Friday, 31 July 2015

Den Haag: a most Fabritius detour

The Hague, the Netherlands
The Hague is a lovely city, but one we had not initially planned to visit. From Delft we intended to drive straight to Amsterdam, yet we discovered one crucial fact. 
The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius was on display at the Mauritshuis in Den Haag. I happened to see it on a postcard and after finding out about the other masterpieces there, we changed our course and were there the next day. The only reason I know about the Goldfinch is because of a novel by Donna Tartt, which seems to elicit either love or loathing in readers, and never a middle ground. You may guess that I fall into the former category, and I wanted to see the eponymous painting for myself. 
I learnt a lot. Fabritius was a student of Rembrandt, though unlike others he developed a style of his own. Tragically, he died before his time in the1654 explosion of the gunpowder magazine in Delft. His studio along with much of his work was destroyed, and only thirteen of his paintings survive. 
Mauritshuis is a collection of masterpieces. Rubens' painting of a boy and an old woman captures candlelight so well that for a second your eyes can deceive you into thinking the candle is flickering. I think he may have been showing off his skills with this one. 
The museum holds several wonderful works by Fabritius' teacher. It was here I discovered a new phrase: "tronie". A portrait illicits the idea that a person commissioned and sat for the artist, but sometimes an artist would paint a fictional person. This was the case for Rembrandt's Mustachioed Man in a Flamboyant Hat (I made that title up, but it was similar). 
We got to see Girl With a Pearl Earring by Vermeer, who I greeted by saying "I've heard so much about you." She is also a tronie! I had no idea. As Vermeer's style has comparable features to Fabritius, it is theorised that he was his teacher (or at least an influence), while some say that Vermeer taught himself. It's a prestigious series of painters if Vermeer was a pupil of Fabritius who was a pupil of Rembrandt.  
I want to show you so many awe-striking works of art, but I fear this post would start to look like a guide to the museum. Instead, I'll show you a floral still life (with a bee if you look closely). Still lifes were numerous at Mauritshuis, as they were a great way for artists to develop their styles and practice different shapes and colour schemes. 
Another gallery I wanted to visit in Den Haag while we were there was the Escher in Het Paleis Museum. I found this information board particularly interesting, as it shows three important parts of M.C. Eschers work: nature, perspective and reflection. In his early years, he mainly focused on nature and landscapes, influenced by his travels in Italy and Spain. The Alhambra in Grenada played a key role in shaping the development of his geometric style. 
Even in his early years, the work is top notch. Next to this completed palm was a sketch of an idea for improvements. It's fascinating to see how he warps reality slightly (this was before his actual reality-bending era), the fronds perfectly spaced with a circular pattern behind. 
Escher mainly used lithographs and woodcuts to produce his art, though he did use mezzotint a couple of times with masterful success. I had never heard of the method before, which involves smoothing a rough metal plate in areas to create darker and lighter tones, but it produced amazingly intricate pictures. I was so stunned by his mezzotint of a water droplet enhancing the patterns on a leaf's surface that I forgot to take a photo. 
We saw many famous artworks, including Belvedere (above), Drawing Hands, and several tessellations (repeating patterns, such as the geese becoming farmland). I enjoyed seeing the difference in his early and later works and how he twisted reality. A quote of his: 
"Even if we stick to the convention that a wall or a piece of paper is flat, it remains a curious thing that we conjure up illusions of three-dimensionality on such flat surfaces, and have done so from time immemorial, as if it were the most normal thing I the world. Isn't it really a bit absurd to draw a few lines and then say 'This is a house'?"
His house drawings aren't your usual house, though, are they?

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Delftly wooed by the Netherlands' most charming town

