Monday, October 15, 2007

A Day Trip to Delft

(Note: I originally wrote this short piece for the American Newsletter that's published by the Airman & Family Readiness Center on base. They have asked me several times to contribute articles to them, so when I have the time, I do a quick write-up. This one was never used, so I'm posting it here.)

A Day Trip to Delft

Those of you who have traveled around the Netherlands have surely seen copious quantities of blue and white Delftware in nearly every souvenir shop. While some of that stuff is decidedly not genuine Delft, there are still plenty of places where you can get the real thing. Obviously, the best place to do that is in the town of Delft itself. I feel that it's very much worth the trip, as it's one of the prettiest towns I have seen yet in Holland. It seemed like a quieter, more provincial version of Amsterdam.

I recently accompanied my aunt and cousins on a day trip to this town. My aunt, an artist, was much more interested in Johannes Vermeer - the famous Delft painter who rendered "Girl with a Pearl Earring" - than she was in blue and white porcelain. My cousins, having only seen Delftware in photos, thought it looked pretty staid and boring, and didn't know what treasures would unfold on this trip. We were all pleasantly surprised, not just at the variety of Delftware, but at the city of Delft itself.

The first thing that greeted us when we entered the town was pretty music from the carillon bells at the Nieuwe Kerk, which is located in the market square. While we didn't visit this church (we opted to visit the Oude Kerk in order to see Vermeer's grave), I know that William of Orange's crypt is in the Nieuwe Kerk, which is the main attraction. You can also climb the tower to get panoramic views of the city.

As I said, we skipped the Nieuwe Kerk in favor of seeing Vermeer's grave at the Oude Kerk. There are over six hundred people buried under the church floor, so you're likely to walk on graves (something I really hate doing, but could not be avoided), but the church is definitely worth exploring. Vermeer's grave seems unworthy of him, as it's only engraved with his name and year of birth and death. But as with most artists, his fame came long after he departed this Earth.

After our visit to the Oude Kerk, we continued our search for Vermeer. Unfortunately, none of his paintings are still in Delft (at least to my knowledge). You can go to nearby Den Haag to see two of his most famous paintings (including the aforementioned "Girl with a Pearl Earring"). But Delft just recently opened The Vermeer Center, an interactive museum located in the building that once housed his painters' guild, where you can learn what little is known about his life and work. This museum is so new that they were still working on it when we visited, but I'm sure it's probably completed by now. It gives you a good idea of what life in 17th century Delft was like, and you also learn about some of Vermeer's contemporaries. Facsimiles of his paintings are all lined up next to each other, and you can begin to see some interesting similarities between them.

Since we were in Delft, we also had to spend some time looking at Delftware. It's hard to know where to look, because there are just so many places to buy it. Here's a tip though: do not buy it at the two main factories! They have a special agreement with tour companies and they mark up their prices and give tour companies a commission for bringing people. If you still want to see how Delftware is made, by all means, visit those factories, but there are two smaller places in the center of town where you can also see how Delftware is made without any pressure to buy anything. These are De Candelaer and De Blauwe Tulp, which are right next to each other on Kerkstraat (close to the Markt). We talked to painters at both of these places, and they told us about how they got started painting Delft pottery, and also explained the differences in genuine Delftware and the cheap knock-offs.

I already own a few pieces of Delftware (both the real thing and the cheap stuff), but my aunt and cousins don't have any, and they were fascinated by the variety of products, designs, and colors (yes, colors - they don't just paint it all in blue). They got a bit carried away in the shops. As my cousins discovered, Delftware is hardly staid and boring! It can actually be very beautiful and intricate, and it's generally priced according to how difficult the piece is to paint. I bought a tiny hand-painted trinket box with "Girl With a Pearl Earring" on the lid. Vermeer and Delftware - the best of both worlds!

Further Suggestions for Your Trip to Delft:

- Eat lunch at Leonidas Lunch Tea-Room. This is the same Leonidas of Belgian chocolate fame (and they do have a chocolate shop right next door). You can get very hearty and tasty meals at very reasonable prices here. I got a bowl of soup and a huge sandwich (it was definitely enough food for 2 people) for less than 7 euros (FYI: they do have English menus, so be sure to ask for them). We ate inside since it was chilly that day, but they have sidewalk seating as well as a beautiful private garden in the back (which is where we would have eaten, if the weather had been better). The only complaint I have about this place is they had a poor selection of tea, which is disappointing, since it is a tea-room. But none of us had complaints about the food.
Address: Choorstraat 24 - in the vicinity of the town hall

- Visit the Prinsenhof Museum. If time would have permitted, we would've stopped here for a visit. It was originally built as a convent in the 14th century. William of Orange lived here from 1572 until 1584, when his life ended with an assassin's bullet (you can still see the bullet holes in the stairwell). The museum now houses objets d'art, as well as focusing on the history behind the Dutch struggle for independence from Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries.

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