Haarlem Globetrotters European city of Uiltje

First things first: I love the title of this blog post, but did not come up with it myself. Take a bow, Paul. You're my hero.

Hello, 2017. No, I haven't made a resolution or any other kind of decision to keep leaving the country at least once a month, but here we are in January and I'm on me travels. Happy christmas!

Seriously, happy christmas. On the basis that if a thing happens twice it's a trend, Helen has continued the trend of buying me a mystery foreign trip and so on Christmas Day 2016 I was literally presented with seats on a plane to Holland and some spiel about a brewery in a church. We checked in for the flights that very day, which tickled me a bit.

Fast forward then to the day before we leave, and I'm off work sick. A vague sore throat on Wednesday had got worse on Thursday and come Friday 13th it felt like Jason Voorhees himself had stabbed me repeatedly in the neck with a harpoon. In response to me texting in sick my boss said hoped I'd be better in time to fly (I'd told him of our plans). Lots of Lemsip max strength capsules and vaporub plus judicious use of a scarf seemed to help and I woke up at 4am on Saturday feeling not 100%, but not so rough as to keep me from an airport.

4am was faux deliberate. With a flight at 9am we figured getting to Gatwick by 0730 was sensible, which required the ludicrously early first train of the day from Thames Ditton. Bleurgh. I do neck another couple of Lemsip tablets 'n all. Better safe than sorry.

At the station we bought a ticket starting from another station, out of the machine. The fact you can do this is revelatory to me. The moon was full and spectacular, and I found out I'd won £5.20 on the Euromillions lottery.

Before even reaching the first stop, our previously on-time train had lost 4 minutes. Our change at Clapham was easy enough, apart from me losing Helen when she ducked out to vape while my back was turned. Bacon rolls were purchased and a dreaded Southern Railway service whisked us to Gatwick comfortably and on time, which still doesn't sound realistic does it?

At Gatters we exited the station directly into the south terminal, avoiding the ticket office. I'm flummoxed by this, having never seen or known about this route before. 5 minutes of travelling via drearily-tannoyed escalators then a short walk to the monorail, which is instead exuberantly tannoyed.

Useful map is useful.

So, security. The queues aren't massive - I don't recall ever suffering here - and they've adopted those lanes so you can sort out all your luggage without stress. I decant everything into two trays, remembering to take out my (replaced since its loss last year) selfie holster thing. Helen is through the x-ray way before me and has no luggage, because it's all in my bag.

Both of my trays are chosen for secondary security.

I don't feel too bullied or picked on, because it looks like around 40% of bags are going through secondary - which makes it doubly annoying as I have to wait for a few people ahead of me. Those folk are being told off for having liquids or sharp things, but what could be up with mine? My prediction is that the selfie holster thing is still troublesome even when visible, and that they reckon my keyboard might be a laptop. I'm right on both counts. Grr.

Into the terminal and the bright lights of an 8am Wetherspoon are twinkling. Really, they are: the Red Lion is heaving full and the sign is animated neon. This is too much. Besides, neither of us are in the mood for a beer just yet. Just water and a slice of cake.

We probably wouldn't have had much time for a real drink anyway to be honest. Having arrived airside only about an hour before takeoff, the gate was announced fairly pronto and we were pretty much the first people there. Helen zooms straight past the "speedy boarding" sign to plonk down and I feel guilty about sitting in the priority bit when we don't have priority, so we move back.

Obligatory not-our-plane-at-gate pic is obligatory

Wait. What? "Speedy boarding"? We don't have priority? Yes, indeed, we is flying easyjet today. On the basis that you should fly a predominantly orange airline when going to Holland, and because we're going to Haarlem and easjyet's IATA code is 'U2' and I've been humming Angel of Ha(a)rlem for days because of that. Also because they're cheaper and more convenient than BA who now charge cash - more cash, at that - for a worse choice of food and drink onboard anyway so really what's the point in flying economy with them in Europe any more?

Boarding is fairly pleasant, apart from the bit where we stand on the tarmac in the freezing cold for a few minutes because they've let us out before the plane is actually ready. We're in seats 18A and B and no-one sits in 18C, so it's not uncomfortable. Thankfully even without priority we've managed to get on fairly early, which is good because from my seat I get really aggravated by all the people who used the front stairs to reach their seats at the back of the plane, and vice versa. Easyjet do their best to tell you how to make things nice for everyone - it's on the boarding pass, and the gate staff tell you when they check your documents - yet still people are ignorant twats. Ho hum.

We taxi past an Emirates A380 and I'm a bit jealous. There's a mysterious bridge linking the north terminal to some other building - perhaps some distant gates? And we skirt around a few Thomson and Wow and Wizzair planes, plus a lot more BA than I thought there'd be at Gatwick, and then up, up and away. Turns out the snow across the south of England had settled.

Up above the clouds everything is serene.

Inside, not so much serenity. Ever since the eerie cabin-wide silence during the safety demonstration, the three kids in front of us (in their early 20s) are talking loudly and constantly about flat sharing in London and clubbing in Amsterdam and visiting Dam Square and stuff, in a way that probably shoudln't annoy us anywhere near as much as it does.

