Dutch Treat, Part 4

Train to Delft to see porcelain factory

1. Memphis to Amsterdam’s Flower Market

4. Train to Delft to see porcelain factory

2. Art at Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum

5. Matinee walk in Red Light District

3. Somber tour of Anne Frank House

6. Diamond factory and canal boat excursion

 

Index to 28 Photos / Page Updated Oct. 23, 2007

 

                                                By LEWIS NOLAN

 

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March 15, 2005, Tuesday – Amsterdam to Delft, The Netherlands

 

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

Central Amsterdam

Lewis by tiny Delft ferry

Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo

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

thoughtless transients.

 

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

here.

 

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

train.

 

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

town homes.

 

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

complexes

Artist paints pattern on bowl

Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo

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,

private tour.

 

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.

 

Betty in factory gift shop

Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo

  

 

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

perfection.

 

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.

 

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