Dutch Treat, Part 4
Train to Delft to see porcelain factory
Rising early, I looked out the windows of our fifth floor suite at the Carlton
Hotel to see a man pressure washing the sidewalk beneath with a wand and hose
attached to a truck carrying a water tank. It’s not for lack of trying that
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is on the grimy side. It’s a very old city, where the ages of
many of its public and private buildings are measured in the centuries. Hundreds
of years of burning coal and wood to stay warm during the harsh Dutch winters
has left a stain of soot on many walls.
It has just been in my lifetime that sewer pipes were dug to replace the use of
open canals cleansed (somewhat) by tidal flows. Still, the canals are nowhere
near being fit for swimming. Thieves taking free rides on unlocked bicycles dump
thousands of bikes into the canals every year. It is not endemic, but empty beer
cans and other debris bob in the waves here and there. It is amazing how many
small boats are full of water and abandoned at their moorings.
The wall-to-wall construction method of Amsterdam leaves virtually no room for
the front, back and side yards that Americans are accustomed to. Cramped alleys,
barely wide enough to walk or ride a bike through, separate some of the
buildings. The alleys are there to provide a path for water to drain through.
Many of the tiny courtyards adjacent to residential buildings that we walked
past on our way to the great museums were full of weeds and trash.
I don’t think the trash can fairly be blamed on the native Dutch. Amsterdam is
one of the most international cities in the world. It is a magnet for tourists
and people seeking a better life in the west from Surinam and other Moslem
nations, for Africans, for Asians and people from Eastern Europe. A lot of the
trash that blows around seems to be fast-food wrappers, a sure sign of
Clippity-clopping down a cobblestone street across the canal from our hotel was
an old-time beer wagon, complete with wooden kegs and a Heineken sign. A team of
huge, golden-brown horses, probably the sturdy Belgian breed, pulled the wagon.
It must be a promotion of some sort for the brewing company, which is based
The weather on this day was pretty good – meaning sunshine, no rain and only
chilly, not bitter cold. We rode the tram from our hotel to Central Station to
check out the train connections, prices and timetables to Delft. We had planned
on then riding the tram back about half way (at no extra charge since the
return would fall within the one-hour time limit covered by the original fare)
to Dam Square to begin a walking tour of the infamous Red Light District.
Totally unlike the usually well-planned Nolans (to a fault Betty thinks at
times), Betty had the notion that we should take advantage of the weather and a
soon-to-depart train to Delft. So on the spur of the moment, we paid about €20
each and boarded the fast train for a one-hour ride. No sandwiches. No change of
clothes. No preparations. We only had six minutes to catch the sleek, electric
But at least we did have the generally excellent guidebook to Amsterdam, Bruges
and Brussels – 2004 edition. So we were off to see the famous Delft pottery and
porcelains rather than the famous Amsterdam prostitutes.
It was a pleasant ride. For the first 20 minutes, our train car was full of
boisterous, 8th graders. I taught two of them to speak Elvis – “thankya, thankya
vurry much.” It turned out one of the chaperoning mothers was originally from
Minnesota. She had married a Dutchman and was enjoying living in Holland. She
told us that The Netherlands gets much of its drinking water from deep wells dug
under sand dunes on a section of coastline. Much of the country is below sea
level. The North Sea is held back by an engineering triumph of canals, dikes and
pumping stations. The airport – one of the busiest and most modern in the world
- is more than 4 feet below sea level.
Partly due to the extra expense of special construction techniques and materials
that are required to build on soggy land, homes are expensive in Holland. The
American expatriate told us that the typical, three-story homes along the
100-plus miles of canals in Amsterdam cost $800,000. Comparable housing in the
secondary cities are $600,000 and up. Most of those are in duplex, multistory
Later, a factory manager in Delft allowed as how a canal-side town home there with
three stories costs about $500,000. A two bedroom, single bath home in a
multi-family condo project can be had for $250,000. Both are beyond the reach of
most young couples despite the legendary Dutch thrift and industriousness. The
transplanted Minnesotan said housing prices in Holland – the most densely
populated country in Western Europe – have been rising 20 percent annually for
several years. It’s a dilemma similar to that faced by young people in many hot
markets in the U.S.
