DELFT, Netherlands — From atop the stone tower of the Nieuwe Kerk, I look down on the Great Market Square in the heart of the old town and the small universe of Dutch master Jan Vermeer. The long, narrow square below exudes Old World charm in this lively, intimate town.
In the middle of the square is a statue of the jurist Hugo Grotius, native son and the father of international law and a contemporary of Vermeer (1632-75). Around the square run narrow, cobblestoned, canal-lined streets crossed by arched bridges and flanked by sturdy one- or two-story brick homes.
At the square’s far end stands the restored Stadhuis or Town Hall with mullioned windows and a carillon that once called townspeople to defend the city. Today, the square’s outdoor cafes and restaurants are filled.
In 1536, a century before Vermeer, lightning struck the steeple above me and east winds drove the fire to nearby roofs. Three-fourths of the town, nearly 2,300 homes, went up in flames. Below me in the cool church interior, the Dutch royalty are buried in elaborate crypts. The nation’s founder, William of Orange, known as William the Silent, was assassinated in Delft and was buried here.
Delft owes its name to the word “delving” or the digging of its oldest canal. Oude Delft — the old town — is known worldwide for its blue and white ceramics, Delftware. Most tourists visit Delft on day trips from Amsterdam, a 45-minute train ride away. Smart travelers use this little Amsterdam, abounding with canals, merchants and patrician houses, quiet squares and almshouses, as their base. Here, everything is within walking distance.
The town was founded in the 11th century, grew rich from trade in the 13th and 14th centuries and had a population of 25,000 in Vermeer’s day. The New Church, prominent in Vermeer’s famed painting “View of Delft,” was central to Vermeer’s family life.
Vermeer’s baptism on Oct. 31, 1632, was recorded in the registry of the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church). On the same page is another famous son of Delft, Anthony Van Leeuwenhoek, the inventor of the microscope. Of the 566 microscopes he built, 10 have survived.
Vermeer’s popularity has soared recently, thanks to Tracy Chevalier’s novel, “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and the 2003 movie based on it, starring Scarlett Johansson as the quiet servant girl and Colin Firth as the enigmatic artist.
More recently, the first painting by Vermeer to be auctioned in more than 80 years — “Young Woman Seated at the Virginal” — sold at Sotheby’s in London for $30 million. The painting, dating from 1670, shows a young woman seated at a virginal, a type of harpsi-chord. Coincidentally, we find a print of it in our cozy room at the Hotel Vermeer.
However, it is Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring” that brings us here. Until now only 35 paintings have been accepted as painted by Vermeer, who was not a prolific artist and died here at the young age of 43. A 1696 auction catalog lists three lost Vermeers — a self-portrait, a view of houses and a gentleman washing his hands in a room with sculptures.
While in Delft, the “Pearl Earring” film was playing at a local theater. The film was shot in Luxembourg; merely one day of shooting took place in old Delft. Locals said they enjoyed the book but were surprised by its international popularity.
Most enjoyed the film, with reservations. The movie presents the town in dark, gray shades, its streets littered with garbage. Locals said that 17th-century Delft often enjoyed sunshine and that its townspeople had a reputation for cleanliness.
Jan (Johannes) Vermeer was born at Voldersgracht 23, next door to the Nieuwe Kerk. Nine years later his parents bought the Flying Fox Inn on the corner at No. 25. By that time, the artist’s father was calling himself Reynar Jansc Vox. He did not adopt the name Vermeer until 1640.
As a youth, Vermeer grew up with a cross-section of townsfolk. His father, a registered art dealer, probably accepted artwork in payment for bills, later reselling them. Dutch burghers in the 17th century loved paintings, and many Dutch artists produced about 50 canvases a year.
The Protestant Vermeer converted to Catholicism when he married Catharina Bolnes. He probably did this to satisfy his mother-in-law, Maria Thins. Some scholars state he must have been easygoing to develop a firm relationship with this difficult woman. Eventually, she shared her home and income with Vermeer’s large family.
Jan and Catharina had 15 children; 11 lived into adulthood. He, like his father, was an art dealer and sold his own works. Unfortunately, his output was two or three paintings a year and sometimes he could not sell his paintings.
Nearby his former home at Voldersgracht 21 stands the building that housed the Guild of St. Luke from 1661 to 1823. By 1631 it was the largest guild in Delft for house painters, sculptors, artists and art dealers, tapestry makers and potters.
Jan was admitted to the guild in 1653; in 1662 and 1671 he served two-year terms as one of six head men of the guild. Its famous artists — Carel Fabritus, Pieter de Hooch and Jan Steen — set off in new directions and excelled in the use of light as evidenced by the tranquil interiors by Vermeer and De Hooch.
In October 1654, the Delft gunpowder magazine exploded and the townspeople thought the world had ended. Fabritus, the city’s prominent painter, was killed. A student of Rembrandt, Fabritus may have been Vermeer’s teacher. An exhibit of his works can be seen at the Mauritshuis in The Hague.
Plans call for the former guild house to be converted into the Vermeer museum.The site of the Vermeer family’s house is now an open lot next to No. 54 Voldersgracht. After his marriage to Catharina from 1662 until his death, Vermeer lived on the corner of Oude Langendijk and Jozefstraat, where a Catholic chapel now stands.
