was also tasked with policing behaviour during church services and there is a little carving of him going after a rowdy dog under one pillar. Again, the points in comparison with English churches (the pelican, the boards with calligraphed texts preferred to paintings) gave the impression that the English and Dutch are siblings.

St Bavo is also replete with unique details, such as a Spanish cannonball embedded into one wall from the siege of 1573 (after which they had to put up with four years of Spanish rule). In a few hard-to-reach corners, there are tantalising scraps of fresco that somehow managed to survive iconoclasm.

Quiet as its evenings are, the drinker will not go thirsty in Haarlem. The craft brewers Jopen have converted an obsolete church into a bar and brewery, the Jopenkerk, and on our last night in the Netherlands we had a few rounds in a proeflokaal, a sort of bar that was originally a tasting room. True to its origins, the fairly bored barman and his cat, Hermann, indulged us by serving up all kinds of strange Dutch spirits to try; different genevers (the Dutch have it straight from ceramic bottles, no Gordons & tonic here) and a liqueur from the island of Texel whose name I forget, but which tasted uncannily like gingerbread.

From Haarlem, we did go into old Amsterdam for one afternoon. It was the only part of the Netherlands I knew previously. Having been to a few other places, I noticed that its architecture is slightly more showboating.

Having a timed ticket for an exhibition, we didn’t dawdle on the march from the station out to the Rijksmuseum. On the front of that great building, it was pleasing to see the five cities of our holiday clustered together.

The exhibition was the Late Rembrandt which we hadn’t got around to seeing at the National Gallery last year, and which I just cannot imagine the relatively cramped confines of the Sainsbury Wing having done justice to. It was a blockbuster show with bells on; I think there were around 40/50 major paintings and double that number of drawings and sketches. Suffering from the same malaise as all blockbuster exhibitions, it was very congested and you had to patiently wait your turn for many of the smaller pieces. Put ten people in a room and they will probably all behave in a civilised way; put a hundred in and the chances of one being selfish and ignorant increase, which spoils others’ goodwill. There’s also the factor that, like at the Royal Academy, a lot of the crowd were extremely old and frail, and didn’t have the spatial awareness to negotiate a congested room without getting in somebody’s way. The Night Watch was not part of the temporary exhibition, but will give you an idea.

But these gripes are trifling next to the wonders of the paintings. I doubt I could say anything new about Rembrandt but I took a lot from the paintings. They are warts-and-all and they capture the essential frailty, vulnerability, of people. Psychologically too, I always feel in a good Rembrandt like I can really see the subject thinking. There were too many to mention but I was very taken with the violated Lucretia holding a knife to herself, tears welling up in her eyes. The woman below is an obscure Biblical character (I think), who has received a letter asking her to embark on an adulterous affair, and who is mulling it over with a sad sort of detached amusement.

I usually focus on the paintings and gloss over pencil drawings, thinking of them as demo tapes for the official album, but there were a lot of drawings here and they were a revelation to me. Looking at them got me thinking that Rembrandt invented the graphic novel. He does so much with so little and his mastery of light and dark is made explicit. As his copper originals wore away he would tamper with them to obscure more details in darkness and some plates had four or five totally different ‘takes’. Some are comical little turns, but some made me think that were he around today, instead of painting he would be a world-class director of photography fought over by all the top European arthouse filmmakers, or making some Great American Series for HBO.

Outside, it was a warm day in Amsterdam and the popular Museumsplein was filled with six-foot tall Miffys to mark the 60th birthday of Miffy/Nintje. There was a Dutch milkmaid Miffy, a Delft porcelain Miffy, a New York gangster miffy with tux and cigar. All very benign. On the other side of the Rijksmuseum, we witnessed a tourist getting a proper beating from some North African lads shouting ‘Come here! No photo!’ after he evidently photographed them doing something they shouldn’t have been. This beside one of the most picturesque canals on a sunny afternoon with lots of people around. Someone braver than me jumped into the fray to pull the tourist away from it all.

Dutch restaurants I can take or leave, but in Amsterdam we had dinner at an Indonesian place and it was very enjoyable, Indonesia was their main colony in the age of Empire and an Indonesian in Amsterdam is like a Brick Lane curry in London. Order a rijstaffel and you get around twenty little dishes for sharing, mostly from the beef-and-peanut end of curries. They’re quite sweet tasting and probably adapted for the Western palette, again much like an English Indian. Between art and dinner, we spent a delightful early evening trawling the brown cafés. A brown café is, from what I can tell, a bit like an old man pub. It’s slightly melancholy that we would be practically alone in a lot of them, whilst the glitzy and blingy bars around the corner tended to be packed. But a brown café is pretty damn close to my idea of a perfect pub. They are well-worn but cosy and informal places for locals to drop in; they feel like a facility laid on to make people’s lives bearable, where English pubs increasingly feel like identikit and streamlined operations run by the same huge chains to squeeze out more profit, when they have not become expensive restaurants that masquerade as pubs. But perhaps I romanticise the Dutch version because I was on a relaxing holiday.

After dinner we trudged back to the station at dusk for the short ride to Haarlem. Being with my girlfriend, I suppressed any anthropological curiosity about the Red Light District; it seemed the gentlemanly thing to do.


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