Monday, 23 September 2013

Daft about Delft

Having had my fill of Vermeer, I moved on to the Old Church - the one with the leaning tower. Like the one in Pisa, it's been leaning for centuries, so I had no anxiety in going in! Like many others in the Netherlands, the interior was denuded after the Reformation, but it is a calm and venerable building. I paid my respects at the grave of Vermeer, and repaired outside to the charming cafe in the square adjoining the church, the Cafe de Oude Jan (above). It was great - sun shining, lovely salad, loads of people from all over. I chatted a little with not one but two families from Spain, and could have stayed all day relaxing. However, I had to return to the other church where I had been unable to get in earlier.
The New Church is more grand than the Old, and it has a special place for Dutch people because the Royal Family have been buried there for centuries. This started when William the Silent, William of Orange, made Delft his centre and became the father of the whole dynasty and indeed "Father of the Fatherland." As a Protestant he fell foul of the Spanish Catholic king, who had him assassinated at the Prinsenhof (Court of the Prince) in Delft, his headquarters, in 1584. You can see the bulletholes on the stairs to this day (left).
Once again the church has been reoriented for the Calvinist emphasis on the pulpit against a righthand pillar. Where the altar would have been is the splendid monument to William (right), and the Royal Vaults lie underneath. Almost all the family are there, one notable exception being of course the one who became our King William III in 1689, and who is buried in Westminster Abbey.
Eventually it was time to leave the lovely old town of Delft. I would recommend it to anyone visiting the Netherlands or looking for a day out of Amsterdam. Fr M definitely approves.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Delighted in Delft

I have a new name to add to my list of favourite places. Delft is a small town sandwiched between the much larger cities of Rotterdam and The Hague. It's known for delftware, which is blue and white glazed pottery, for being the burial place of the Dutch royal family for many generations, and for being the birthplace, home and burial place of Johannes, or Jan, Vermeer, one of my all time top painters. When I was deciding which places outside Amsterdam I was going to visit, it had to be top of the list.
Delft is further away from A'dam than Haarlem, but a good train service got me there in no time. I was soon strolling out of the station, which is being rebuilt underground, causing a lot of roadworks and diversions. However, signs to the "Centrum" soon directed me down an old and narrow alley and I was suddenly immersed in the delights of old Delft. In fact, Old Delft or Oude Delft, is the name of the lovely canal along which you walk to get to the centre, and which won me over. The canal is narrower than most in A'dam, the houses seemed rather smaller, and the whole thing more intimate. I felt drawn into this quiet Dutch town whose history stretched back centuries to a time when it was walled, and one of the most important towns in the country.
Oude Delft led me towards the central Market Square, but not before it had tempted you with glimpses of the leaning tower of the Old Church, further down the canal. I resisted the urge to go and explore that, as my by now traditional coffee and croissant was beckoning in the cafes surrounding the square.  The square, again, seemed more intimate than the one at Haarlem, the buildings less grandiose except for the beautiful Town Hall. Like Haarlem, however, there was a church, this time known as the New Church - new as in only 14th century as opposed to 12th and 13th century Old Church.
Refreshed, I made for the entrance. One 3 euro ticket gets you into both churches, but the nice lady wouldn't change my 50 euro note! So I slid back out of the New, heading for the Old to try my luck there...but along the way I saw "The Vermeer Centre" (left).
This is a sort of resource place for everything to do with Delft's great painter son, including reproductions of all his paintings. Sadly Delft does not hold any of the originals, but it was great to see 'em all together, and have lots about his style etc explained...
(to be continued as I am off to see "Les Mis" at our regular St Brigid's film show")

Monday, 16 September 2013

Globetrotting in Haarlem

It was time for a trip outside Amsterdam. I'd set aside two days to visit places outside the city and had chosen Haarlem and Delft. So the third morning I caught a train from the nearby Centraal Station to this old city which is only twelve miles west.
Haarlem is actually the provincial capital of North Holland, which includes Amsterdam, and historically was more important. It's still the seat of the local Catholic bishop, whose title was only recently changed from Bishop of Haarlem to Bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam. At its
heart is a huge square, the Great Market, which is dominated by an equally huge church - the Great Church. I'd seen artists' depictions of this square before, and as I walked down from the station to the town centre, it was a bit like walking into a painting. The square was slowly filling up with people. The weather was the only grey day of my A'dam trip, and cafe-frequenters were a bit slow to step out maybe... but I took my place with croissant and cappucino. Soon the scene was lively with mainly locals, but some visitors. I have to admit Dutch does not seem to be the most attractive language, and as I don't understand it there was little chance to eavesdrop on local chat!
The Great Church - St Bavo, the same as Ghent Cathedral - is Dutch Reformed. It's big but rather bare, like other churches I visited in the Netherlands. This throws into relief the beautiful metalwork in the screens and also the carved stalls. Having absorbed the Square and its parts, I wandered down the main shopping street towards perhaps Haarlem's main artistic treasure - the Frans Hals Museum
Along the way I spotted an old door open and hinting at very interesting stuff inside. I checked and found it is a hofje, the equivalent really of our almshouses, and they are usually built around a courtyard, as this one is. It's called the Proveniershuis (right), and is an oasis of quiet and greenery in a busy street. Its history goes back to the Middle Ages when it was a convent, but it has housed old folk since 1707. Beautiful.
I pressed on to the Museum, which is located in another, but former, hofje. Hals was a Haarlem local and the Museum has 12 of his paintings, plus others by different artists. The displays are first-class, and it's all on one floor. I've always been keen on Frans Hals, with his free style, less constrained than many of his contemporaries. He seems to be able to achieve so much with few strokes. There are several of his large group portraits, mainly of boards of trustees of the hofjes and the suchlike, plus several single portraits, and one pair of a husband and wife. I particularly liked "The Regentesses of the Home for Old Men" (below), a rather honest portrayal of what looks like some tough ladies.
It was time for a bite, and so I relaxed in the cafe, part of a modern wing added on. I returned to the square via a canal-side walk, which are everywhere in much of the Netherlands. By now it was getting a little darker overhead, so I didn't dawdle in the Square again, but made my way back to teh Station, Holland's oldest apparently, and so back to the huge, busy - and not too attractive Amsterdam Centraal Station.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

