Slow boat to Delft
A journey on the Dutch waterways is an exercise in colour and tranquillity, discovers Paul Mansfield
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; www.europeshoppe.com.au.
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