Delft, the Netherlands
Delft being a place I'd never heard of, you can imagine my surprise when I promptly fell in love with it. I had started to realise that it wasn't just Amsterdam that hoarded amazing canals - they were all over the Netherlands, in every tiny village and even running through paddocks. Delft's were especially beautiful, with flowering baskets and bikes strung up on each bridge. 
At the main square, Nieuwe Kerk rises above the rest. Gothic architecture now surrounds the original thirteenth century construction, which holds the crypt for the Dutch royal family. 
At the other side of the square stood the stadhuis. I found the tower the most interesting part, so we got this photograph. It so happens to bear a close resemblance to one of M. C. Escher's earlier works, which we saw on a later trip to an art gallery devoted to him in Den Haag. I found this interesting, and think that maybe he also liked the tower best of all, the rest of the building being uninteresting and boxy. 
We had a nosy at the Waag (the weighing house built in 1466) and discovered not a touristy restaurant like in Gouda's, but a delightfully rustic pub. It was spread out into layers, with brick and wood paneling making it feel cosy, and had coats of arms laid out along the banisters of the upper floor. 
It was here that we first sampled the Dutch specialty bitterballen. Breadcrumbed meaty goulash that's fried and served with mustard, they were much tastier than I had anticipated, and we went on to order them twice more as our trip through the Netherlands continued. 
Johannes Vermeer was not one of the more prolific painters of his time, as only 34 paintings have been attributed to him, yet he has been deemed one of the masters of the Dutch Golden Age. He lived and worked in Delft, where he led semi-successful career (though a collapse in the art market put strain on his family (which included eleven children), and his wife was left with debt upon his death). His popularity has skyrocketed since the nineteenth century when he was rediscovered and an essayist incorrectly attributed over sixty paintings to him. Aside from Girl with a Pearl Earring and the Milkmaid, his best known work may be View of Delft (pictured here, and housed at Mauritshuis in Den Haag). His masterful command of lighting shows Delft from the south bank in partial cloud. A peaceful and uncluttered scene, Delft still feels tranquil even though it is more populated today. This is undoubtedly due to the unerring friendliness of the Dutch people, whose polite and courteous ways never fail to move me. 
In contrast to the Nieuwe Kerk, the Oude Kerk (old church) towers above the canals, and even leans out towards them - the top is two meters further out than the base. It holds Vermeer's tomb, and is a valuable means of finding your way around the town, as it's almost always visible if you're near a canal.  
Delftware can be found as souvenirs all over the country, and especially here. Potters began to make it in the 1500's, the blue-on-white designs influenced by Chinese ware. Ironically, now the troves of Delftware sold in tourist shops comes shipped cheap from China (so effectively it is Chinese pottery made in Delft made in China). We came across a long wall with graffiti in the style of the pottery, including well known figures like Vermeer and his Girl with a Pearl Earring. 
The weather, as always, was less than ideal. However, this did lead to some lovely shiny streets as we walked back to our car in the night. I don't know if anywhere else in the Netherlands (or even our trip so far) can compare. Delft will be a tough one to top. 

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Gouda: We tried the cheese and we saw that it was Goud

Gouda, the Netherlands
One of my mum's great loves that she has passed on to me is that of cheese. Whether creamy or crumbly, mild or salty, I enjoy a great range. My favourites are made from goat or ewe milk, and the ones I shy away from are the stinky oozy cheeses like Brie. Several years ago, I presented a hand selected cheese basket for my mum's birthday, and in it was a Gouda. Seeing this as a town on a map made my heart skip with joy. We were going to the birthplace of a food that I've been eating since a child. 
Steeped in history, Gouda's Waag still stands on the main square. The Waag was used as a cheese weighing house, but now contains only a restaurant as weighing by hand is not a thing anymore. 
Opposite the weighing house, in the middle of the square stands the stadhuis. With colourful geometric shutters and stepped brickwork, it is conventionally Dutch. 
Celebrating their famous produce, cheese waxes hang above several streets, making Gouda appear subliminally in your thoughts like a broken jukebox repeating the same lyric. 
At a recommended cheese shop we admired the walls of round wax, coloured to reflect the flavours inside. Black was the most aged Gouda, green contained pesto, and there were multitudes of other varieties beyond that. We ate a Yannick's worth of free samples and decided to purchase the original Gouda, as the simple unspoilt taste was a marvel to the tastebuds. We enjoyed it alone as well as on sandwiches. 
After a refreshing drink at a pub, we asked the waiter what his favourite cheese was. Taking time to think about it, he said that it depended on the weather. Aged Gouda is best for rainy days. 
Another specialty created in the town was stroopwafel: two thin biscuit-like waffles sandwiched together with thick caramel. At the height of stroopwafel production, one hundred bakeries could be found in Gouda making the treats. As they became more widespread and were produced industrially, the bakeries slowly disappeared and now only four remain (one of which we happened across). Different sizes are made, but the most common is slightly larger than a mug's circumference. This is so they can be placed over a hot beverage, allowing the steam to soften the caramel. These are delicious. We happily munched our stroopwafels in the sun as locals rocked up on their bicycles, carrying off packets of the confection. 
We were joined by an affectionate three-legged cat that we nicknamed 'Hoppi'. He was revelling in the sunshine too (as well as scratches behind the ears). 
Apparently old Dutch ice skates make a great souvenir! Funny, because to me they just look like someone's rubbish. 
Though in thinking that, galleries in the Netherlands did display paintings with ice skating scenes. This Hendrick Avercamp piece from around 1620 shows an array of people, from beggars to fisherman working holes in the ice to common folk skating to noble ladies with velvet masks shielding their delicate faces from the chill. 
Walking back to the car, it began to rain (this was a reoccurring theme). Yannick and I huddled under our small umbrella while Fabienne hurried along with only a rain jacket shielding her. Amusingly, two local Gouderians passing in the opposite direction jovially called Yannick out for his lack of chivalry, gesturing to the umbrella and Fabienne. Though they said everything in Dutch, we knew what they meant from their tone of voice and gesticulations. Citing his staunch support for women's rights, Yannick carried on down the road unperturbed. 
Our campground was infested with cycling English schoolboys and rabbits. It was amusing to hear sudden shouts of "over here, Cormoran!" and "not that way, James!" in posh accents while we were eating our dinner (they seemed to be obsessed with playing frisbee, and we had a theory that they had come from the UK on a frisbee tournament trip). 
In the twilight, ducks nibbled at my toes thinking they were pieces of bread, and bunnies munched the grass at the edges of our field. An ageing Jack Russell by the name of Simba wheezed in their direction, but they were much too quick for him. 