The fast train ride through the low country was interesting and scenic. Canals
criss-crossed mostly fallow, flatland fields where tulips and other bulb flowers
grow during the warm months. Here and there alongside residential housing were
neat rows and well cultivated beds of early flowers like crocus and snowdrops. A
few fields contained small numbers of what appeared to be sprouting tulips. But
the main crop of tulips that turn Holland into a huge artist’s canvas of
incredible beauty will leap into bloom about a month from now, reaching the peak
in late April.
It was odd seeing watercraft tied up in canals passing through the middle of a flower field. Many of
the fields also contain huge greenhouses that are as big as 40-room motels. The
commercial greenhouses are mostly made of glass mounted on what looks like
aluminum frames. That is in contrast to the temporary, plastic sheeting mounted
on wood (and sometimes metal) frames we see in South Alabama that serve
commercial azalea growers.
Single family, detached homes are rare in Holland because land reclaimed from
the sea and marshy areas is so dear. But the Dutch love their gardens and their
flowers despite the cold winters and frequent rain. Close by the residential
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of town homes, duplexes, triplexes and multi-story apartment buildings
are expanses of dry land that take in perhaps five acres. This land has been cut
into individual garden plots. They are of differing sizes, but most are perhaps
20 feet by 20 feet and are separated by wooden beams, bricks or poured concrete.
Some of these private gardens have small greenhouses or large tool sheds, which
evidently serve the dual purpose of providing both a storage area and a tiny,
weekend getaway for the green thumb crowd. There must be something about working
the soil and producing beautiful flowers that runs thick in the blood of the
Dutch. Their country is the largest flower exporter in the world.
Back home, the florists in town were excited when Northwest Airlines entered
into a partnership with Holland-based KLM that resulted in direct, daily flights
between Amsterdam and Memphis. That broadened the market for even fresher
flowers of wide variety.
The only time we were steered really wrong by Rick Steve’s excellent guidebook
to Amsterdam, Bruges and Brussels (Belgium) was in Delft. We had the 2004
edition, which understandably listed some prices that were out-of-date.
For starters, the guidebook says the Delft Tourist information office just
outside the train station “is a tourist’s dream, offering a good brochure on
Delft which includes an excellent map and a self-guided Historical Walk through
Delft and a number of self-guided walking trails." Surprise, surprise. Upon
arrival, we learned that the tourist office had closed a good while back as part
of a government belt-tightening that shuttered many such offices across the
country. A solitary TV monitor (facing the sun and therefore having zero definition)
seemed to offer several videos in Dutch.
The guidebook says the train station has WCs, the English term for public
toilets. The station does have two automated, self-cleaning contraptions. But
only one worked and it requires Euro coins. A tip: visitors arriving by train
should use the train facilities before debarking.
And lastly, the guidebook recommends taking the public transit No. 1 tram to the
Royal Dutch Delftware Manufactury. A clerk in the transit office sold us tram
tickets for €6.50 and told us where to get off and directions for the
five-minute walk from the stop to the plant.
Well, it turns out – we later learned – that there are two Delft pottery plants
in town. The only thing they have in common is the use of the word “Delft.” The
one we visited was the smaller of the two; a family owned business called “De
Delftse Pauw.” The Dutch word for peacock is Pauw. While the plant is small and
had no more than dozen employees on hand, it provided us with an excellent,
This independent maker of Delft Pottery caters to the upscale market. It is focused on
collectors who buy through catalogs and the Internet and the occasional tourists
who visit its swanky gift shop. We were told that unlike some of its competitors
with whom it shares the non-trademarked Delft name, 100 percent of the Pauw
factory’s output is hand painted. At work on this day were six artists, who
carefully applied chemical glazing compounds to the baked pottery in classic
Delft designs that are 400 years old.
