A Day in Delft and Wool-Gathering in Veere

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From ceramics made in one town to wool gathering just miles away in another, the diverse towns of Holland and their history, including a church Napoleon seized.

Photography by the authors

We’ve got only two full days left with Uniworld Boutique River Cruises after today, but the days are getting delightfully busier. First we have the optional shore excursion to Delft, the one-time home of the artist Johannes Vermeer, who was born there in 1632. It’s also the burial place of the Dutch Royal Family — and the location of the famous factory of the blue Royal Delft pottery, established in 1653.

We’ll talk about our favorite artist another time but let’s look at the show Delft puts on about its products for its visitors. The building, we are told, is virtually unchanged from its beginnings halfway through the Dutch Golden 16th century. Quality ceramics were available only to wealthy households until the second half of the 16th century. The Dutch are credited with making quality china possible for homes in Holland.

Much of this century and the impact of Vermeer’s paintings on it has been recorded brilliantly in an usual book called Vermeer’s Hat, a nonfiction discussion that analyzes eight of the 34 of Vermeer’s paintings that have survived and uses them as a window (by way of the household objects seen in his paintings) into the Dutch Golden 17th century. It’s written by a very articulate art history professor, Timothy Brook.

Dutch shipping brought quality porcelain from China to the port of Delft and soon everyone in the country wanted it. Holland had to improve its own products to stay competitive. Delft porcelain improved and improved until it was indeed viable. Tiles on the wall show the process of making the pottery.

Visitors see some of what is happening in this, the last of all the Royal Deft factories but some of the demonstration is on a brief video and the presentation and isn’t as hands-on or as interesting as the exhibition at the Meissen factory near Leipzig in Germany. Still a dining room is set up with period furnishings from Vermeer’s time including his paintings.

Rembrandt’s The Night Watch done on blue Delft tiles alone is worth the visit. A photograph and tile of a Royal Wedding reminds us of the impact of Delft tiles on Holland’s population of 17 million hardy souls.

For those more interested in history than high grade china, Delft has more to offer including the New Church where more than 40 royal princes and princesses are entombed, but you’ll pass a statue on the way in of another Dutch hero, the jurist and scholar Hugo de Groot.

De Groot wrote a manuscript so lucid for the courts it became the basis of International Maritime law. It was written at the request of the Dutch East India Company which had seized a Spanish merchant ship in International waters at a time when Holland was at war with Spain. However, de Groot was a university professor and also a religious scholar. He supported the idea that civil authorities should be allowed to appoint faculty irrespective of any opposing religious views. He went so far as to say that differences on “obscure theological doctrines should be left to private conscience.”

He and a colleague, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, were imprisoned by the Prince of Orange for those views, which were seen as stripping Church officials of power. Oldenbarnevelt was executed and de Groot imprisoned for life. He escaped thanks to his wife and ended up in Paris, where his opinions were published as the first Protestant text books to defend its position on religion.

Enough solemn history! Let’s go 70 miles down the coast to Veere, another of those seaports from the 1600s that shared in the wealth from trade across the seas, although here the distance was only as far away as Scotland. In order not to get bogged down in more Dutch history (as we did with de Groot) let us relax a bit around statues of children playing in this town where Scottish wool became a popular import when the wool trade outran its home market.

The Lord of Veere, no fool, had married the daughter of the king of Scotland in 1444 and those marriages continued and had impact.

The relationships strengthened. The Scots traders dug a water supply that would provide 40,000 gallons of fresh water for the wool trade, a water supply for the town that lasted and was used for 400 years. Two of the Scottish homes on the main street have been joined to form a museum.

It’s strange to see statues with features that are obviously Scottish and posters showing British standards and uniforms in an unexpected corner of the world.

On our way back to the River Queen we pass the Great Church that Napoleon seized to house his army and his horses. For safety he threw away the stained glass windows and replaced them with solid brick.

But we stop this consideration of war and, again, start to think of afternoon tea — and here’s the boat and we’re just in time.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.