Vermeer’s town and his atelier were reconstructed on the Internet in 2002 (www.johannesvermeer.org). In his atelier, he painted his famed cityscapes and interiors with unrivaled illusion and light.
We rent a paddle boat to enjoy the city’s historic look from the waterline. Canals are cleaned before winter to free them from lily pads. As we move slowly along these ancient waterways, we think about the contradictions of Vermeer’s art and life.
Now acclaimed as one of the greatest artists who ever lived, Vermeer was unknown a century ago. He remains among the most mysterious figures in the history of art. We have no letters, no diary, not a single line he wrote. During his life he is briefly mentioned in print only three times.
Plagued with debt, he was often reluctant to sell his works. One potential purchaser made a long trip to Delft, but Vermeer refused to show him his works. Yet when he died in 1675, two Vermeers went to his baker to settle a large bread bill.
The year after his death his wife asked to use capital tied up in a trust to pay off debts. She wrote at the time, “owing to the great burden of (his children) … he had lapsed into such decay, which he had so taken to heart that … in a day and a half he had gone from being healthy to being dead.”
One morning we take a 30-minute tram ride to The Hague (Den Haag in Dutch), the Dutch seat of government and world center of international justice, to view the two Vermeers at the Mauritshuis museum. Outside the Mauritshuis, one of Holland’s finest museums, hangs a colorful two-story banner of the “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” Inside, we find masterpieces by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Steen, Frans Hals, Peter Paul Rubens and Hans Holbein and learn that the girl with the pearl was originally thought to be Vermeer’s daughter.
The contours of her luminous face are left vague, the pearl’s contour is reflected light. The exotic turban is within the tradition of painting exotic heads, a genre championed by Rembrandt.
The girl is frozen in time, looking out at us, her mouth slightly open, her lips moist. She is not a real person, but a haunting representation in blue and yellow. Vermeer’s masterpiece sold for 2 guilders and 30 cents in 1882 and was donated to the museum in 1918.
The other Vermeer masterpiece in the Mauritshuis is his “View of Delft,” painted in 1660. Its granular, variegated light plays on this masterly view of the city from the river. Delft appears still wet from a shower as the sun breaks through and brightens rooftops and church spires.
Dutch galleries continually remind us that this country, half the size of Maine and with a population less than in Texas, has more art treasures per square foot than any country.
During our quest for Vermeer, other aspects of the Dutch delight us — their fondness for cleaning, their mania for biking, their friendliness and industry. As a proverb says, “God made the world, but the Dutch made Holland.”
The following morning we walk to the spot where Vermeer painted Delft, across the canal at Hooikade, southeast of the train station. Although changed in some ways, the scene is still recognizable.
We adjourn for lunch aboard Kleyweg’s Kaffiehuis Terrasboat, a floating barge on a picturesque canal in the old city center. Relaxing under table umbrellas, we sample two of the 90 types of Kleyweg’s pannekoeken, plate-sized thin pancakes. The restaurant has won multiple awards for its inventive breads, sandwiches and other offerings.
As we walk to the Porceleyne Fles/Royal Delft factory (www.royaldelft.nl), the many youths remind us that within Delft’s population of 95,000 dwell 13,000 students, many of them attending the Delft University of Technology. The town is a scientific, high tech and research center.
Delft earthenware is world famous, partly due to the town’s age-old connection with the royal family. The continuation of the centuries-old tradition of the Delft pottery industry, established in 1653, earned this factory the accreditation “Royal” in 1919. During our visit we see the best of centuries of Delftware, “the Delft blue in every hue,” and see how Delft pottery was and is made in all its sizes, styles and colors. Our last stop is at the fine showrooms. Also, visitors can paint their own tiles.
Delft has so many things to see and do. During our stay we visit the municipal museum, Prinsenhof, where the history of the House of Orange and its battle against Spain and 17th-century paintings are displayed; the Armamentarium, with its military collections; the Nusantara, with its history and culture of Indonesia and the 400-year relationship between the Netherlands and Indonesia; the Lambert van Meerten Museum, with its tiles, stylistic rooms, chinaware and pottery and its old and new churches.
We say farewell to Vermeer and Delft at the Oude Kerk, or Old Church founded in 1200; its leaning tower now is too precarious to ascend. The landmark holds a 20,000-pound bell, the nation’s largest carillon bell, which is sounded only on state occasions.
In the northern transept, opposite the pulpit, is the place where Vermeer’s grave is thought to be. He was interred in his mother-in-law’s family crypt. The resting place of the “painter of light” is marked by a simple black marker.
Before leaving, we fill our suitcases with stroopwafels, small molasses waffles and a specialty of Gouda ($1.75 a bag), to remind us of our visit.
Asian ‘rice table’ a Dutch tradition
A visit to the Netherlands is not complete without enjoying a rijsttafel. A rijsttafel, or “rice table,” as any Dutchman knows, is the most famous Indonesian meal, an array of savory dishes: braised pork, pork satay and ribs served with white rice.
