If I were to tell you one of the highlights of our summer vacation was spending a night in prison, would you think I’d completely lost it?
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Our vacation started out well enough. We arranged to stay at a house in Haarlem for five days and had done the preliminary work of picking up the keys and security codes. We packed the night before to make our morning departure easier. We slept in anyway, and still caught a train on time and easily made the transfer to the second train.
As we rolled our suitcases toward the Haarlem house, I could feel the idea of vacation settling into my shoulders. We were four blocks away when my husband suddenly stopped walking.
“I don’t have my bag!”
His suitcase was in his hand, our bag of snacks over his shoulder. My son and I both had our suitcases and backpacks, so there was a moment of confusion until I noticed that his black shoulder bag was not strapped to his body.
“How’s that possible?” I asked. Misplacing or forgetting items was my specialty, not his. He’s the one we entrust with all important things.
“The keys to the vacation house are in that bag. Besides that, nothing of monetary value,” he claimed.
We called NS, the service that runs the Dutch train system and he precisely described where he had left his shoulder bag and provided a detailed list of its contents down to the red ball point pen in the outer pocket. They promised to call us if they found it.
If the bag was lost or stolen, we were in trouble. If they found the bag, it would take five days to mail it to us–either way, our vacation was looking like a bust.
But the day was still young and I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. If the keys were lost, we could still get a hotel for at least one night and explore Haarlem or maybe move onto another, less familiar city or village and have a mini-vacation. Or we could go home.
Remarkably, NS called us back within the hour and the bag had been found! Yippee! They could mail it to us within five days or we could pick it up . . . in Leeuwarden, way the hell up north.
Leeuwarden or Bust!
As the capital of the Dutch province Friesland, Leeuwarden is a historical city dating back to the 8th century. A percentage of the population doesn’t even speak Dutch, but Friesian. Ljouwert is how you say Leewarden in Friesian. Onward with my tale.
We arrived in Leeuwarden around 5:30pm and retrieved the missing bag without problem. The next challenge was finding last-minute lodging on a Saturday night.
I had called multiple Bed & Breakfasts and they were either fully booked or had a max of two people per room–thus no room for the kid. I found a decent, yet uninspiring hotel on the edge of town that still had rooms as back up, but I hoped to find something in the center.
Google maps reported there was a hostel 400 meters from where we stood. I had read about the Alibi Hostel earlier, but to tell you the truth, I’m not a hostel girl. I’m most peaceful and comfortable in a private hotel room that has its own bathroom and shower. With a hostel, you run the risk of sharing your sleeping quarters with a total stranger and having to leave your room in the middle of the night to visit the bathroom.
I ended my internal debate by calling the hostel to discover they had one private room left. The man on the phone agreed to hold it for us until we had a chance to look at it.
We entered through the main portal of this massive building complex and followed the signage to Alibi Hostel through several construction zones. When we arrived, we were surprised to discover Alibi Hostel was a converted prison. Instead of downplaying this gruesome fact, they actually turn it into a selling point. Book a cell now!
The first prison at this location was built in 1580. The current building was constructed in the mid-1800s and renovated multiple times over the years. It stopped serving as an official prison in 2007 because it was no longer up to penitentiary code, but bad guys and gals had stayed in these cells up until just a decade ago.
We were led to our cell. It had one of those big iron doors, thick walls, black beds, bars on the windows–you know–like right out of a movie. But unlike the movie version, there was something hip and modern about these renovated cells.
It definitely said “prison,” but the smooth walls, new beds and fresh minimalism spoke of proper investment in turning this old penitentiary into something cool. I checked out the shower room and the women’s restroom. Both were immaculate. And did I mention that it was affordable?
“We’ll take it!”
The beds were incredibly comfortable and even though there were bars in front of the window, you could still open them for fresh air. Room secured, we headed into Leeuwarden for dinner and a stroll through the city center.
We returned to Blokhuispoort around 10:00pm and ran into two men who showed us a more direct route to the hostel. Like the owners of the hostel, they were upbeat and friendly. In no time at all they were telling us about the restaurant they were opening in the next few weeks within the Blokhuispoort.
Young people hung out in the courtyard chatting, while a few other families were also returning to the hostel for the evening.
What was going on here? I learned over the course of the evening and following morning that the municipality had designated Blokhuispoort as a site for a cultural center, including a youth hostel.
I soon discovered that our hosts Peter and Jurrien (pictured below) were two of the four owners of the Alibi Hostel. Sjors and Marieke, who weren’t on duty that day, round out the team.
The four friends had been talking one night at the pub and came up with the idea of opening a youth hostel in Leeuwarden. The idea stuck and they began doing research and trying to find a location, but weren’t having any luck. Then they saw an advertisement in the paper.
If I have my facts right, a national development company called BOEi purchased the entire Blokhuispoort complex from the municipality for one euro. You can’t even get a bottle of Cola for that price. Of course the developer has to meet the city’s vision of a cultural center, including ateliers, restaurants and a youth hostel. The renovation would cost millions and millions.
Because of the size and scope of the project, it is being finished in sections and the developer rents to different entrepreneurs, such as the four young friends who started the Alibi Hostel.
The hostel only opened 8 months ago, and a variety of businesses are slowly filling the other spaces, turning this old prison into a cultural hub, just as the municipality had hoped.
Hard to say why this is so appealing, but Alibi Hostel has style. The ground floor comprises a series of ateliers from tattoo shops to cheese shops and the stone, metal and glass create a hip, modern atmosphere.
Despite the comfortable beds and almost soundproof rooms, we all had a bad night’s sleep. Could that have something to do with sleeping in a prison cell? Did the developer forget to call in a pranic healer to cleanse the energy in the rooms? Or did we just eat too much the night before?
In the morning, I ran into another guest who was visiting from just outside Utrecht. He and his family of four had nabbed two private rooms with double beds. He found the whole concept great and was impressed with the renovation. He’s pictured here relaxing in a small lounge next to a wall of barred windows. They slept just fine, by the way.
In fact, everyone I saw seemed completely fine with being locked into a former prison cell and leisurely hanging around a facility with bars wherever you gaze.
So if you’re a die hard Orange is the New Black fan, or just want to know what it’s like to spend a night in prison without breaking the law, I highly recommend Alibi Hostel. It means a trip way the hell up north, but I must say, we quite enjoyed our cell and this Friesian city.