Delft - Home of Vermeer - Why I'm Daft About this Great Dutch City


Delft – Home of Vermeer and Other Reasons to be Daft about Delft

In the last post we wrapped up our bike and barge tour of Holland with Cycletours and then took the train to Delft to join in the first ever Dutch celebration of Koningsdag. Alison and I both agreed it was one of the most interesting days of our lives. Today we will take the time to explore the fabled city of Delft in more detail. Please join us.

Ever since I was a boy I have wanted to visit Delft. My interest was first aroused by various pieces of Delftware that my grandmother had in her antique collection. She explained to me that they were based on ancient Chinese techniques and designs that were imported to Holland by the Dutch East India starting in the 1600’s.  I’m not bullshitting, she would actually talk to me this way even though I was only ten. At the time my interest was sparked by the different blue and white patterns that have a mesmerizing effect that is hard to explain. There are obviously thousands of colour combinations, but the blue that is so identified with Delft that it is called Delft blue, combined with creamy white is what makes Delftware unique. Even as I write this, looking for inspiration, I am staring at a Delftware replica of a wooden shoe decorated with windmills and tulips that was given to us by the manager of the Five Flies in Amsterdam and it doesn’t strike me as hokey. It’s just nice; like the Dutch.

The other reason for wanting to visit Delft came to me not that much later in life, where as a teenager skipping math class to leaf through art books in the school library, I came across the works of Jan Vermeer. The irony was that I had already seen works by the great artist in the Rijksmuseum on a visit with my grandparents years earlier, but it was Rembrandt’s The Night Watch that transfixed me then. I have no memory of seeing the four exquisite Vermeer’s on display, probably because at age eleven the sheer size of the Rembrandt work impressed me more than the infinite detail of the smaller Vermeer’s. I do remember having a minor epiphany the first time I leaved through a page of a book on great Dutch paintings and saw how Vermeer used light and the positioning of figures to create an air of mystery to his paintings that no artist has been able to replicate. For example, The Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window – is it good news or bad? Or  The Glass of Wine – is this guy getting her loaded for a seduction or is it just a friendly glass of wine? And of course, The Girl with the Pearl Earring – is that a longing look or is she thinking “You pathetic puppy”?

So here I was in Delft, the day after Koningsdag, waking up in the Vermeer room in the Emauspoort Hotel, not fifty yards from where William of Orange was entombed in the Niuwe Kerk. It was a pinch me moment. After coffee in the room, I wandered out expecting to sea a sea of debris after the Koningsdag celebrations, but to my surprise things were pretty clean. Not to my surprise some of the items I had identified as junk the day before, were now truly junk as the prospective vendors having failed to sell them, simply left them behind. I thought about starting an impromptu collection of teletubbies, but considered that Canadian customs might seize them as potential child porn and wisely left them to the dustbin of history.

I was able to get a good shot of the Vermeer room from the very spot where the oompah band had serenaded us the day before – that’s Koninginne Alison at the window.

Vermeer Room window, Emausport Hotel, Delft
Koninginne Alison at the Vermeer Room window

The Delft tourism bureau was just up the street and I dropped in to arrange a canal boat tour later in the morning. They had this very neat little device that allowed you to put yourself inside a Vermeer painting. Here I am looking over the shoulder of The Kitchen Maid – cue The Twilight Zone theme song.

Inside the kitchen maid
Looking over the shoulder of The Kitchen Maid

On the same street were numerous shops selling high quality and very expensive Delftware which is still made by two factories in Delft – no fake Chinese crap here, even though ironically the original inspiration was from China. I found Alison in one of these shops and quickly told her we had to be at the boat in two minutes, just to get her out while she was still solvent. Seriously though, this is beautiful stuff and we did buy a few pieces as gifts for those not fortunate enough to get to Delft.

Delftware for Sale in Delft
Delftware for Sale

We had time to drop into the Vermeer Centrum before the boat ride. It is just off the main square and is housed in a building that has a recreated facade of the original artisan’s guild that Vermeer was the head of for two terms. Unfortunately, based on what I read on Trip Advisor and elsewhere, many people think it is an art gallery that houses works by Vermeer; having failed to do their homework by looking at the website, they are disappointed. It is a sad irony that there are no Vermeers in Delft. Most of his paintings were auctioned off by a receiver after his death and now they are all over the world, including one that is owned by the British royal family.

