Slow boat to Delft

A jour­ney on the Dutch wa­ter­ways is an ex­er­cise in colour and tran­quil­lity, dis­cov­ers Paul Mans­field

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat -

SOME­ONE— pos­si­bly a paint­brush-wield­ing gi­ant with an ex­trav­a­gant sense of colour — has been muck­ing about with the land­scape. Great stripes of yel­low, blue and ver­mil­ion lie daubed across the fields in hal­lu­ci­na­tory swirls. It’s only when you see them up close that you re­alise they’re flow­ers.

Ev­ery year be­tween March and May, the town of Keuken­hof in The Nether­lands be­comes Tulip Cen­tral, the world cap­i­tal of the brightly coloured flow­ers that orig­i­nated in Asia and be­came a hor­ti­cul­tural fad in 17th-cen­tury Europe.

The fad en­dures: Dutch tulips are prized all across the world. But the best place to ad­mire them en masse is in this oth­er­wise un­re­marked cor­ner of The Nether­lands. We spend the af­ter­noon in Keuken­hof’s vast park, which daz­zles not just with tulips but hy­acinths, daf­fodils and other spring bulbs. When we get back to the Savoir Faire that night, we dec­o­rate the cabin with fresh flow­ers.

Strange how a coun­try half sub­merged by wa­ter should have failed to take off as a barg­ing des­ti­na­tion, but The Nether­lands is way be­hind neigh­bour­ing France in this re­spect. The Savoir Faire, a for­mer coal­car­rier, built in 1932, is one of the few ho­tel barges on the Dutch wa­ter­ways. It has six comfortable cabins and a stylish, roomy in­te­rior.

Ev­ery­thing, from fine wines




all ex­cur­sions, is in­cluded on th­ese cruises, and pas­sen­gers tend to be well-trav­elled. One big plus is flex­i­bil­ity. Wo­ken up early? You can head into town with crew mem­bers when they fetch fresh bread for break­fast. Slept late? The Savoir Faire’s minibus will be at your dis­posal when you rise. It’s cruis­ing for grown-ups.

Our de­par­ture point is Haar­lem, Am­s­ter­dam’s gen­teel neigh­bour, with its gabled town­houses and cob­bled pub­lic squares. In the gothic cathe­dral some­one is prac­tis­ing on the mag­nif­i­cent 30m-high Muller or­gan (once played by Han­del and Mozart) and the sound thun­ders and echoes around the stone walls.

Af­ter an af­ter­noon prowl­ing the quiet streets, we re­turn to the Savoir Faire, cast off and head into the No­ordzeekanaal, where huge barges laden with sand glide past and in­dus­trial build­ings line the bank. The canal is a work­ing wa­ter­way, and all the more im­pres­sive for it.

Soon, though, the ur­ban land­scape falls away and we tie up for din­ner in the coun­try­side near Zaanse Schans. Food on board is first-rate and un­showy: foie gras, lamb, tarte au citron. We drift off to sleep, lulled by the sound of wa­ter lap­ping against the bow.

Zaanse Schans is an open-air mu­seum, with half a dozen work­ing wind­mills set in a pic­ture-post­card vil­lage. It is pretty enough, and it’s in­ter­est­ing to see the in­tri­cate, wooden ma­chin­ery of mills orig­i­nally copied from those of 13th-cen­tury North Africa. But af­ter the coach par­ties and crowds it is a re­lief to re­turn to the boat.

It is a sim­i­lar story at Gouda. Chris, the barge’s English cap­tain, ad­vises against tour­ing the cheese fac­tory (‘‘a waste of time’’), steer­ing us in­stead to­wards the old cen­tre of town, where a labyrinth of high-sided build­ings sur­round the 17th-cen­tury Sint Janskerk, its stained-glass win­dows a marvel of colour. Each frame is filled with scenes of lo­cal life and one is a poignant por­trait of the baby Je­sus, old be­fore his time with huge, ap­pre­hen­sive eyes. The coach par­ties are nowhere to be seen. Gouda sets a prece­dent: pop­u­lar tourist sights are best avoided in The Nether­lands; it’s the other de­tails that are most in­ter­est­ing.

From Gouda we head south to Rot­ter­dam, rolling out on to the choppy wa­ter of the Nieuwe Maas river as seag­ulls wheel over­head and tankers as high as houses head to­wards the open sea. We berth un­der the mod­ernist Eras­mus bridge, an an­gu­lar arc of sil­ver tub­ing the lo­cals call ‘‘ the swan’’, and dine on fresh seafood from the coast and an ex­cel­lent Sancerre.

Next day, to work it off, we jump on bikes and head off on the cy­cle path. Cycling, like barg­ing, is a great way to see The Nether­lands. The path leads through open fields and tiny vil­lages where old boys sit fish­ing and chil­dren play in their back gar­dens. We ar­rive in Delft just as the Savoir Faire is ty­ing up near the town cen­tre.

Delft has come full cir­cle. In the 17th cen­tury, ar­ti­sans im­i­tated de­signs from China to cre­ate Delft­ware, the ex­quis­ite pot­tery still made in the city. To­day, most of the cheaper stuff for sale is a replica, im­ported from (you guessed it) China.

We wan­der around the canals and cob­bled streets that stretch away from the cen­tre, looking for Ver­meer’s Delft. The painter spent his life in the city, though none of his 35 works re­mains here. But just across the canal at Hooikade is a mag­i­cal place: the spot where View of Delft was painted nearly four cen­turies ago. Looking across the wa­ter at a low sky bruised by scud­ding clouds is like slip­ping back in time. Back on the Savoir Faire we sit with a beer, watch­ing two moorhens nest­ing be­low. Hours slip by. Trav­el­ling by wa­ter slows you down.

As the Savoir Faire heads to­wards Am­s­ter­dam, the weather changes and we en­ter the city in bril­liant sun­shine. It’s a pretty place, of course, but on a barge you see it from the back door. We cruise past old ware­houses and wharfs, hand­some town­houses and a tram ter­mi­nal where work­ers in blue over­alls sit eat­ing sand­wiches in the sun. Peo­ple wave from house­boats; there is no sound but the gen­tle chug­ging of our en­gine. The bus­tle of tourist Am­s­ter­dam, a few kilo­me­tres to the east, seems a long way away.

In the af­ter­noon sun­shine we tie up in Haar­lem, where we boarded a week be­fore. The mar­ket is in full swing and there is time for last-minute shop­ping. Porce­lain wind­mills and minia­ture clogs are sell­ing nicely to the coach-party crowd, but my money goes on half a dozen bunches of fresh, neatly boxed, mul­ti­coloured tulips. The Daily Tele­graph, Lon­don


For in­for­ma­tion on itin­er­ar­ies and de­par­tures aboard the 12-passenger Savoir Faire, con­tact Europe Shoppe, (03) 8781 1170 or 1300 366 491;­

Bright and beau­ti­ful: Flowerbeds at Keuken­hof are planted with bril­liantly coloured tulips and other spring flow­ers

On re­flec­tion: Gabled houses line a canal in Haar­lem

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