Blue Heaven In Delft, Holland


Is it any surprise that the columns and moldings that frame the interior of the synagogue in Delft, Holland … are blue?

Delft is famous for one thing — a certain shade of azure associated with its iconic tin-glazed ceramics, which are recognizable the world over for their palette of royalish blue on white. Delftware, as it is known, was first produced in the 16th century and has a signature look: delicate, intricate blue designs, often floral but frequently pastoral, with windmills and other typically Dutch landscapes featured prominently.

The shade of blue that greets visitors to the historic synagogue is not quite Delftware blue, but rather a vivid cerulean, with a greenish tinge that pops against the classical white interior. The blue-and-white interior feels authentically Delft, however — even if the blue is a shade off and the décor results from a 2002 renovation, marking the building’s transition from defunct house of worship to urban Jewish cultural center.

But the synagogue would be a landmark even if it weren’t one of Holland’s more significant Jewish structures. It has, after all, survived a population decline, the dissolution of its community, and World War II.

With its blue stained-glass windows and gold Hebrew lettering, the white-columned temple is a poignant vestige of Delft Jewry’s zenith. Built in the 1860s, the temple was consecrated for a prosperous, well-integrated congregation of nearly 200.

By the time World War II broke out, however, most Dutch Jews had migrated to larger cities; when the community dissolved a decade later, the city took over the building and eventually oversaw its restoration and metamorphosis into a cultural center. Today, a cosmopolitan student population is key to Delft’s Jewish presence, which surfaces at the synagogue for cultural and holiday events.

Fortunately, there’s plenty more to see in the city. For a small country, the Netherlands impresses with its sheer number of reference points — canals, gray weather, tulips, windmills, stairs, bicycles, pottery — and Delft has all of them in spades. This red-roofed city has charm to spare along its urban waterways, where bicyclists whiz past brick townhomes and café goers enjoy the good life canal-side.

With a population of barely 100,000 today, including lots of students at a renowned technology institute, Delft exemplifies the best of European small cities. It’s compact and walkable, friendly yet urbane, and just the right size for a side trip or stopover. Delft lies near the North Sea, about halfway between Rotterdam and The Hague, and an hour south of Amsterdam by car or train.

Despite the notorious Delft Explosion of 1654, when a gunpowder factory accidentally blew up half the city, Delft looks much as it did when native son Vermeer painted it around that time. The emblematic Dutch artist spent most of his life among these Gothic and Renaissance-era façades, inspired by the region’s moody color palette and the quiet, rectilinear beauty of its interiors.

While most of Vermeer’s notoriously small artworks are in museums elsewhere, fans of the artist will want to check out the Vermeer Center in downtown Delft. Not technically a museum, the Center displays full-scale reproductions and thoughtful exhibits that offer worthwhile context for Delft’s most famous native son.

The heart of the city is a square called Markt, where residents have gathered for centuries to shop and gossip in the shadow of Delft’s 17th-century Town Hall. That faintly grimy structure reflects Holland’s hodgepodge of architectural styles: cheery red shutters, restored Renaissance flourishes, a Gothic bell tower, and a porticoed interior where Dutch Golden Age paintings are on view.

Outside on the square, you’ll find appealing shops full of Delftware porcelain and other souvenirs, along with cafés and takeout shops selling hot waffles, ice cream and pastries (I’ve found that the less sunny the climate, the better the desserts).

But the square truly comes to life on market days, when the cobblestoned expanse fills with stalls selling Low Country staples. In chilly, sun-challenged Holland, expect less produce and more artisanal cheese, chocolate, baked goods and handcrafts like lace and (naturally) pottery.

Speaking of pottery, touring a porcelain factory might not have been on your to-do list, but Delft should be the exception. Royal Delft is the last remaining earthenware factory from the 17th century, and retains its lavish staircases and high-ceilinged galleries. Yet visiting is an appealingly modern experience — complete with boutiques full of shiny dishes, an upscale brasserie, and Delftware on display in period rooms.

And perhaps best of all, they’ll ship your porcelain home.