The rijsttafel connection to the Netherlands comes from the country’s centuries of dominating the spice trade in the Far East, beginning in 1597, and consequent political domination of the Dutch East Indies — known as Indonesia since gaining its independence in 1949. Under the Dutch, the capital was Batavia, today’s Jakarta.
On Sundays, the Dutch in the East Indies offered friends a wide selection of local foods, and the rijsttafel was born. When they returned to Holland, they brought the delicious rijsttafel with them.
For an abbreviated rijsttafel served on one plate, try nasi rames. At lunch, sample nasi goreng, fried rice with onions, pork shrimp and spices, or bami goreng, fried noodles prepared the same way.
We chose The Hague’s well-known Garoeda restaurant (www.garoeda. com), filled with Far Eastern antiques in the center of the city. Garoeda is the name of a half-human, half-eagle creature in Indonesian mythology who carries a god on his back. He is the protector of the oppressed; therefore, Garoeda is a symbol of happiness and friendship.
The happy atmosphere presents a bit of Indonesia in this international city. The Garoeda has evolved into a Hague institution over the past 80 years. For 51 years, an agricultural group has come to the restaurant for a monthly rijsttafel dinner.
We sipped beer and savor the smorgasbord of small dishes filled with spicy dry fried beef, a pork satay, a chicken satay, fried chicken in soy sauce, vegetables in coconut sauce, cold vegetables with egg and peanut sauce, spicy mussels, green beans in a spicy sauce, a sweet and sour potato dish, fried coconuts with peanuts, crisps made of shrimp, and three sambals or chili-paste sauces. Peanut sauces and stewed curries add pizazz.
The steaming, savory dishes took two hours to consume, our taste buds joyously taking us to another time and place. This culinary extravaganza cost $32 each.
Historical sites, museums and Panorama Mesdag
We return on the following days after visiting Delft to see more of The Hague, where we have a wonderful visit to the Mauritshuis (www.mauritshuis.nl) and marvel at its paintings.
The Hague enjoys a traditional lifestyle and has wonderful parks, but while the Peace Palace is in session and not open during our visit, other attractions beckon.
We visit the city’s governmental heart at the Parliament Complex beside the Hofvijver, the Court Lake, a small reflecting pool, and the 13th-century Ridderzaal or Knights Hall, where the queen annually opens Parliament.
We enjoy a coffee at the Bodega de Poosthorn, a cozy example of the Netherlands brown cafes, but in this one, we may be seated next to ministers and politicians.
Later, we visit the historical museum (www.haagshistorischmuseum.nl) in the heart of the city and take a short train ride to Scheveningen, a small fishing village on the North Sea popular with the Dutch for its beaches. This year its harbor celebrates its 100th anniversary.
A 360-degree attraction is the Panorama Mesdag, a cylindrical painting 42 feet high and 360 feet long depicting the sea, the beach and the Schveningen of about 1880.
The delightful miniature city of Madurodam (www.madurodam.nl) offers a look at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam’s canal houses and Rijksmuseum and the Alkmaar cheese market, all in minute detail. Windmills turn and ships sail. About 1.2 million people annually visit Madurodam.
After touring the Museum Beelden aan Zee or Sculptures by the Sea (www.beeldenaanzee.nl), a collection of 800 statues of bodies or their parts situated under a sand dune, we say goodbye to the welcoming Dutch.
Paintings, antiques, location add to Hotel Vermeer’s charm
While searching for landmarks of the mysterious life of painter Jan Vermeer, we reside in the comfortable, finely decorated 25-room Hotel Vermeer, centrally located at Molslaan 18 on a quiet Delft canal.
As in many small Dutch hotels, we climb a narrow stairway to our room. When we peer out our window, Vermeer’s cool light plays on the canal’s floating lily pads; across it rises the dark brick of neat two-story homes. Bicyclists pedal; walkers stroll. Cozy rooms at the back of the friendly hotel overlook the old town.
The 1907 building has served as a cigar factory, then the main floor was transformed into an antique shop, while students roomed upstairs. About 20 years ago, it housed a Vermeer museum; five years ago, it became a hotel.
Each room has its own atmosphere centered on a Vermeer print; the painting’s name is on the door. The hotel’s owner collected large Vermeer productions that hang in the brassiere and bar. Antiques fill the hotel’s nooks and crannies.
The restaurant’s ceiling is hung with 78 brass Bundt pans, but it now caters only to weddings and special occasions.
“My boss helped develop the Vermeer museum and then turned the building into a hotel,” says the pert manager, Chantal Kouwenhoven, 26, who interned at the Harrington Hotel in Washington.
At breakfast a huge reproduction of “The Girl With a Pearl Earring” greets us in the hotel’s cafe as we enjoy our sumptuous buffet. In the evening, she stares down on us as we quaff hearty Dutch beer and chat with the bartenders who attend the university.
For information, visit www.zalwinhotelgroep.nl or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on Delft, The Hague and the Netherlands, visit www.denhaag.com, www.delft.nl or www.holland.com — or contact the Netherlands Board of Tourism, 355 Lexington Ave., New York, NY 10017, or call 212/557-3500.