Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The night’s drizzle has worsened into a steady morning rain, but since I am intent on spending the day in museums, the inclement weather doesn’t concern me in the least.  After breakfast, I plan to head first to the Schatzkammer, the treasury in Munich’s grand Residenz, but I can’t resist wandering through the luxury food store of Alois Dallmayr, at 14-15 Dienerstraße along the way to drool over trays of decadent pastries.

The treasury exceeds my wildest expections and I spend my time there happily.  On display are countless priceless objects that once belonged to the Bavarian kings, including religious art, orders and insignia, crowns, tableware, and toilet sets.  My favorite is the jewel-encrusted statuette of Saint George and the dragon, made in Munich between 1586-1597.

By midday, I’m back on the U-Bahn heading towards the Alte Pinakothek, which has one of the world’s greatest collections of Old Master paintings.  In honor of the museum’s 175th anniversary, Johannes Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance” is here on temporary loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.  In the early 19th century, the painting was part of an exceptional private collection amassed by the first king of Bavaria, Maximillian Joseph, but after his death it was sold at auction in 1826.  There is also a special exhibit devoted to Lucas Cranach.  I ask the clerk at the desk for a ticket to everything–the permanent galleries, the special exhibitions, and for good measure, the Neue Pinakothek next door.  It’s shaping up to be a fantastic afternoon. 

After admiring the Vermeer again (I’ve seen it several times in Washington, and it remains one of my favorites), and touring the Cranachs, I stop for a break in the museum café with a cappuccino and a slice of pear tart before heading upstairs.  For the next two hours, I wander from to gallery after gallery, immersed in Rubens, Bruegels, and van Dycks.  It’s only when I look at my watch that I grow concerned with the time.  There are several Van Goghs waiting for me across the street.  I’m down in the gift shop when a postcard reminds me that I somehow missed seeing a charming self-portrait of Rubens with his wife, Isabella Brant.

On a whim, I start to jog back up the long staircase, but halfway up I suddenly find myself out of breath.  By the time I reach the landing, I’m gasping for air.  My heart is pounding and I am shaking like a leaf.  I try to walk it off, but when I can’t, I grab my coat from the cloak room lockers and rush outside.  The cool mist is a relief on my flushed face, but I feel terribly, horribly, unwell.  Nearby, there is a taxi stand.  I pace until one arrives, then slump in the backseat as the driver takes me back to my hotel. 

I’ve felt tired for days, but dismissed the signs of illness as jet lag or merely the overexertion of travel catching up with me.  Now it seems like something more.  I call home for reassurance and later ring the front desk for room service when it becomes clear I won’t be going anywhere for dinner.  A mug of peppermint tea and a small bag of dry pretzels are all I can handle.  It’s not until 10 PM that the waves of nausea finally start to lift and I sink into a much needed sleep, not sure of what will happen in the morning.

Monday, June 15, 2009

When I look out the window of my hotel room this morning, I see a sky that has once again surrendered to a spitting rain. I don’t have any energy left for surprise or disappointment. I’ve planned all along to visit Delft today, and to Delft I will go. For the sake of drama, I might as well add “come Hell or high water,” but I fear tempting both, especially since we are teetering on the edge of the latter already.

Keen to avoid the city trams, I opt to walk to Centraal Station, a massive railway hub. Its elegant brick exterior and Dutch gables make it look remarkably like the Rijksmuseum, which makes sense since both were designed by the same architect in the late-19th century. It reminds of a more elegant time, when travel was an occasion and not just a logistical complication.

The ride to Delft is an easy one and though I arrive late in the morning, the streets are virtually deserted and the shops mainly closed. Between the quiet and the gray fog that has descended, the entire town has an air of mystery about it that I quite like. I wander along the canals towards the market square, stopping along the way in amusement at the names the Dutch give to their streets. There is Poppesteeg and Nickersteeg, Minderbroer and Boterbrug. When I turn onto Hippolytusbuurt, in my mind’s eye I create an image of a portly hippopotamus holding an umbrella, like some whimsical character in a Dr. Seuss story.

