DELFT, Netherlands — Take a flower market of every hue and fragrance, add buildings straight from the Middle Ages, intersperse canals lined with linden trees, bathe it all in the diffused light of a Vermeer and you have brushed in a Dutch scene worthy of the master himself.
About the only things missing are the plates and bowls of glazed earthenware that Vermeer's housewives seemed always to be holding, and those are as near as the next store window you pass, most of them in the soft blue patterns that local potters began copying in the 17th Century to stem the flow of Chinese porcelain that was killing their business.
Foreign visitors have made Delft second only to Amsterdam as a city to see, all for very good reasons. William of Orange named the town his capital after freeing Holland from Spanish rule; it grew rich in the cheese, cattle and weaving trades, using profits to build a still-handsome city.
Delft's school of painters includes Jan Steen, Peter de Hooch and Vermeer, who is buried in the "new church" of Saint Ursula, begun in 1381.
For all its beauty and history, Delft is still a joyful and lively town, probably a holdover from medieval times when it boasted 100 breweries.
Here to there: KLM will fly you nonstop to Amsterdam, Pan Am and El Al with one, British Caledonian, Air France, British Airways, CP Air, Lufthansa and TWA with a change. Trains leave Amsterdam's airport every half hour direct to Delft.
How long/how much? Two days for the town, more if you use it as a base for seeing nearby cities. The Hague, Rotterdam, Utrecht and Amsterdam are all a half-hour shot down excellent highways. Prices across the board are high moderate.
A few fast facts: The Dutch guilder or florin was recently valued at 59 cents. Any time from April to October fine for a visit, the first two months a crowded tulip season, possibility of light April snow flurries. Walk the town, take a cruise through the canals or a one-hour horse-drawn omnibus ride for less than $4.
Getting settled in: Leeuwenbrug (Koornmarkt 16; $72-$88 B&B double) is a patrician canal house converted into a small hotel five minutes from station, less from town center. A very neat and pretty place with sparkling rooms, some with carved fireplaces, beamed lounge-breakfast room with Oriental rugs on tables in Dutch fashion. Many rooms overlooking canals and colorful rooftops.
Juliana (Maarten Trompstraat 33; $62 B&B double) has been on our checklist for years, a homey little place where the welcome gets warmer every visit. They love Americans, making sure there's always an International Herald-Tribune in the breakfast room, the only meal served. No pretensions here, just solid Dutch comfort and cleanliness. Owners know every good place to dine in town, have menus for many.
Hotel de Ark (Koornmarkt 59; $85 B&B), another renovated historic canal house that rambles on through several buildings, has lots of antiques, books in English, snug bar, a handsome dining room where all meals are served. Bedrooms with canal or garden views, a few apartments available in same price range as rooms, a real deal.
Regional food and drink: If you get a chance at some real Dutch home cooking at one of the places serving it, go for this substantial, no-nonsense fare. Try stamppot, a mix of mashed potatoes, cabbage and bacon; hede blicksen (hot lightning), more mashed potatoes with apples and lots of black pepper; or the popular Delft version of hutspot, carrots, onions, potatoes, pepper and herbs, eaten here with herring. Other hutspots toss in a few beef ribs.
You might pick up some roka, crisp cheese sticks, to nibble with your beer or while sightseeing. Or Delft cream cakes called Jan Hagel, best eaten on the spot. Dutch beer needs no further plaudits for its great taste, jenever the national gin that grows on you.
Moderate-cost dining: Beneath the Prinsenhof Museum you'll find the romantic restaurant De Prinsenkelder, its white arched walls, iron chandeliers and twin-lion statues whisking you back in time to the 16th Century when William of Orange lived upstairs. Menu favors French, with detours to such delicacies as salmon with dill sauce, an all-Dutch meal of seasonal favorites.
Next door is the more informal De Nonnerie, opened days for coffee, sandwiches and pastries. Fresh flowers on the tables, an excellent selection of broodjes, the addictive open-face Dutch sandwiches. Try one of Brie or pate for $2.75.
Stadspannekoeckhuys (Oude Delft Canal 113) has the most formidable selection of pancakes we've yet to see, 35 toppings by fast count, everything from bacon and cheese to berries with whipped cream. More informality here, place mats with Breughel pictures, a few antiques strewn about.