The captain comes on the tannoy to say CABIN CREW BE SEATED IMMEDIATELY. Seconds later a massive jolt of turbulence sends 3 cups of cider up in the air in front of us, and causes Helen to reach - pre-emptively - for the sick bag. There's a lot of laughter throughout the cabin. I'm very entertained. That one jolt was the worst of it though, there's a couple more smaller bumps then everything's back to normal. We descend through the clouds and have a fair bump of a landing and here we are, in a soaking wet Amsterdam.

Helen lived here for a while, ages ago, so is an expert. So after a long walk to passport control we stand in the wrong queue, ducking out to use the oyster machines instead. Landside after a vape break we buy train tickets to Haarlem but do not validate them. A helpful man tells us we need to go to Amsterdam Sloterdijk and change, but as that train isn't for a while, we should instead go to platform 5 for the train to Leiden and change there.

So, platform 5 and the train to Den Haag via Leiden. I look on a map and discover Leiden is in the wrong direction, and further away from the airport than Haarlem is. Bah. Still never mind, we'll get there. Dutch trains are good, right?

Citymapper is telling me loads of trains from Leiden to Haarlem are cancelled. Most routes it's suggesting are to go back past the airport to Sloterdijk. But we can't, because we're on this train already... except, 5 minutes outside Schiphol and there's a looooong announcement in Dutch, followed by a shorter one in English, telling us this train is now going to stop and terminate at Hoofddorp just a couple of minutes away. There's problems on the Leiden line. Everyone off.

Huh. OK. At Hoofddorp the weather is sunny, and we change platforms to get on a train back past the airport to Sloterdijk after all. It's empty and a bit like a Croydon tram when we get on.

The driver's announcement refers to this service as a "Sprrrrinterrrrrrrr". It's going all the way to Amsterdaam Centraal and beyond, and before we leave - about 20 minutes after we board - it gets pretty full. Once we set off, there's an automated announcement which says the train is going in the other direction, to Den Haag, and lots of people look confused.

So now we're back at Schiphol, about 2 hours after we landed. Gah. Come Sloterdijk the train is heaving like a rush hour service, but almost everyone changes here including us. We take our place on a freezing cold platform and it's blizzard conditions in the open bits at the end. Brr. But, finally, we're on a train - standing, because it's also very crowded - to Haarlem. Eesh. It seems hard to believe that the best train service of the day was that provided by Southern Railway, but there it is.

Anyway, Haarlem. It's not raining, in fact the sun is trying to burn through the clouds. The walk to our B&B is a straight line past cute side streets and lots of eateries and over a canal and across a large main square with a herring market on it. The place looks great, albeit a little bleak because the clouds are fighting back against the sun. In summer I bet it's a lovely place to explore. In winter, we should just go for a drink.

First, we check-in. We're staying in a B&B run by a brasserie on the main square. Despite being early they say they've cleaned already so we can go up right now. It's up 2 flights of perilously narrow and twisty stairs and I'm not impressed. The room is nice though, and the laminated welcome note tells us this is a historic building with "monument glass" in the windows which can make it noisy, so here's some ear plugs. Again, cute.

Oh, also, in the corridor outside there's a fridge with wine in it and that's free to drink. Huh? Yes, really, free wine. Also breakfast is in the brasserie in the morning. Wow.

I get some electricity in the phone and then we head out. Our destination is Jopenkerk, a brewery in a converted church. We've looked at the menu and the beer and food both look great and it should be easy to find, right? What with google maps on our phones and that. Well, yeah, about that. Helen decides she will walk us there and I am not to help, since this is her present to me. We spend the next 20 minutes walking around lots of Haarlem which is indeed very nice, but actually we've just traced a circle and ended up back at the main square.

Attempt number two takes us down a different road at the very start, then ends up rejoining our original attempt's route. I insist on using one of the walking tour maps on the side of a building, which has Jopenkerk on it. Looks quite easy to find, tbh. At least the weather is actually quite nice, and I manage to get a single solitary "look, some tourism!" photo.

Eventually we see a sign to another bar we've got in mind, and an Albert Heijn supermarket. Helen's been hoping we'd run into one of these because she wants some coffee chocolates which remind her of living in Holland, so in we go and buy some. They are labelled as €1.33 on the shelf and buying two costs €2.78, confusingly.

Out the back of the shop and, aha! Jopenkerk, finally. About time too! Sure is a big ol' church they've converted here.

We grab a seat next to a blackboard listing about 18 beers they have on tap. We also have menus, with 4 full pages of beers. Holy crap. There's dark beers and IPAs and pilseners and witbier and ... well actually we're not totally sure about some of them because the menu is in Dutch and we don't bother asking for an English one.