A'dam New Side

I bought tickets for the Rijkmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and Anne Frank's House on the internet before I went to Amsterdam. Boy, was I glad I did for Anne Frank's House, even if it meant I had to be there for opening time at 9am on the Saturday. By the time I came out the queue was down the street, round the corner and around the neighbouring Church.
Over a million people a year visit the house where the Frank family and four others hid for two years during World War II, and where Anne wrote her diary (left). I was surprised how small the conditions were. The rooms have been left bare at the request of Anne's father, the only one of the eight to survive the camps. The windows are covered as they were during the day. I was glad to have visited this famous spot, but equally glad to get out of there. It connected in my mind back to a harrowing visit to Auschwitz a few years ago... There is an excellent virtual tour on the website I've linked to in the first paragraph. Back out in the fresh air, the air that Anne longed to breathe, a canal-side cappucino and croissant was just what the doctor ordered.
Obviously the canals are one of A'dam's top attractions, and some are indeed very beautiful.
For the rest of the morning I wandered around the famous "Girdle" - three concentric canals built around the original medieval centre. Many of the houses are very dignified, but I think I preferred the smaller, usually older ones. In no time, and after a few pauses at benches to watch canal life go by, several hours had passed, and I arrived at Rembrandtsplein (it's that man again) -  a large square filled with visitors and cafes. I parked myself at one and settled down for some light lunch and people-watching. My guidebook suggested visiting during the day and at night - but I resisted that second temptation.
My return stroll took me along Rokin, one of the main streets and into the principal square, which rejoices in the name Dam. The aerial view (right) is better than the reality, I think. I found this wide expanse a bit deadening and formless, with a rather ugly National Monument. A rather tired magician was trying to hold the crowd. I poked my head inside the New Church, which, with the Royal Palace, dominates the square, but was not particularly grabbed, and made my way back to base. 
Yes, I'm very glad I visited the Anne Frank House, as they call it, and I certainly gave the canals a good going over - essential Amsterdam...

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Going Dutch

So, welcome back to me after my summer break. School Masses are being booked, meetings arranged etc etc for the coming months... so definitely time to think back to summer travels.
My now annual time-on-my-own took me this year to Dutch capital Amsterdam. After last year's fun trip on Eurostar, I decided to repeat the experience. So, like last year, it was St Pancras direct to Brussels through the Tunnel, but then north to Amsterdam via Antwerp and Rotterdam, rather than west to Bruges, on the also superfast Thalys train.
Before going I chose a hotel in A'dam close to the station as I wanted to make a few trips out of the city. I looked first at one on the internet which I thought would be out of my league, only to find one hotels site offering a fantastic deal - so my accommodation was great, excellent staff, breakfast was included and the restaurant was good enough to have an evening meal there on a few days.
Weather was great on the whole, so it was in sunshine that I set out on my first morning's exploration of the Old (or east) Side of the city centre. Now, yes, I know, A'dam is (in)famous for its red light district, but if I say I plunged into its narrow streets at 9.30am, you must take my word that it was in order to reach two of the sights that are located right in the middle of it!
"Our Lord in the Attic" is a Catholic chapel (left) hidden away in the attics of three adjacent houses. The Reformation forced the Church underground (or up in the roof) in the Netherlands, like here in Britain. Several of these chapels were constructed, but only one survives. So, rather bizarrely, you climb up through a house only to find a Baroque church three floors up, with adjacent lodging for the priest.
Moving on, and trying to ignore the, er, street life, I then visited the Old Church, the original church of the city, now Protestant of course, and denuded of its Catholic finery. Lastly, before lunch, I paid a visit to the Rembrandt House (below). Here he lived most of his adult life, though he overreached himself financially, and ended up having to sell up. It has been refurnished to look as it did in his day. As a great admirer of Rembrandt I was fascinated.
By now it was time for baguette and drink in the lovely street cafe outside, watching the world go by. In the afternoon I strolled slowly back through one of the main shopping areas, Kalverstraat, but found it heaving with people, and on the edge of seedy in a way. I was relieved to turn into the great oasis of peace that is the Begijnhof (below). These were great institutions, Catholic communities of women who were not nuns but often widows or single ladies living in community around  a chapel. You find them dotted over the Netherlands and Belgium. Amazing to find it right in the middle of the bustling city. A wedding was going on in the church, and I sat a while before heading back to my hotel and a traditional Dutch hotpot. Tomorrow... Anne Frank and the New (or west) Side.