The Tulip Fields

Spring in Holland: instantly it brings to mind images of blooming blocks of bold pinks and reds, whites and purples—fields of tulips as far as the eye can see. These fabulous preconceptions we have are not so fantastical: such images do exist. However, spring in Holland is also more real than this idea we have of tones swirling and blending together in a phantasm of color. Tulips are everywhere in spring—in parks, on corners, planted in pots and hidden in secret gardens—and though this may not be the 17th century, they are people’s livelihoods, cut and sold to the rest of the world, which demands the bit of spring the tulips are and bring.

For six weeks every year, all of Amsterdam comes together for the “Tulp,” or Tulip, Festival, a celebration of Holland’s famed flower. This year, the festival took place from April 1 to May 14; I planned my visit to Holland so as to arrive in the middle, in mid-April. Select shops and museums sell maps that show where tulips may be found throughout various parts of the city, including Centrum (Central), Noord (North), Zuid (South), and Oost (East), the most tulips being in the city center; I picked up my map for a euro at the Tulip Museum, where I began my tulip tour.

The Tulip Museum is small but a good place to spend half an hour or so. It tells the history of tulips in Holland, how they came to Holland and rose in status to such an extent as to cause Tulip Mania, nothing with which most people aren’t already somewhat familiar. One room, however, shows the steps of harvesting tulips, and in another, interactive touch screens display the name and a picture of different varieties of tulips when you touch numbers scattered throughout Europe and Asia. In the gift shop are beautiful amaryllises, the prettiest, I think, the Amaryllis charisma—pomegranate red in perfect lines radiating from the center, transparent where the color doesn’t quite reach some of the petals’ edges, and trimmed in a thin line of the same red, as if the flower were sketched on white organza.

Of the many tulip locations, including Damrak, the square across from the Royal Palace, Amstel Hotel, and the EYE Film Institute (a recently opened, architecturally modern cinematography museum that also screens films), those where I found the most remarkable tulips were Museumplein and Vondelpark. In Museumplein, in front of the Rijksmuseum and I amsterdam letters, is a long, rectangular pond stretching towards the other side of the park in and around which were big pots planted with tulips—purple tulips that caught the light, baby pink tulips, and more decidedly pink tulips that looked as though they’d been swept with a highlighter brush. Schoolkids had planted tulips of many colors that were in full bloom around the statue in Vondelpark.

Less conspicuous but worth searching for were those in the so-called “secret garden” of the hotel Andaz Amsterdam. The tulips themselves, of the “White Dream” variety, had actually for the most part either already or not yet bloomed, but the garden—Alice’s garden, the one to which the door is always locked in Carroll’s story—more than made up for the scarcity of the flowers. A black and white wall in the back shows Alice in Amsterdam in her light blue dress, holding an oversized navy spoon and surrounded by a rabbit, windmill, and of course, tulips! A hedge is kept trimmed to look like the mouse, while a watch face stands to the side. The floor is patterned as a chess board.

My final day in Amsterdam, I cycled through flower fields along “Bollenstreek,” known as the Flower Strip or Flower Route, in what was easily the highlight of my stay in Amsterdam. “Bollenstreek” stretches from Haarlem to Leiden, and as the train tracks parallel the length of it, it’s possible to rent a bike in Amsterdam, bike south until you feel tired, and hop on a train to go back. Having taken the train up from Rotterdam, though, and already seen the fields of red, pink, and yellow from afar, I opted to catch a train to Schipol Airport, from which buses to Keukenhof, manicured gardens to which tourists from all over the world flock during the two months of the year in which they’re open, depart every ten minutes. The gardens are located in Lisse, between Haarlem and Leiden, and while the gardens’ theme this year was “Dutch Design” and I’m positive they would have been beautiful, it was the tulips in nature that I wanted to see, so I avoided the Disneyland crowds and rented a bike in the parking lot for €10.

Four bike paths encircle the gardens. As soon as I exited the parking lot, I went the wrong way, taking Route 4 to the additional fields, on the wrong side of the road for taking pictures. When I realized this, I turned around and soon found myself on Route 3 and in Halfweg, where I thought were the most fully blossoming tulips of all of the tulips I saw that day (and I saw them at the beginning!). To the far left were light red ones like the tips of flames, their petals confused as to whether they were supposed to be red or pink. Closer to me were dark pink tulips, slightly more sparse but brilliant in color, and across a small river were tulips of the same and a lighter color, growing in luxuriant rows.