Vermeer Centrum, Delft
Vermeer Centrum

Since I knew there were no Vermeers to be seen at the Centrum I was not disappointed. What there is are reproductions of all of his known works and a few others whose provenance is questioned, neatly arranged in chronological order. We took audio guides that explained the important features of many of the works and learned a lot about Vermeer’s life and evolution as a painter. Another feature of the Centrum attempts to demonstrate how Vermeer captured various types of light in his paintings. Frankly I found it confusing, but I am no artist. Alison on the other hand, who is a painter, did seem to appreciate the exhibit. The Centrum has a great gift shop and I scored some fridge magnets of some of Vermeer’s best loved works.

A young guy of no more than twenty escorted the gathered canal boaters from the tourism office to the boat moored on one of the side canals. On our way to the boat we discovered he was a student at the Delft University of Technology, one of Europe’s premier science universities and source of summer employees for the tourism industry. Based on our Amsterdam experience we made sure we were the first on board and got seats that would allow me to stand up to take photos without a window in between, so if you think the following shots are shitty, I have no excuse.

First up, the leaning tower of Delft. We’ve all heard of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, so famous that its first letters are all in caps, but who knew that Delft had an even leanier tower. Compare the more famous Pisan tower to that of the Oude Kerk and tell me that the one in Delft isn’t going to fall down first.

Leaning Tower of Pisa
Leaning Tower of Pisa


Delft Leaning Tower
Leaning Tower of Delft

Next up this very inventive coot who used this piece of Styrofoam as a platform for her nest.

Coot on her nest in Delft canal
Coot on her nest in Delft canal

One of Vermeer’s few paintings with an outdoor setting is The Little Street. No one’s been able to identify the house in question, but this one would be a good substitute – notice the transition of three windows to two windows to one.

Delft Step House
Delft Step House

As much as the Dutch now revere the first William of Orange, aka William the Silent and a different person than the one who became king of England, he was actually assassinated in the Prinsenhof in Delft in 1584. The boat passed the site, but it was covered in scaffolding and closed, scheduled to reopen a week later – bad timing, but a reason to come back to Delft. As we completed our circuit of Delft we passed beneath this very Venetian looking bridge, which in fact had been purchased in Venice and carted across the Alps to adorn this Venice of the north.

The Venetian Bridge
The Venetian Bridge

It was time for lunch and we headed for Kobus Kuch, one of Delft’s many brown cafes. Brown cafes are a Dutch institution, much akin to British pubs. They are always wood panelled, hence the name, and uniformly casual with fairly limited menus, but often many types of beer on draught are available. On the way there we passed this guy sitting outside another cafe with his pet great horned owl. Notice that its head to completely turned backward á la Linda Blair in The Exorcist.

Man with Owl
A man and his owl

After a few draught Brand beers and what was essentially a plowman’s lunch, we headed back to the room to make plans for tomorrow. As it was Sunday the two great churches were not open so we put these off until Monday. We are scheduled to return to North America on Wednesday from Frankfurt, but somehow I missed planning for the Tuesday so we decided to spend the last day in Holland in The Hague from where it was a four hour train ride to Frankfurt airport. I did my research on line and we soon had a place to stay for Tuesday and tickets to Frankfurt on an eleven o’clock train via Utrecht.

That evening we returned to Cafe Het Klooster which was too packed to get into yesterday. Today it was deserted except for the young barmaid with whom we had a good chat. She was a student at Delft Tech and was very widely traveled, her parents having taken her to United States several times, but not Canada. If not for her hospitality I’m not sure if I would have stayed for that third beer.

There is a very down to earth way that some Dutch restaurants describe what they purvey. It is called “eten & drinken”. What could be more plain spoken? So we left the brown cafe and headed out for some eten & drinken at Stromboli where we enjoyed a nice margarita pizza with a salad and some fine wine. After that it was an early night after the previous day’s Koningsdag excitement. Tomorrow we will explore the two famous churches of Delft, the Oude Kirk and the Nieuw Kirk; hopefully the former won’t fall down overnight. Please join us. Tot ziens.