There are several pottery plants around the world that use the Delft name, which
has no trademark or patent protection. Those plants also produce the characteristic, deep
blue Delft colors against a creamy white background on plates and cups at modest prices. They can only do so
because they use automated printing processes and mass production. However, we
were told, the untrained eye would not normally notice the difference between
the factory version and the hand-painted version. One thing collectors look for is the
use of colors other than blue (Pauw uses shades of orange and red to augment the
various colors in the blue range) to provide a hallmark of hand work; another telltale (or
shall I say “telltail) characteristic is Pauw’s use of peacocks in their hand-drawn patterns.
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I was surprised to learn that true Delft pottery is never eaten on – only
displayed. That is because lead is used in the glazing.
We also learned that the heavy Delft plates dropped out of fashion a couple of
centuries ago when the much finer clays and processes used in China were copied and enhanced by English plate makers. These imports permitted the production of thinner, lighter and translucent “Bone China” that ultimately became a world standard of design and good taste.
We would have liked to see the Royal Dutch Delftware Manufactury mentioned in Steves’ guidebook, primarily because our experience is that his commentary and recommendations are on the mark. But we were quite satisfied with our visit to what is probably the smaller cousin, the Pauw plant. I’d recommend it to anybody.
It was odd that both the first tram driver we questioned and the public transit clerk who sold us the tickets seemed to be ignorant of the Royal Dutch
factory, which Steves says is the “biggest tourist attraction in town.” Maybe
they had their own reasons for not being forthcoming.
Other than the amount of hand crafting and artisanship, there doesn’t seem to be
a whole lot of difference in the manufacturing of Delft earthenware. Clay and
water is mixed and then either spun on a wheel to make plates or poured into
hollow, plaster molds to make cups, pitchers and vases. Once dry, the object is
removed from the mold and fired in a kiln for 24 hours. Painters then apply a
black paint containing cobalt oxide and then dipped in an opaque glaze. The
cobalt undergoes a chemical reaction when fired to make the famous Delft blue
and the glaze tops it all with a layer of glass-like coating.
A manager of the Pauw factory, an affable young Dutchman in his 30s, was clearly
exasperated at the “non-mention” of his plant in Steves’ guidebook. He said he
had written and emailed Steves several times and had sent him favorable press
clippings. But at least so far, there had been no response or other action to
put his plant on the map.
It seemed to me that Delft Pauw is fighting an uphill fight to gain significant
market share. It is on the outskirts of town. The tram drivers don’t seem to
know about it, or pretend not to. It’s a long tramp from a distant stop on the
bus route. It can’t compete with price due to the economics of artist-pottery
versus production pottery so they have no market-driving distribution at retail.
But their work is so exquisite that the Pauw plant’s work seems to occupy an
important niche in the market, serving collectors of a Dutch craft who demand
the highest quality and are willing to pay for it. We were told the plant sold
600,000 pieces last year. One pizza-pan sized plate was priced at 945 Euros, or about $1,500.
Betty purchased a small box – about the size of a deck
of cards – for $32.50, plus a set of earrings and pendant emblazoned with a
typical Dutch scene of windmills. The workmanship and artisanship were a study in
We saw a tiny, pedestrian ferry haul some cyclists across a small canal near the Pauw
plant on our walk back to the tram stop. Debarking the tram near the train
station, I got a blast of expelled marijuana smoke right in the face. I’m thinking
it was unintentional. The cloud of offensive smoke came from a young man taking
his last, deep drag before tossing his joint and boarding the bus. I recall
being worried that my wool sports jacket would absorb so much pot smoke as to set
off the airport detectors back in America.
The train ride back to Amsterdam took about 50 minutes – inexplicably 10 minutes
less than the outbound ride. We briefly stopped at the town of Harlaam, which
was honored by the Dutch founders of New York City with the naming of one of the
boroughs. I could not resist whistling “Sweet Georgia Brown,” anthem tune of
America’s classic basketball comedians, the Harlem Globetrotters. I had the
feeling that nobody on our tramcar made the connection.
We got back to our hotel about 4:30 p.m., where I enjoyed a takeout snack of a
ham broadje and a Heineken while Betty munched on pastries bought at a nearby
shop. Later, we returned to the Pinocchio Restaurant and split an excellent
pepperoni pizza and a large salad. We walked around the canal-side streets
during a fairly balmy evening by Dutch standards and smelled marijuana smoke
outside many bars and coffee shops.