Our last day in the Netherlands we decided to spend out of the city. We had read a blog post that said Haarlem was a beautiful little city to visit on a day trip to get out of Amsterdam. It was only a 15-minute train ride, with trains leaving every 10 minutes or so. If you have the time, I would recommend getting out of Amsterdam for the day just because the transit system is so incredibly easy, inexpensive and frequent.
We arrived in Haarlem at around 10:15. Our initial plan was to rent bikes at the aptly named Rent a Bike, that is located just outside the train station, across the square, but we decided to see the main part of the town first. It’s a short walk of 10 minutes or so to the town square from the station. The buildings are just as beautiful as they are in Amsterdam, the tall, narrow facades with large windows, stepped gables and steep roofs. Haarlem has one main river running through it and so the bridges resembled Amsterdam in that respect as well. It was much less crowded and we were able to slow our pace a bit, which was nice after three days of the big-city rush. But we still had to be on the lookout for cyclists. There weren’t as many but they were just as scary.
As we were walking towards the town square, Bob noticed a blue banner that marked a museum. We turned down a narrow alley (by the H&M) and found the Corrie ten Boom House. I had read about this museum on a website that morning so was excited that we had found it so easily. When we discovered that there was only one English tour that day and it was in 30 minutes, it was like serendipity was shining on us.
But when we sat down for the beginning of the tour and started to hear details of this family’s life, I couldn’t believe how lucky I really was.
Corrie Ten Boom and her family hid over 200 people in this house. She, her sister and her father led an extraordinary life of charity and courage hiding Jews and other Dutch people (mostly men) wanted by the Nazis for being a part of the Resistance. They were eventually arrested for hiding extra ration coupons and she and her sister were sent to Ravensbrück. When Corrie was released, she eventually wrote a book called The Hiding Place. I had read this book 16 years ago while I was living and working in Japan. I didn’t remember the name of the book, nor the names of the heroes, but the stories and lessons in this book were so powerful, they have stayed with me all this time. And here I was, in that house, looking at the same Bible they read from, looking at the same pictures on the wall. When I realized that I was in the house of those amazing people, I welled up with emotion.
Earlier, while we were initially planning our trip, I was sorely disappointed when I discovered that we would not be able to get tickets to the Anne Frank House due to limited numbers of tickets sold (because of renovations). But I believe that things happen for a reason and being in Corrie ten Boom’s house was even more powerful for me because of my attachment to the book.
They allowed no photos to be taken except for the room with the hiding place. The tours are free and are an hour long. There isn’t too much to see other than to hear about the family, to see where they lived, to see some things that were important to the family (the clock in the window will mean something to you if you have read the book), a small exhibit room of Corrie’s life and most importantly, to see the hiding place. I would highly recommend going to see it. These people did what they did at great expense to themselves and they did it simply, though not easily, because it was the right thing to do. It was incredibly humbling to be in the setting of such bravery, faith and determination. Again, I seriously questioned whether we are made of such mettle.
After the tour, we headed for the main square. We had a picnic lunch on one of the benches as we discussed what our next course of action would be. We had discarded the idea of renting a bike since the wind was quite strong and we didn’t feel like spending our last day on holiday pedaling our hearts out just to stay in one spot.
We decided to see what the cathedral was like on the inside. Well, pretty spectacular if you are into gothic architecture. It was icy cold within its high stone walls and had features of note such as skulls engraved on tombstones, strange hound dog sculptures, gold medieval gates and a massive pipe organ that Mozart played on when he was ten years old. Man, I love churches.
After that, we didn’t really know what we wanted to do so we popped out of the wind again into a cosy little restaurant and had a drink while we perused the tourist map of Haarlem we got from a souvenir shop and used the wifi to do some additional research.
Before we started on our way to Jopenkerk, I was getting a little hungry. Being gluten-free is sometimes tough when travelling. I hadn’t been very vigilant this day about scanning for places that might serve gluten-free options. While I didn’t feel I would have a problem translating my issue as everyone in Holland speaks English fluently, there were places that just looked like it would be troublesome, or expensive, or simply non-existent.
Let me take a moment to explain what it’s like to travel with a food allergy, especially one as difficult as a gluten allergy. In North America, it’s absolutely terrible because it seems that almost everything has gluten in it. In Europe, it’s fairly certain that most foods will be clean. For example, if your food doesn’t naturally have gluten in it, it most likely won’t contain it as an additive. (Whereas in North America, it’s often used as a binder or filler.) However, that being said, a food allergy on your vacation isn’t really something you want to play with. Too many times, I’ve had to jump off a bus and run to the closest bathroom or simply spend the night in bed in our accommodation because I won’t risk going out after eating something questionable. It’s really not fun. This is why we get Airbnb accommodation so we have a kitchen and can buy food at grocery stores instead of doing the guessing game in a restaurant. Eating out is fine but in order to get food that is non-modified, one generally needs to go to a “real” restaurant which could be costly and time-consuming.
On a whim, we stopped into the McDonald’s to see if they offered a gluten-free bun and they did! Yay! So for only 8€ and 15 minutes, we were able to satiate our hunger and be on our way. For many of you, the thought of eating at a McDonald’s might fill you with horror. But for someone who struggles with eating out every day, and longingly watches others grab a quick bite to eat at a fast food restaurant, it was a blessing.
We found our way through the scenic streets to Jopenkerk where I was able to enjoy a gluten-free beer. The Netherlands really does do a great job of making gluten-free alternatives available. Jopenkerk is a craft brewery that is housed in an old church. The beer tanks (I really have no idea what the proper terms are for beer-making equipment) are visible at all seating in the building – the bar, the main floor restaurant and the upstairs dining area as well. There is also a back room that is available for groups and beer tasting. It was great to sit and have a pint and just relax in the hip, unique and historic atmosphere.
After that, it was time for us to head back to the station and back to Amsterdam. On our way, we saw a windmill on the map so we decided to swing by that to see it. As we approached, we could see the wind blowing the blades around at the end of the narrow street. Of course, as we came to the canal and the windmill itself, the wind stopped and the windmill stood still.
It was a quiet ride back to Amsterdam and a lovely conclusion to our March Break vacation. The next morning was an early departure to get to the airport.
Goodbye, Netherlands! Thank you for a beautiful and relaxing break!