Delft is best known for two things: blue and white pottery, and the artist Johannes Vermeer. I spot a Royal Delftware shop facing the Markt, with a row of decorative tiles above the door and an assortment of vases on the window sill, but shopping can wait. I decide to head first to the Vermeer Center nearby.

In truth, there’s probably not enough here to justify the €7 entrance fee. Vermeer was one of the great painters of the Dutch Golden Age, but few of his paintings survive, and of those, none are in Delft. Instead, the displays include interactive media and reproductions of all 34 of his known works, as well as a reconstruction of his studio where visitors can pose among the props he used time and again in his paintings. It’s clever, but not worth more than a short visit.

From here, I walk to the Oude Kerk, with its leaning tower, to see Vermeer’s grave, and then up to the Molen de Roos, a windmill built in the early-18th century. I circle back to the Markt for lunch at a café dubbed the Willem van Oranje, and then visit the Nieuwe Kerk to see the funerary monument to the real Prince William of Orange.

Perhaps it’s a consequence of the Protestant Reformation, or the decline of religious belief in the Netherlands more recently, but I find that I don’t like Dutch churches very much. They strike me as rather cold and bare. But the experience does remind me of a 17th century painting of the Oude Kerk by Emanuel de Witte that I saw recently at the Met in New York. The tag on the wall beside the picture was amusing because it seemed incongruous to the scene itself. Someone—probably a misguided art historian—had written about the “spiritual environment” and the “intangible qualities” of “space, light, and mood,” that were reminiscent of Vermeer. Yet Witte had clearly depicted two young boys carving graffiti into one of the church’s pillars, while a dog lifts his leg to urinate on another. The fact that the same theme was used repeatedly by artists in addition to Witte is puzzling, but it demonstrates, at least, that the spiritual and the mundane do coexist, which is more appealing to me than the cavernous museums these churches have become today.

My last wish for the day’s itinerary in Delft is to see the Oostpoort, a graceful gate that was once part of the medieval fortifications of the city. Walking there from the city center is simple, but viewing it properly from across the canal is not. There is a bridge in front that should pivot to allow boats to pass, but when I arrive it’s askew and clearly malfunctioning and there are barriers down to prevent pedestrians from crossing. When a daring kid tries to sprint across anyway, he’s quickly grabbed by a guard and led back to shore. I wait with an increasingly restless crowd for a half hour or more, which annoys the guard further. He puts his hands together and gestures outward to indicate that we should walk either up or down the canal to the next bridge to cross, which is a considerable distance up and back again. I hesitate, not sure if it’s worth the effort on tired legs, all for the sake of a photo op, but I resign myself to it in the end.

Afterwards, I rush back to the train station, but the afternoon is waning fast. I had wanted to stop off in The Hague to see Vermeer’s “View of Delft” and “Girl with a Pearl Earring” at the Mauritshuis, but in my haste and exhaustion I get off at the wrong station, Den Haag HS rather than Den Haag Centraal. I walk about, disoriented, and then decide I wait for another train. By the time I reach the museum at last it’s after four o’clock and the galleries close at five, leaving time enough for a quick peek at the Vermeers, but little else.

For dinner, I stop in Haarlem and at random pick Trattoria Piazza Viva, where their panzerotti and the waiter’s cheery bona sera fill me with warm memories of Italy. As luck would have it, I stumble across a gelateria by St. Bavo’s Cathedral and feast on a nice dish of ice cream for dessert in the city’s central square.

Once again, the day’s rain is gradually giving way to a beautiful evening. Back in Amsterdam, the air is pleasant and cool. In a moment of inspiration in front of the station, I buy a ticket from Holland International for a canal boat tour, where I end the night reclined lazily on a seat by the window, hoping that the last, feeble rays of sunshine will warm my face.