Our entire visit to the Netherlands was planned around a trip to Keukenhof. For the longest time, going to Holland in Spring to see the tulips was a treasured dream for both M & D. I grew up to their wistful discussions of that magical moment when we'd finally be able to traipse through rows of flowers all in bloom, and though their travel bucket list has become more extensive as I got older, their desire to visit the Keukenhof gardens never waned. Between school start dates and the vagaries of D's work though, they didn't get the chance to go until the stars finally aligned this Easter holiday.
Since the park first opened its doors 65 years ago, nearly 50 million people have taken in its magnificent showcase of Dutch floriculture. More than 7 million flower bulbs are carefully planted to ensure that visitors can enjoy flowers in full bloom no matter which part of the eight-week open season they arrive in. Early flowers include narcissus, hyacinths and crocuses, and as the weather gets warmer more and more tulips bloom. Peak blooming season falls around the last two weeks of April and the first week of May, but this year Spring came a little early, and the first tulips emerged in the last week of March. Unlike our cherry blossom viewing trip where we mostly encountered still-budding trees, we lucked out this holiday and arrived at a nice mid-way point to a riot of colour in the fields.
Like most of the other tourists, we hitched a ride on the dedicated bus service from Schipol Airport. It's not every day your lifelong dreams get fulfilled, so M & D made sure to get there early, and we made it to the bus line just before a massive wave of people arrived. The half hour bus ride brought us past one set of green fields after another, interspersed with canals reflecting blue skies overhead. As we pulled into Lisse, the first tulip fields appeared on the horizon, which inspired a flurry of cameras being pulled out and people lurching from one side of the bus to the next in order to capture the streaks of colour, alternately red, yellow, purple, white and pink. There's something about tulips that inspires a kind of mania, and almost four hundred years after the tulip bubble burst, people still go crazy over them.
Thankfully, we didn't go on a Parade Day, so the crowds weren't as overwhelming as they eventually get in the latter part of the Keukenhof season. Still, it took us a while to fight our way past the crowds of people who'd arrived by tour coach and were milling about the entrance waiting for their tickets. With our Holland Pass, we were able to skip the ticket queue and just present our tear-out coupons at the gates to be let in.
The park itself is rather labyrinthine, so most people were attempting to get a look at the big maps located near the entrance. We were a sight more adventurous (Or foolhardy), and after a quick breakfast (Taking advantage of the almost non-existent queues, which we surmised would appear the closer it got to lunchtime), we charged unto the unseen breach. We figured we'd see our fill of flowers either way, so going in blind would make for a more exciting wander.
Almost everywhere in the park is filled with people, armed with cameras, their most winning smiles, or both. For every person struck dumb by the spectacle before them, is another exclaiming excitedly about this or that. There are very few quiet places in Keukenhof, so it's best not to expect much peace when you go.
The biggest rule is probably DON'T STEP ON THE FLOWERS, and but of course there will always be people so determined to get their perfect shot that they'll trample on anything to achieve it. Every once in a while a passing park ranger might shout at someone to keep off the grass, but on the most part it's anarchy. It's entirely possible to get excellent pictures while skirting the greenery though, thanks to the clever planting designs. We had a good bit of fun watching how other people were taking their pictures, and learning from them. I saw a girl trying to take a selfie from the ground up to get her face among the flowers, so I tried to do something similar, so the sunlight could highlight how gloriously saturated each tulip petal was.
Picture-perfect flowers aside, you can also round corners in Keukenhof and be surprised by pieces of art on the other side. The park is dotted with sculptures, both the park's own collection as well as those done by specially invited artists. I made a note of the prices listed on little plaques next to each sculpture I liked. I keep telling myself that one day I'll be able to afford sculptures of my own. As yet, I still don't have the money to back up my love for fine art, so in the interim I've been developing my taste for applied arts instead.
It's easy to get overwhelmed by the sea of flowers before you and forget that Keukenhof is also a great platform for Dutch crafts and design. Before we waded into the fray and got lost in the rows of tulips in the Willem-Alexander Pavilion, I had a look at the pop-up stores lining the sides of the building, where artists and craftspeople were at work creating thematically-appropriate souvenirs.
