Wednesday, September 26, 2018

When I checked out of my room in central Haarlem this morning, my main plan for the morning was to visit the steam engine museum in Cruquius. Instead I ended up with an exclusive, personalized tour of a home for elderly ladies.

Allow me to explain.

Before cycling a few kilometres south to the steam engine museum, I wanted to make a very quick stop at the Grote Kerk to get a few pictures of the magnificent organ I had heard in concert the night before. With that mission accomplished, I was back outside unlocking my bike when a dapper gentleman asked me, in both Dutch and English, where I was from. I answered in Nederlands that I was from Canada and enjoying my first visit to Nederland.

Hans quickly ascertained, of course, that I don’t speak Nederlands very well, but he also asked if I enjoyed a chance to practice speaking the language. Thus followed a very enjoyable conversation, in which he helpfully corrected my language when necessary, and occasionally broke into English for a phrase or two.

After several minutes he asked if I had seen the home for elderly ladies. I replied that I hadn’t, although I had read about such homes in the captions of paintings in the Frans Hals Museum. He then remarked that there is an elderly ladies’ home just a few minutes’ walk from where we were standing, it has hardly changed in 500 years, and it is the most beautiful and important cultural site in Haarlem. If I could spare a few minutes he would be happy to show me.

Thus we set off through the narrow streets until we came to an unmarked gate. He opened it and ushered me into a stunningly beautiful courtyard garden, surrounded by small two-story townhouses, all several centuries old. Hans explained that this place has always been a home for elderly women, mostly widows with little wealth, and so it remains to this day. He bemoaned the characterless modern brick buildings that now loomed into view beyond the courtyard – but within, the view is a living dream of another time. (More info on these courtyards is available here.)

Just as we were leaving, one of the residents arrived (by bicycle, of course) and wished me a great tour of the Netherlands.

By this time the morning was nearly over. As I had already lined up a host for that evening in Utrecht, a longish ride away, I decided to skip the steam engine museum, with no great regrets; Hans’ simple questions about my bike ride had led to a better morning than I could have planned.

Top image: “The Regentesses of the St. Elisabeth’s Hospital in Haarlem”, by Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck, in the Frans Hals Museum. Image from Wikimedia Commons.