Dutch bulb fields have, since the time of ‘tulip mania’ in the 17th century, attracted painters from Europe and beyond, mesmerised by vistas of flowers, row after row, vibrant and tantalising, extending like floral carpets to meet the horizon.
One of my favourite examples is Tulips in Holland by French Impressionist, Claude Monet, painted in 1886.
I am fascinated by the light and the vivid hues, and had pondered the reality and how it compared with Monet’s impressions as he set them to canvas in real time.
The Dutch tulip season is short, beginning in March and ending in May. A short visit to Holland’s southern bulb region last week presented the opportunity to feast my eyes on multitudes of magnificent blooms as Monet did on another spring day over 130 years ago.
The flat land and waterways reminded me of happy childhood holidays cruising on the Norfolk Broads with my family. They are early memories, set in time in a technicolour palette; our sensory perceptions of colour, smell, pain and sounds gradually fade as we grow older. I still remember the boldness of scarlet poppies against the parched East-Anglia fen land and vast sky. Of course, the two regions of England and Holland were once joined, back in the mists of time, so perhaps the connection is understandable.
The landscape changes from week to week as fields are harvested and return to barren soil, their glory days ended for another year. Elsewhere, new flowers open to the sun as their moment arrives.
I ambled alongside one narrow canal which skirted several smaller fields. Views from the water’s edge offered a chance to see further and to form my solitary impressions.
My impression is of a grand artistic collaboration between nature and nurture at its triumphant moment of fruition, and that I was lucky to be in the gallery to see it for myself.
Two or three years ago my mum revealed that as a young woman she’d longed to visit Dutch tulip fields. She’s 77 now and although that long ago dream had never come true, she had still thought of it from time to time. Mum had never previously mentioned this ambition as she had thought it too difficult to realise. That’s not completely without foundation; tulips bloom for just a couple of months, mid-March to mid-May, so any visit would have to take place within a fairly tight window. Practically, I’m the only one of her children who could accompany mum on such an expedition, and I can only take holidays at certain times. This year the opportunity finally arose for us to visit the Netherlands during my Easter break.
The Netherlands is famously the world’s largest exporter of flowers, and nowhere can the glory of Dutch flora be better experienced than at Keukenhof Gardens. Keukenhof is situated in Lisse in the bulb growing region of Holland to the south-west of Amsterdam. The 80 acre park was opened in 1950 as a site for growers from all over the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe to exhibit their hybrids and help the Dutch export industry.
The land had formerly been a medieval hunting ground, and was used in part to provide herbs, fruit and vegetables for the kitchen of the land-owning Countess of Heinaut’s castle, hence the name Keukenhof, or ‘kitchen garden’. After the Countess’ death, the land was possessed by several very wealthy owners. Constantly expanding since the current park’s establishment, it has become one of the largest flower gardens in Europe and attracts millions of visitors from all over the world.
Keukenhof opens its gates to visitors for only seven or eight weeks each year, so it can be very busy. It was wonderful to see so many awe-struck flower enthusiasts soaking up the April sun and the spectacular vistas. ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aahs’, I discovered, sound the same in all of the many languages I heard as we wound our way around the botanical wonderland.
Traditional woodland areas still displayed late flowering snowdrops and daffodils, some presented in very artistic arrangements.
Carpets of tulips and hyacinths rolled out in glorious displays of colour and texture.
Each year Keukenhof has a theme, and in 2019 it is Flower-Power; a ’60s retro celebration of peace and love. Various exhibitions and installations appeared throughout the park; I particulary enjoyed the inspirarational peace garden.
Many lakes and water features grace the park. Some provide quieter places to sit – as far as is possible at a popular site on this scale.
Keukenhof Gardens is roughly the size of 80 football (soccer) pitches, so a full day is needed if you want to see all of it. Of course, this necessitates stops for food and rest, all of which is catered for. There are two larger restaurant areas but these do become very busy at the obvious times. Other charming cafes offer delicious coffee and famous Dutch apple pie.
Everywhere is accessible for prams and wheelchairs, and there are lots of places to sit and take a break whilst enjoying the carnival of flowers.
This is just a flavour of my visit to Keukenhof; a small selection of the delights for the senses. I have returned with a selection of bulbs for my own garden which – fingers crossed – will be a reminder when they flower of a special kitchen garden that I was able to share with my mum and make a dream come true.
I wish an enjoyable weekend to all, hopefully one that will include some beautiful flowers and sunshine.
is one of the world’s largest flower gardens. Covering an area of 80 acres it is a celebration of Dutch flora on a magnificent scale. The of the modern is one of the world’s largest flower gardens. Covering an area of 80 acres it is a celebration of Dutch flora on a magnificent scale. The of the modern
For a while now I’ve been toying with the idea of a cruise. I don’t mean sailing around the Med or Caribbean, poolside, on a floating luxury hotel; that’s not really me. I’m thinking more of northern European fjords or the distant bleak but beautiful archipelagos of the British Isles. Before making any plans, I had to find out if I – life long sufferer of travel sickness – had sea legs. There was also the matter of my slight fear of sinking hundreds of miles from dry land…
A mini-cruise to Amsterdam presented a perfect opportunity to test out my personal fitness to sail, overcome my anxieties about drowning at sea, and to visit a beautiful city on my destination wish list.
I confess that I was nervous about sailing the briny waves but I was determined to conquer my fear of finding myself in a rendezvous with Neptune on the sea bed.