Later I discover that my menu doesn't even have all the beers in, because it's out of date. Helen's has about 10 or so more. This is quite crazy, and excellent. I get an Oost-Indie porter and she has Hops and Myrrh. I like mine, she hates hers and I end up drinking half of that too. We also get traditional bar snacks: bread with dipping mayo, bitterballen, deep fried cheese, and a pretzel. Then more beer: a small Sin & Remorse for me, a small Nuts for Chocolate for Helen.

Nuts for Chocolate surprises both of us, or me at least, by not being a dark beer. I think it tastes like a peanut butter IPA, she can't really get a nut taste out of it at all. Mine tastes strong, which is good because it's 11% holy frijoles.

As the tables around us empty, people are being told they can't sit there. Turns out we're in a cordoned off area reserved after 3pm, and by now it's 2.50pm. So we pay, and leave our table too. What was a fairly empty venue is now heaving full and there's what looks like a hen do - tons of women in pirate and cowboy hats - plus a walking tour arrives to much applause. We take matching shots of balding men seated at the bar as we leave, if only to prove that her Google Pixel knocks spots off my poxy iPhone SE in challenging lighting.

So that's basically the present delivered. She's brought me to Haarlem and taken me to Jopenkerk. Why have we left already? Oh, that's right, because there's a hipster bar run by another local brewery, based on owls - they're called Uiltje, Dutch for "owlet" - just around the corner. And who has about 20 different owl-based things decorating her house? That would be Helen. How it took me to find out about this place and not her, I do not know.

Uiltje is largely empty. The music is on loud enough to hear, but not deafening. They play Guns 'n Roses when we arrive, and follow it up with Rush, Ozzy Osbourne, AC/DC, Kansas... think I might like it here.

The blackboard doesn't lie: they have 30 taps. Not every tap is on, but actually throughout our couple of hours there they do fill in the blanks (and others disappear, to be replaced with new drinks). Pretty much everything is dark or sour. It's essentially the perfect venue for both of us.

I get an Up In Smoke; she has a Weiss Lines. They are, of course, bloody lovely.

Most people here seem to not be Dutch. Especially intriguing for Helen is the guy who asks for a taste of and advice about drinking sour beers, so she earwigs intently and then goes for a biere du saison which ends up being her favourite beer of the day. I get an actual Uiltje beer called Mr Feathers.

My phone is alerting me to the football score back home, delightfully I discover AFC Wimbledon have done the double over Oxford and two of my bets came in. Excellent. Time to celebrate with another beer. I tell the barman I can't decide between numbers 13 and 14, and he says they're totally different and pours me a taste. One of them has only just come on and there had been some debate over how to classify it when writing on the blackboard, deciding on the end to write "spiced ale". They're not wrong: it tasted, in the words of Helen, "like Christmas". But the winter porter wins over my taste buds and I have that. It's the most vanilla thing on earth.

There's a TV on the wall which is just showing their bottle menu, spread across 5 or 6 screenfuls. There's also another blackboard just for their list of 750ml bottled winter beers from the USA. I mean this place is just outstanding in every way.

We want to stay and try even more of their beer, obviously. But even though we've neither of us had a drink bigger than 33cl, the paucity of solids combined with strength of ale means we're now feeling the effects a bit. Realistically we have 3 options for how to proceed:

  1. Power through, get riotously drunk before 7pm, go to bed early and doubtless give ourselves jetlag
  2. Go back to the B&B for a nap, returning at about 8pm or so
  3. Go get some food, do not wash it down with alcohol, return here

We go for option 3. The weather is worsening and it's dark, we walk back to the main square and around the streets surrounding it to survey our choices. Almost everywhere has their tables set outside, often with one or two couples seated there. This is excellently resolute of the locals. Eventually we hit upon a tapas bar called Pincho, which means I can mumble something about "Spanish Haarlem" and feel proud of myself. Would've been the blog post title until Paul hit the jackpot later.

Aaanyway. We get loads of tapas, and tap water. Once again there are perilous stairs to navigate - 1st floor seats, basement loos. Everything here is too steep. But the food is nice, if alarmingly sweet in the case of the chicken with mushrooms. Unfortunately, during our time in the restaurant the bleak weather turns almost apocalyptic and when time comes to leave it's brutally windy and cold, with frequent interruptions of horizontal rain.

Uiltje is too far. Screw this. Most other places are really crowded, but the grim faux Irish bar around the corner has empty seats. The Guinness is OK, apparently the wine is nice. But we're basically calling it a night, aren't we? Well, sort of. The brasserie beneath our room is open until 9pm so we go in and get a table at 8pm, and a nightcap. The waitress is fantastic, notices we're staying and puts things on our room bill without us even asking. She also brings free bitterballen, and reminds us there is free wine in the fridge by our room.

No beer, though, so we buy a Jopen Hoppen that makes me think of Dragons' Den. It's actually way nicer than it should be, to me, for a supposedly hoppy beer. But I tell you what, I am completely wiped out. The steady slow pace combined with sensible break meant I did not end the night particularly drunk, but good lord was I tired. Last thing I remember is playing word games on the iPad, next thing I know it's 3am and I feel like absolute shit. Ah crap.

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Darren Foreman

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