Once a child's dream, Holland is now this adult's reality.
Ever since I read The Bobbsey Twins in Tulipland I've wanted to visit Holland. My aunt, who lived in Germany, helped feed the desire by sending me a cute Dutch doll (that looked a lot like this) and a pair of wooden clogs. The idea of The Netherlands, also known as Holland, grew in my mind to a mythic place where tulips and windmills and quaint Dutch people continued to exist despite the twentieth century's encroachment.
Now, many of the windmills are modern steel giants, the tulips are no doubt genetically enhanced and the Dutch people generally wear Nikes instead of wooden clogs. But the Bobbsey Twins would still feel right at home on their bicycles, cycling around the flat plains of South Holland.
Bicycles are the preferred mode of transportation for most Dutch people, who also own their fair share of horses. Not even in England have I seen so many horse riders, out during the week day no less! And don't think for a minute the Dutch have no need for cars—if the traffic we sat through in Rotterdam is any indication, four wheeled vehicles still outnumber the two wheeled kind at least during rush hour.
Crossing the border into The Netherlands near Antwerp, we immediately noticed a difference: Paved bike paths along the motorway were filled with bikers, not on U.S.-style speedsters, but instead riding slow moving heavy bikes built for hauling small families across the flat plains of Holland.
We detoured off the motorway and encountered even more bikers, stopping obediently at their own signals. They share their paths with motorized scooters, and somehow avoid running into each other.
That was my first impression of Holland. My second was the windmills, which flourish in abundance at Kinderdijk. Named for the baby found alive in a cradle during the worst floods of 1421, Kinderdijk is located just south of Dordrecht, and for us was on the way to our destination, the North Sea resort of Noordwijk. The canals, called "weteringen", were created in the 13th century, but by the 18th century another method of keeping the polders drained was needed. Nineteen windmills were built, and today they still stand guard in stiff formation along either side of the canal, although now they are assisted by giant screw-type mechanical pumps.
Kinderdijk is a protected UNESCO World Heritage site, open year round. Entrance is free but parking costs 5 euros. There are limited facilities, including a small gift shop. One of the windmills is open for touring (for an additional fee) and there is also a 30-minute boat tour up and down the canal.
Next we drove through two thoroughly modern and crowded cities, Rotterdam and Den Haag (The Hague). Den Haag has a lovely park on the north side of town, on the road toward Noordwijk, a welcome escape from the concrete of the city centre.
After passing through Den Haag, I knew to keep my eyes peeled for bulb fields, on the advice of my map, which had tiny figures of tulips dotted around the area. Sure enough, it wasn't long before I caught sight of a field full of light blue hyacinths.
As we neared Noordwijk, we saw fields of yellow daffodils, red tulips, blue and pink hyacinths, and white narcissi, stretching out across the flat land on either side of the road. Enchanted, we exited the main road and ventured into the heart of tulip country. A bicycle would have served us well, but all we had were four wheels and a turbo-charged engine, so we made do. "Stop! Over there! I don't have a picture of pink hyacinths yet!"
Eventually we made it to our hotel, 260 shots later. Noordwijk aan Zee is the official name of the resort town, which consists mostly of hotels facing the North Sea beach, a stern Queen Wilhemina guarding the dunes. There weren't enough people there to make it feel like a tourist trap, though I suppose in the dead of the summer the beach promenade would be filled with tourists. Not even the Bloemencorso, which began Saturday morning from literally right in front of our hotel, brought in uncontrollable crowds. The Flower Parade continued throughout the day, finally ending up in Haarlem, about 25 kilometres up the road.
If you visit South Holland in April, it would be irresponsible to fail to visit Keukenhof Gardens in Lisse, which is only open from late March to May. Keukenhof was created in 1949 by Dutch bulb growers who wanted a place to show off their bulbs. The name means "kitchen garden" which it formerly was, belonging to a 16th century duchess.
The guide books recommend arriving early—it opens at 8 a.m.—to avoid the crowds, but I made a late decision to go. The sun was out on Wednesday, and living in Britain has taught me to always plan around the presence of the sun. While there were crowds of tourists, particularly a lot of people in wheelchairs, there were even more flowers. Masses and masses of bright, showy bulbs. Flowers from bulbs, which sprout through six inches of earth, are more determined to impress than puny clematis and other floral species that never have to force their way to the surface in order to be seen. At Keukenhof, the colors are spectacular—rivers of blue, red, orange, yellow, blended in interesting combinations just so you don't get bored. Big fat flowerheads bob along in the breeze, waiting for you to bend over and get the money shot.
There are several restaurants at Keukenhof, all of the industrial tourist variety, but if you spot a kiosk selling cups of strawberries, stop and buy one. Best. Strawberries. Ever. I accidentally dropped one off my fork onto the ground, and I seriously contemplated picking it up and eating it.
The next day, I drove to Leiden, which just barely manages to hang onto its medieval bona fides. Its few churches, closed to visitors when I was there; its picturesque windmills (one of which has been turned into Molen Museum De Valk, the Windmill Museum) and network of canals are the main attractions. They can easily be seen in half a day, but then it will take you half a day to figure how to get out of town, if like me you drove to the city centrum.
In other words, you'd probably be best to avoid Leiden and go to Delft or one of the other smaller cities.
Instead, on Friday we went to Amsterdam by way of Haarlem, a fifteen minute train ride from Amsterdam's central station. Unfortunately, our poor planning—arriving mid-afternoon—meant we were unable to do most of what was on my list: Visit the Anne Frank house, take a canal boat trip, tour the Heineken Brewery, and eat at a vegetarian restaurant. (For my success with the last on this list, see my restaurant review.) Otherwise, I can't add much to what other guide books have to say about touring Amsterdam. It is a very walkable city—we counted off 17 blocks in a matter of minutes, walking along the Keisersghracht Canal. We also managed to avoid the Red Light district, as I had no desire to tour the Sex Museum, or the Erotic Museum, ditto the Tattoo Museum, or any of the other questionable activities available there.
Something tells me the Bobbsey Twins didn't spend much time in Amsterdam.
On Saturday, before checking out of our hotel, we watched the Flower Parade, which consists of about 20 Rose Bowl-worthy floats and decorated cars and buses. I got the feeling I was sharing something special with the residents of South Holland, as we all jumped out in front of the floats to capture photos, then darted back to the edge of the street. The Dutch, I should point out, are generally very tall people, so camera shots were problematic. It became a competition to see who could stand out in the street the longest without getting run over.
We wanted to see Delft on the way home, but got caught in Flower Parade traffic. And I remembered the large wine store we'd passed in Calais, near the Channel Tunnel entrance. Wine won out, and we skipped Delft—for the time being. I'm already planning to visit Holland again, perhaps next spring.
When I got home, I compared notes with my sister-in-law, who claims her visit to Tulipland was the favorite trip she took while living in Europe. Same with me. You can have your big cities, with their stuffy museums and crowded streets. For those of us who'd rather look at real flowers than Van Gogh's Sunflowers, there really isn't a more charming spot than Holland in the springtime.
For more photos, go here.