Monday, 27 July 2015

Zeeland and Kinderdijk: Running rings round the hive of our namesake

Middelburg, the Netherlands
Our Belgian odyssey complete, we nipped over the border to Middelburg in the Netherlandish province of Zeeland. I've been wanting to visit the Netherlands for years to see the scenery, culture and history (including the house in which Anne Frank was hidden away from the gestapo). 
A trip to Holland wouldn't be complete without visiting Zeeland! While New Zealand is my home and I may be partial to it, old Zeeland ain't too bad. Though much flatter. And fewer sheep. 
Completely devoid of expectations, we were more than a little surprised to find the main square filled with delicious looking market stalls. It happened to be market day in Middelburg, and knowing that the Netherlands was a great producer of cheese (hello, Edam and Gouda), we had to get our grubby little hands on some. Free samples abounded, and we eventually settled on a herby cheese with olives in that tasted like a cheesy focaccia bread. 
On our way to the old abbey, we heard some commotion taking place on one of the streets and saw a crowd gathered. We joined them, and saw that an event was taking place: Ring Riding, in which a horse drawn cart is steered around a track and the lady in the carriage jousts a small golden ring off a hanging rope with her pointed stick. Dubbed 'Folkloric Day', this event only takes place twice a year. We just so happened to stumble across it at the perfect time! 
We watched for some time and walked around the abbey square, where the horse carts that weren't competing at that time were lined up to wait. Some contestants were old, some young, and some brought their children with them. I liked these photos because that boy is pulling a wonderful "kid face" - happy, yet cheeky at the same time like a cherub. 
Everyone was dressed to the nines in period costumes. Even the bakery stall attendant had her hair did! 
We escaped the pervasive smell of horse excrement for a while in the cloister of the abbey. It was difficult to find the entrance, so I asked at the nearby museum where the man at the desk really wanted me to purchase a ticket, saying I could see the abbey through the museum. But with prompting he said it was through a large red door and we found the way. 