Farther on, the bike path led past a lake, which wasn’t flower fields but was nice nonetheless, giving to the route a sense of serenity and a good deal of green. On the other side of the lake, the path turned onto a road on either side of which were working fields. Workers picked tulips in one; another was filled with pink striated tulips; another with red, purple, orange, and yellow ones, and beyond that, light and dark pink ones; another with red, white, and yellow.

At the end of the road, I cut across from Route 3, which continued on towards the ocean, to Route 2, to see more tulips. On this route I saw fields that looked as though their flowers had been recently cut, crushed pink petals littering the spaces between rows. but biking around a bend onto the first of them, I thought even this sight lovely. Many of the fields I saw were less full of tulips than I had imagined, but this is why the tulips in Holland are “real”: they are cut and sold, not grown to simply sit there and look pretty.

I didn’t expect to see so many hyacinths, either. My favorites were a whole plot of baby pink ones and another of deep purples.

Finally stopping for lunch, I watched a woman get out of the car where her husband waited and carefully make her way down the hill from the road to be closer to the tulips. These fields were messy but gorgeous—all yellow diamonds, red satin, ballerina slippers, lavender kisses, and fresh cream. After the woman had left, I made my own way down the hill and disappeared into the tulips.

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Dutch Windmills and Ducks

One of Monet’s Champ de Tulipes en Hollande, housed in the Musée Marmottan Monet, in Paris.

For picturesque views of original windmills, Holland’s Kinderdijk is just the place. A small town seemingly as devoted to preserving its heritage as to carrying on in quiet spaces, Kinderdijk offers visitors a more authentic and natural setting to see windmills than do more touristy towns around Amsterdam.

Just outside of Rotterdam, Kinderdijk is a little tricky to get to but by no means inaccessible. In the summer, Waterbus Line 202 takes passengers directly from Rotterdam’s Erasmus Bridge to Kinderdijk; in the off-season (when I visited), passengers can take Line 20 to Ridderkerk De Schans and transfer to a small yellow ferry called the Driehoeksveer (Line 6), which drops off at Kinderdijk.

From the moment I looked left and right at charming buildings and crossed the street, where a sign posted outside a gift shop on the corner made the intriguing proposition of coffee, the air threatened rain. A single cloud overhead was so dark that I was surprised it had held onto its water for so long, but it made for dramatic contrast in pictures. Then it rained.

Down the way a bit was a ticket office, but there is another, less crowded one at the first of two windmills that visitors can enter. I continued down a long, paved road bisecting a river, from which already one can see all of the windmills of Kinderdijk and over which I crossed a bridge to the first windmill, where I paid the entrance fee and went inside. The interior was a sort of museum intended to model family life inside a windmill; I’m not sure it was worth the entrance fee, but all proceeds go towards upkeep of the windmills, and climbing the slender steps like those to a loft and looking up through the last level to the wheels that made the whirligigs spin was fun. The second windmill is a bit farther on and much smaller, with only a kitchen and bedroom.

More agreeable was the walk along the path. The whole area looked like a marsh—a part of the Low Countries, truly! It was cold and windy, but by this point the sun was trying its hardest to break through the clouds, making the light soft and illuminating, and all along the river were tall grasses and lily pads. At a bend in the river, a wooden platform just wide enough for two people extended into the water as if put there for people to dock rowboats or, as it’s used now, for taking pictures. The walk continues along to the left for a long time. A few picnic tables border the water, but beware of the ducks. One dog-duck begged me for some of my green grapes and was so demanding that it bit my jeans.

Deciding that food could wait, I followed the path to the end, where a wide bridge crosses to the other side of the river and rows of swards fill the landscape in every direction. Rows of water no more than a meter wide separated me from wild animals, so I could look closely without having to worry about getting too close: four white cows with patches in caramel, munching (the word is an onomatopoeia) on grass; white goats and black goats; a single swan, sitting silently, watchfully, I think possibly aggressively. All of this where just on the other side of the grassy plots were people’s homes, clothes strung along lines outside.

I’m not opposed to all ducks, though. To go back to the ferry, I took a dirt path paralleling the paved one and in that first section of river, by the first bridge, saw four adult ducks, one on each corner of a square, shepherding many more fuzzy ducklings, so ugly but so adorable, across the middle of the river towards the banks! The windmills were classic and worth the trip, but the ducklings were undoubtedly the cutest part of Kinderdijk.