Haarlem has so much charm and its effervescence is one that I haven't seen in any other city. It's fascinating how each great city has a distinct personality which is essentially its draw. Haarlem has made it to one of my top favorite cities of all time just because of this - there's just something about how this city feels. Every street and alley is filled with beautiful architecture and cobblestone streets. There is not an enormous throng, but there's enough of a stream of happy pedestrians window shopping whilst attempting to dodge cyclists. Shop windows have attractive displays but they are never too extravagant for the mostly sensible Dutch. Street after street are shops and cafes and I'm quite impressed how despite the hustle and bustle around, downtown Haarlem has managed to keep its intimacy. At the center of the plaza is an old church and around are cafes with al fresco seating for patrons who spend their afternoon people watching.
Just like its big, metropolitan neighbor, Amsterdam, Haarlem has its share of canals and bridges. But unlike Amsterdam, Haarlem is not manic nor crowded. The absence of "coffee shops" and prostitutes luring tourists from shoplike windows is also noticeably absent.
Warning: they might not speak as much English here and I feel very lucky to have the Dutch (and friends) as tour guide/s. I also noticed that there isn't much cultural diversity so if you're Asian like me and you plan to visit, be prepared for a few curious stares.
After a romp around downtown, the Dutch decided to take me somewhere to experience something utterly and undeniably European - a sauna. In the north of Haarlem, nestled in the forest, is RidderRode.
If anyone has ever been or heard of what a true sauna is, it could be a great source of consternation. I would save you (and myself) of baring the details, but if I was not trying to get rid of the aches and discomfort attributed to trying to find reasonable amount of shut-eye on a ten hour intercontinental flight or banishing a promising jetlag, I probably would not have agreed to go to a sauna.
Well, actually, I probably would.
Otherwise, I never would have experienced for the first time an authentic aufguss. Aufguss is a German therapeutic sauna session. It's a rather odd concept - you're all cramped in one hot room for about 15 minutes with temperatures of at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit and is increased every couple of minutes while you sit there and endure the heat while you sweat your ass (literally). Supposedly, this extreme heat detoxifies and also helps blood circulation. If it involves better oxygen circulation to prevent a looming jetlag, I'm all for it.
A saunameister gave a spiel in Dutch before the session started. He introduced himself and explained that there will be two sessions of about fifteen minutes each and each session will be broken by a few minutes break to cool off. Then he began. He started pouring scented water over hot stones, which is typical of a sauna, to make the already hot temperatures rise even more. Then he did something totally dramatic, almost ceremonial. After soaking a towel in water and scented natural oils (seaweed first, and then almond), he flailed the towel overhead in a motion reminding me of a helicopter propeller in flight. This brought bursts of concentrated heat to your face. It was total shock and awe for me. There was a brief reprieve that lasted for about a minute while my sweat dripped from every open pore. He then grabbed a fan like fabric that's about three feet wide, and starts fanning the room, starting from left to right. Oh my word. It was so intense - this must be how it feels to bake in an oven. It took me back to feeling the heat of walking outside Las Vegas in July - only this time, it felt 20 degrees hotter. It was unbearable. For a second, I panicked and thought I'd have to exit because I could hardly breathe. But my curious mind stopped me- I wanted to experience what happens next. I wanted to experience what the human physiology is capable of. The saunameister repeated this drill a couple more times, each time, incrementally increasing the temperature, while we all sat in self-inflicted unbearable torture. When he opened the door to let us out for our short break, I almost bolted.
It had started raining outside and I will never see another rainy the same way again. After the intensity, it was so refreshing to stand out there in the rain, breathe in fresh, cool air. The grounds were beautiful with story-book green grass. It was such an extraordinary experience that if I had a bucketlist, this would be one I would be gloating about of ticking off.
We went back for the second and last aufguss session and slowly, the jetlag was edging away. I've transitioned from being there to here. We did a couple more treatments then retreated to the back of the in-house restaurant. The room was silent and the decor had a Marrakech feel to it, it was such a surprising contrast to the ambiance in the sauna. The walls were brick red and the room was decked with rugs, mirrors, lamps, candles. The room next door had a fire place. We were donned in our white oversized robes and lounged on a velvet chaise sipping orange juice topped with fresh whipped cream. In my half-drowsy state, I thought to myself how I could have never ever imagined anything like this.
Earlier that day, back in Haarlem, a sign outside a restaurant advised, "Make today ridiculously amazing." In my first eight hours in Europe, already I can say that I did.
And this is just the beginning!