Kinderdijk, the Netherlands
What comes to mind when you think of the Netherlands? Kinderdijk is popular for having a large collection of windmills in one location, many of which date from around 1740. On a sunny day, a stroll along the canal looking out over them was a stroll well strolled. The experience was somewhat dampened by the hordes of tourists clustering to see them (myself included, I know), but I wouldn't have missed it. 
Flowers in every colour attracted bees along the windmill paths and streets of the town. This particular bumbling bee attracted our attention as he was absolutely covered in pollen. As it's the female bumblebees who collect pollen and nectar to feed the larvae, the males just go around eating the nectar for themselves and not giving a toss about pollen. They're only around for mating. Bees are the best animal, as without them 90% of the world's flowering plants would struggle or fail to reproduce. You may have heard of the honeybee's waggle dance - a complicated pattern of movements that tells other bees the exact location of profitable flowers. Bumblebees are less exact. When a bumblebee finds a good spot, they return to the hive and run around really excitedly to get the others to follow them back to the area. It's similar to how they build their hives: honeybees create perfect hexagons in wax and store plenty of food to last famines, but bumblebees build slapdash wax jumbles without thought for pattern and do not store for the future, as their hives last less than a year (the new queen bees hibernate and start colonies elsewhere). This is why we don't keep bumblebees for honey, but all these factors lead to bumblebees being my favourite creature. 

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Antwerp, part II: The flavours of Antwerpen, hot off the press

Antwerp, Belgium
Our second day in Antwerp was mainly spent at the Plantin Moretus Museum, which focuses on the printing company of the Plantin-Moretus family (the first industrial printing press in Europe), set in the sixteenth century house in which it all began. 
Even on a blustery day, the courtyard was pleasant to walk around and enjoy from an old wooden bench. 
The printing press was started by Christoffel Plantijn, who trained as a bookbinder. At the time, books cost as much as houses. During one of his deliveries of the completed book to the buyer, he was stabbed in the arm by a thief who made off with the book. As bookbinding took considerable strength, he was forced to turn away from his trade and took up printing. 
The collection of original artefacts from his press is astounding. There are rooms full of the individual letters for moveable typeface in a cornucopia of fonts. While our modern Microsoft Word allows the layman a pick of hundreds of fonts, these men in the 1500's had to manually lay out page after page of individual letters for mass production. This was much faster than previous printing methods, but to compare that practice to hitting the 'print' button on my computer blows my mind. Here you can see the typeface, ink roller and large weighted stamp. 
Along with the dozens of workshop rooms and living quarters, there was a street facing bookshop. Book prices dropped with the industrialisation, so more people could afford them. 
A vast range of engravings were on display, showing how illustrations were transcribed into the books. This was my favourite as it's almost too gruesome to imagine - a man making a skin of himself like a mink coat. Plantijn was prominent in many social circles and had friends provide him with anatomical drawing for textbooks. One specimen we viewed was an early pop-up book with flaps you could lift to show layers of veins underneath (if it wasn't behind glass that is). 
This 'virginal' piano is one of four left in the entire world. A friendly staff member told us all about it among other things (she is where I get most of the information in this post). A woman would sit at the front, and a girl would play at the smaller set of keys on the side, which is why this type of instrument is often referred to as a 'mother and daughter' piano. 
The staff member emphatically relayed to us her belief that if a war broke out and enemies stormed the city, the Belgian army would defend this museum and no other for the priceless items inside. As well as the piano, the collection displays Gutenberg bibles, Rubens' paintings of Plantijn's friends and family, and the two oldest surviving printing presses. 
Also this fancy clock. 
She told us why beds from this period and earlier are so short. 
Her: You know when you eat herring, and you get lots of burps?
Us: ...uh
Her: When you eat these types of picked foods, it is better to sit up during the night. 
And so, beds were short because they propped themselves up with pillows so they would burp the night away in comfort. 
This photo also shows the grandeur of the house, from the carved bedposts to the fruity Madonna painting to the leather wall coverings. In many of the rooms, there were embossed gilded leather coverings (Cuir de Cordoue) that were decorative to show off wealth and aided with insulation. The technique originated in Northern Africa and quickly spread to Spain and France as an alternative to hanging tapestries.
Two great rooms were devoted to books - the libraries. It was here that Plantijn kept copies of the books he printed or published. As he produced only daughters (and it was unheard of for a woman to run a company), he married his best printer to his second daughter. This was Jan Moretus, who had worked for Plantijn since he was fifteen and who took over the press when he died. Born Jan Moerentorf, he Latinicised his name as was popular among humanists at the time. Devoted to enriching the populace through an education in arts as well as history and maths, the Renaissance humanists were a good bunch, straying away from medieval ignorance. 
Our culture meter filled, we went in search of a tasty snack - what other than speculoos? Yet, walking down the street we saw another bakery with a line out the door. Thinking these people must be on to something, we joined the queue and bought what caught our fancy. It turned out to be an amazing almond cake with a butter biscuit base. So moist and flavoursome, I wanted to go back the very next day. And I did. 
Phillip's Biscuits was the shop we had actually intended to visit, and the biscuits laid out along the shelves were a feast for the eyes. 
We bought a packet of their traditional speculoos as well as a larger 'soft' speculoos. The soft ones were also nice, though I prefer a speculoos you can snap in two like the Borrowers windmill that it is. I can honestly say that the best speculoos I've had to date are from Phillip's Biscuits. Well done, Phil. You're a ginger magician. (Speculoos are in the gingerbread family, by the way. I don't know if Phillip is a ginger.) 
Though the new taste was upstaged a bit, as our camping neighbour was trying to make some terrifying stove which spouted great gouts of fire occasionally. When the flame went out and we could smells gas, we were fairly concerned we would all go up in smoke. Luckily he achieved what he had been planning after much twisting and shaping of tin foil, and we slept easy knowing he had cooked his high stakes meal and switched the contraption off. 