There was a lady cutting up copper plates in the shape of blooming tulips, and I spent some time watching as she carefully sawed away the excess material and the flower took shape. I'm not terribly handy myself, so I always love observing people who are. As it turned out, she's an award winning jeweler who works with her two sisters at their own atelier, called Laloli after their mother's maiden name. She was wonderfully kind, and showed me what the plate looked like once she was halfway done with it.
The work in progress would then be shaped and painted an iridescent hue, and transformed into pendants and brooches. There were other pieces on sale, like delicate flowers made of glass suspended on necklaces of silver and gold, but after an hour in the gardens, it was a simple and decidedly flower-free pair of silver and pearl earrings that caught my eye. I had a sudden wild thought that I could lark about Holland as a Girl with a Pearl Earring updated for modern times, and that basically sealed the deal on the purchase for me.
Over 75,000 tulips from more than 600 varieties were on show inside the Willem-Alexander, and more than once D exclaimed "That couldn't possibly be a tulip!". Whether straight edged or with jagged, wispy ends that curled this way and that, all the tulips were brilliantly shot through with colour.
It wasn't all tulips though - there were other plants on show, possibly to give people's brains a rest and prevent tulip overload.
We followed the surging crowd towards the windmill, which had been decorated with reams of fresh blooms. From the vantage point of the top, you could look over into the adjacent tulip fields, where small boats were taking visitors down the canals running through them.
We tried to get a spot on the whisper boats plying the canal routes as well, but realized we'd gone about the park in the entirely wrong way when we got to the front of the queue, we found that all the tickets were sold out until much later in the day, when we'd be long gone. So the moral of the story is: Get your boat tickets early. I think M would have been more disappointed about missing out on the 45 minute ride through tulip fields as far as the eye can see if we weren't already surrounded by more tulips than we knew what to do with.
We had a brief respite from the flowers at the petting zoo, where we watched an overzealous man attempt to touch one of the piglets before nearly falling into the pen himself. Apart from that rather amusing interlude, we OD-ed on the general cuteness of all the fluffy animals on display, including the cleanest calf I've ever seen in my life. It was so archetypal of a storybook calf that I just had to take the time to admire it, and when I finally looked up both M & D were gone. All of us had our phones with us, but as a child of the early 90s I sometimes think we exist in a pre-mobile phone era, and duly panicked. I eventually found them hanging around the bee exhibit without having to resort to international calling, but it was a close thing.
While trying to find our bearings, we got caught up in the throng headed towards the Beatrix Pavilion, where all the orchids were. I looked at as many varieties as I could, whether they were in pots or surrounded by a wall of mirrors for an infinity effect or hanging off the ceiling or winding round trellises, but I couldn't say for sure if I spotted a Vanda Miss Joaquim.
Even after a whole morning of flowers, each new variety had their own unique characteristics, and I kept finding different things to admire, from the varying shapes and shades and textures. I was most thrilled by the tulips that look like they were made of stiff silk and held their shape in the breeze, rather than the more diaphanous petals.
There was a tulip that was the most lustrous combination of champagne-peach-apricot, but no matter how I tried to capture it, the true colour just wouldn't show on my phone. For all the millions of pictures, there's really nothing quite like actually being there. A little over three hours in and kilometers of park paths walked though, D reached his flower-viewing limit.
D: Guys, this flower looks exactly like the one before it. We don't have to spend more time taking all these pictures. Guys...?
He ended up having to drag us bodily away.
Before we could get out though, we had to pass through the Oranje Nassau Pavilion, where roses were the flowers of the week. Most of the varieties we encountered were unscented, to my dismay. With Keukenhof 2014's theme being Holland, there were a great deal of over-the-top arrangements harking to Dutch culture, but between not wanting to get elbowed by other intrepid photographers and the sheer sense of being overcome by it all, I found myself seeking out simpler displays.
We left Keukenhof overwhelmed, but so, so pleased that we'd finally visited. These are but the tip of the iceberg of the photos the three of us collectively took that day, and we're still trying to go through them all. Recalled in small doses, the dizzying effect of being surrounded by all those flowers is dimmed, leaving only a wistful yearning for more of all the beauty we saw. Memory is such a funny thing.