The Randstad: Places to Explore

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Delft

For many travelers, few spots in Holland are as intimate and attractive as this charming little town. With time-burnished canals and cobblestone streets, Delft possesses a calm that recalls the quieter pace of the 17th-century Golden Age, back when Johannes Vermeer was counted among its citizens.

Imagine a tiny Amsterdam, but with smaller canals, narrower bridges, and fewer people, and you have the essence of Old Delft. But even though the city reveres its favorite son, and folks have one foot rooted in the past, another is planted firmly in the present. In fact, today's Delft teems with hip cafés, and—being a college town—revelers can be seen piling in and out of bars almost every day of the week. It's quaint, but it's no museum piece swaddled in cotton wool to keep it safe for future generations. Nonetheless, if living it up isn't your thing, the revelry is easy to escape, and there are plenty of quiet residential corners where you could imagine Vermeer strolling the streets looking for his next subject.

If you are arriving by train in the coming years, your first impression, however, may be somewhat different. Major construction work in and around the railway station is underway. It will eventually see the train tracks moved underground, and thus the city's approaches will be greatly beautified. But that work is scheduled to last until at least 2016, and some skeptics who see the slow progress of the north-south line in Amsterdam believe it may cause disruption as far into the future as 2020. The biggest victim of all this is the Rose Windmill (Molen de Roos), which sits directly over the proposed underground route. For safety reasons it is closed to visitors, and the bakery that operated within has been rehoused.

Rest assured, however, that once you pick your way through the chaos, the old center is—apart from a couple of sites —largely unaffected and every bit as beautiful as it ever was. Well, almost: sad to say, virtually nothing is left standing that Vermeer immortalized in his View of Delft—once proclaimed "the most beautiful painting in the world" by Marcel Proust—other than the soaring Gothic spire of the town's Oude Kerk. To find "Vermeer's View," head from the train station along Zuiderstraat or hew instead to the canal bank over to the Zuidwal avenue, which leads to the site of Rotterdamse Poort: it was on the far side of this big canal that Vermeer stood when painting his famous cityscape.

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