At the Port of Hull in north-east Yorkshire we boarded the good ship Pride of Rotterdam for the overnight voyage and checked into our cabin on deck 10. It was time to explore our vessel. First stop was the sun deck where very strong winds made it difficult to hold the camera still, but after noting the location of the lifeboats (and committing this to memory) I got a few shots of Hull, including the Humber Bridge.
Following a happily eventless night, we arrived alive and well in Rotterdam. From there, a convenient coach ride brought us to our destination, Amsterdam, about 90 minutes away.
We only had a day and it was already mid morning so time was of the essence. I had lots of ideas about what I wanted to see but had to be realistic as the clock was ticking. This was a day to get a flavour of the city; I could return for a longer visit another time.
Amsterdam is known as the Venice of the North due to the extensive network of canals which weave around the city. A canal cruise seemed like a good way to take in some of the sights with the option of disembarking to visit any points of interest along the way.
The starting point was the boat and bus tour hub across from Amsterdam Central train station. I made a mental note of the ideally situated chain hotel just metres away which would be a perfect place to stay on a future visit.
Bus and boat tours were plentiful but queues were long. We waited for 25 minutes – a big chunk of time out of our short day but were lucky enough to get the last two places.
The audio recording provided interesting facts about the Dutch capital. In the 12th century, the dam in the River Amstel emerged from being a small fishing village into a hugely important port. The 17th century was known as the Dutch Golden Age which saw the growth of commerce and the diamond trade and expansion of empire. Amsterdam’s 17th century waterways have been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status.
We passed through one of the main commercial districts, the port and spotted the largest Chinese restaurant in the Netherlands. This area reminded me of Stockholm.
It was a warm sunny day and Amsterdam was buzzing as we wound our way around the Amstel. As I listened to the audio guide and learned some fascinating facts about the city, I found myself relaxing into my surroundings and forgetting about the time.
We passed through the Jewish cultural district famous for diamond and jewellery manufacturing. Some people left us there for a tour of the Gassan factory to see how diamonds are cut. I would like to explore this part of Amsterdam in the future.
Past City Hall and the magnificent Hermitage Museum, we arrived at an intersection with the Prinsengracht Canal where we encountered a boat rage incident. Not surprisingly on such a glorious day, many people were enjoying being on the water and a women’s boat race was in full swing. Several vessels -including ours – had become jammed at a bottle-neck bridge.
The determined women rowers were not for backing up and were quite vocal in their refusal, oars being postured to reinforce their words. I don’t know any Dutch, but locals looking down from the bridge were highly amused at the altercation. The women had to retreat in the end, but speedily sailed away towards their prize, their nearest competitors hot in pursuit.
House boats are so popular in Amsterdam that the authorities have put a stop to any new ones. Mooring charges are high and berths don’t often come available. Residents soaked up the rays outside their floating homes and along the banks where office workers and tourists alike were taking a break and enjoying the ambience.
At the Westkerk (west church) we decided to leave the boat and have a look around this central part of the city. The Church was closed, unfortunately.
The world famous Anne Frank House Museum is nearby. It goes without saying that a visit was out of the question on this occasion as queues can be very long and tickets should be bought in advance to avoid a lengthy wait.
We crossed over the Bloemgracht Canal. There are about 250 bridges in Amsterdam, many of them very pretty and reminiscent of Paris.
The bustling Jordaan area has quirky shops and cool apartment buildings and is a charming mix of old and new. I was very tempted by some contemporary Delftware, but ironically I couldn’t decide between several lovely pieces and bought none of them.
Strolling back along Raadhuisstrat we emerged in Dam Square at the centre of the city. It was packed full of people and life.
Sightseers milled around the royal palace; again, I was keen to explore but by this time had less than three hours before meeting the coach back to Rotterdam. Several protests and counter protests were taking place in the square but all were peaceful and calm, as is the liberal and tolerant Dutch way.
The Nieuwe Kerk (new church) was on my list of places to see but it was hosting an exhibition about the Buddha, which although probably fascinating, would have eaten too much into our remaining time. The rest of this gorgeous building had been closed off. Next time…
Damrak is the main shopping street and it was thriving. All the usual multinational eateries were mixed with museums and exhibition spaces. Many of the buildings are three hundred years old.
I was fascinated by the Amsterdam Cheese Company store with its huge cheeses on display in the upstairs windows.
At the end of Damrak, with Central Station in view, stand some of the loveliest houses in the whole of the city, centuries old and full of character.
Behind these is the red light district and infamous coffee shops. Amsterdam is synonymous with licentiousness and hedonism, but what really surprised me was that it is not ‘in your face’. If visitors want to ogle ladies in windows or enjoy space cakes with their special coffees, it’s all easily available – but you have to look for it. Side streets offer hints to what lies further ahead, but that is a choice, and nobody has to walk that way, and won’t find themselves there by accident.
I didn’t enter the labyrinth of the senses this time, but would do if time permitted, as the red light district is reputed to include some very handsome buildings.
A little more exploring and it was time to head back to Rotterdam with just an hour to spare before we set sail. Once again, relatively calm waters conveyed us back to Hull where we arrived at 08:00.
What a weekend! What a revelation Amsterdam has been! It was the briefest of visits, and I only got a glance, not a look, at a fascinating city. I will go back, but even though I do seem to have sea legs after all (albeit somewhat wobbly ones) and I can sleep through the night without watching for the sea seeping into the cabin, I’ll stick to the big metal bird next time around.