Antwerp, part I: Pelgromage to the home of Pietro and Silvius

Antwerp, Belgium
The tale of Silvius Brabo and the giant is legendary enough to warrant a Baroque fountain in the main square of Antwerp. A giant collecting tolls for those wanting to cross a bridge would cut off a travellers hand if they could not or would not pay. A brave Roman soldier, Silvius cut off the giant's hand to teach him a lesson and slew him, tossing the hand into the river. This is the fantastic story of how Antwerp got its name - from Dutch "hand" and "werpen" (thrower). Some believe that the giant was simply a strong figure who held great weight in society, and not a physical giant. 
In many bakeries, almond hand biscuits are sold. However, the real origin of the name is possibly from the Dutch "an 't werf", meaning 'on the wharf', as Antwerp was and is based around its powerful dock on the river. A less fanciful story, but still very interesting, as in the early sixteenth century Antwerp was in its golden age - sugar refineries were booming, as was moneylending and the spice trade. It was recorded at the time that hundreds of ships would dock per day, so it must have been some wharf. 
If Antwerpians love hand related things, they love Rubens more. While not born in the city, he moved there when he heard his mother was gravely ill. He unfortunately did not make it back from Italy before her death, but was an influential figure in the city and died there himself in 1640. He was sent on diplomatic missions to Spain as he was well liked, and was even knighted by Charles I of England.  He never returned to Italy; a shame as he had fallen in love with it (he would often go by Pietro Paulo Rubens - the Italian version of his name). He drew great inspiration from Carravaggio, who is said to have birthed Baroque. To contextualise with an earlier post, six of his paintings were destroyed in the Bombardment of Brussels (damn you Louis!). 
We watched what looked like a student project being filmed in front of the Rubens statue. It was difficult to tell what was going on, but it seemed to be an advertisement for antiperspirant. Interesting choice of background, bros. 
While in Antwerp, Rubens contributed several paintings (including thirty nine ceiling pieces) to the opulent interior of St-Carolus-Borromeuskerk. Most have been destroyed in fires or removed, but the main altarpiece remains. Soft and glowing, with curvy and heroic figures, you can see why Rubens was and remains a popular painter. 
Outside, we braved the rain to continue our awed tour of the city, which I enjoyed even more than Brussels. The cobblestoned streets had a beautiful sheen to them. I'll never take historic streets for granted when I'm so used to walking along asphalt and concrete. 
Sometimes in a city, your first view of a major monument can look something like this. Reaching up over the front doors, the cathedral's highly detailed carvings show an array of activities and personalities, such as scribes hard at work at their desks and demons poking their heads around the ankles of saints. 
Once you retreat a way, you can see the building in all its splendour. The storeys-high windows and golden clock faces are particularly striking. 
With a crick in my neck from gazing upwards all day, we entered Pelgrom bar along an alley called Pelgrimstraat. Located in a fifteenth century cellar, the candlelit wooden tables oozed antiquity. They hold medieval feasts here, where you eat hearty food with your hands, drinking and laughing with other merrymakers. This seemed a bit too method-acting for me, so we enjoyed a quiet sparkling water. The difficulty came when we wandered all along the series of brick rooms and were unable to find anything resembling a bar or place to order. Eventually a man came to take our order, and was entirely nonplused, saying that we could order and pay through him as though that were obvious. Emerging from the gloom, we re-entered the modern day.