Vermeer: View of Delft

As Pretty As A Picture

27th April 2012

Clare Finney discovers Delft…

There are, for the British, two ways of ‘doing’ Holland. The first is to drink Dutch beer and smoke weed, and is favoured primarily by twenty somethings. The second, more middle aged, version consists of art and Anne Frank. Yet what if there was another way? One that proved enjoyable for visitors whatever their age, gender or taste in ‘brownies’?

Finding ourselves with time to kill in the Nether regions recently, too time-pushed for galleries and too cold to smoke, my friend and I discovered a part of Holland that proved enjoyable without any form of mild hallucinogen. In short, we discovered Delft.

Or rather, we arrived in Delft, the city being 700-odd years old and thus some way past ‘discovery’. Located just 40 minutes south of Amsterdam, and a mere ten minutes from the Hague, Delft is a town recognised for its pottery (the fine, blue and white type used by royalty) and the fact that it was the home and birthplace of Dutch painter Vermeer. Less widely known is its flair for Greek and Thai cuisine, yet in the few days we spent there we had as much fun eating meze as we did touring the only remaining pottery factory, Koninklijke Porceleyne Fles.

Here a short film and numerous exhibits offer a backward glance at the development and history of the pottery, while a chance to enter the factory shows how it operates today. In many ways little has changed: to this day the traditional decorations are painted on by hand, using the black paint that still contains cobalt – a chemical that during the firing process changes the colour from black to blue – and the use of rotating plates and kilns is also the same. To enter the workshop, with its serene atmosphere and hushed voices, is to enter a dreamlike state in which time slows and the world revolves around the whir of potters’ wheels. If you’re looking for an innocuous relaxant, this is certainly the place. And while the gift shop is a right royal rip off, its covetable range of Christmas decorations means you don’t need blue blood or a big bank account to take a little piece of Delft away.

It’s not essential to follow a guidebook to get the most out of your visit. You can just wander the streets. Though much has changed since the 12th century, the town is still a place where street lights are few and far between, and fast food translates as friendly independent bakers. Most buildings date back centuries: its Old Church was first built in 1246, while its so-called New Church is over 500 years old. A mere three euros gets you into both.

There are also more than enough free sights to entertain the eyes. The antique shop opposite the Visbank is a window shopper’s dream, and not just because it’s resplendent with heirlooms. To the right of its quaint 15th century entrance the solar system is depicted in an iron fence – one of the many quirks and curiosities Delft has in store. Equally charming is the ancient pharmacy, and the warped house at the back of the New Church which starred in the film of Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. Pick your moment right and you will easily see why the town gave rise to a painter as famous as Vermeer.

By now you must be wondering where your next meal is coming from – that is, if you’ve managed to resist the sweet shop along the Hippolytusbuurt canal. Inside here you’ll find a kaleidoscope of candies, the likes of which you’ve never seen before, and a rosy shopkeeer who must surely have spent his former life in a Disney film. Convinced as he is that Britons love it, he’ll liken everything you ask about to liquorice. Ignore him, and anything that claims to be ‘fruit-flavoured’, and you’ll be fine.

So what about dinner? Dutch sweets are famous (deservedly so) but they don’t quite fill a hole – nor do they come with drink. Give three cheers, then, for the wealth of pubs, restaurants and bars to be found scattered along the cobbled streets. I’ve already mentioned the Greek restaurant Olympia, whose portions are as tasty as they are enormous – but the Thai, French and even Egyptian fare is equally good. Like London, this is a city as famed for its foreign cuisine as its own – perhaps more so, given that its national dishes are variants on potatoes and cabbage. We wouldn’t know. We didn’t try the native stuff – save for one tantalising venture into the fluffy, buttery world of Dutch pancakes…

Forget the ceramics. Forget Vermeer. Forget everything I’ve just recommended. If you make just one stop in this town make it Het Konigs Huys. On its own the pancake menu here is enough to warrant serious attention. Coupled with unashamedly royalist décor and market square view it’s a must see. Our pancakes came with bacon, and with cheese and mushroom, together with large side lashings of syrup which we left for the poffertjes: smaller fluffier pancakes favoured by the Dutch as a breakfast treat. We had them for dessert, and left the café in a food-induced coma, which we topped up with something stronger in a cosy Tudor tavern a few hours later.

Retail-wise, Delft offers little beyond an eclectic mix of LP records, smokers’ pipes, clothing and alcohol. The best clothes shops, although ‘alternative, are on Vrouwjuttenland while Hippolytusbuurt has the ‘oldest shop in the world’ – the Fish Shop, dating from 1342, and worth seeing whether or not you like smoked herring – together with the aforementioned antique shop where, general wisdom has it, Delft ceramics are best purchased. Ornaments are on sale here for a fraction of the prices found in the Porceleyne Fles. Do bear in mind though that the ‘how will this look back home?’ rule still applies. What chimes well with cobbled streets and clock towers now is likely to be at odds with your sitting room a week later. Buy in moderation, avoid all windmill decorations and you’ll be laughing all the way to… well, if not the bank, then at least Delft’s next retail temptation.

On Saturday, with gadgets and gismos aplenty, Delft’s flea market comes to town. Replete with everything from embroidered tablecloths to film cameras, its collection of curios is a dream come true for bargain hunters: we lost whole hours in piles of pearls and yellowing prints. For those who can spend, spend, spend, there’s treasure here, in rocking horses and first editions. For those like us, whose funds are limited, the joy is in following its trail. Stalls spread everywhere, down back streets and along alleys until the market explodes into the main squares, dustclouds billowing and mingling with waffle aroma. It’s a picture postcard rarely sent, but well worth photographing. A blow up of this scene is the best souvenir there is.

So, what isn’t great about this relic from the 14th century whose charm was memorialised by some of Holland’s greatest painters? Alas, as with many precious things, its flaws and its virtues are one and the same. Delft’s nightlife is, if not non-existent, firmly stuck in the late 1700s: bars are cosy, ceilings are low and that’s about it. The few clubs are reserved for locals, or the area’s expat community. If you need to dance, it’s jazz or nothing; as the home to a big jazz festival, Delft has need to keep this genre alive on an ongoing basis; it does so admirably via live performances in the squares, bands in restaurants and even a jazz café…
…which is, of course, set within the shell of a historic coffee house, dating back to the 1870s. Heaven forbid that Delft should pass the 1900 mark. Yet if it did, and change did walk its cobbled streets, I can’t help but think the town would lose something. Like the blue cheese to which it gives its name, Delft improves with age.

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