A few weeks ago I got an email from a friend. She was inviting me on a trip to the Netherlands in April, girls only. Oh boy, I thought. Another trip to my favorite country in northern Europe!
I'm in, I replied, and started packing.
Our driver and tour guide would be my Dutch friend Hetty, and along the way we stopped to pick up another friend who'd recently moved to Brussels. We were a multi-national force, with an aim of inspecting bulbs, porcelain, and other Dutch delights.
Driving through Benelux is easy, except for the traffic. My friend's van is diesel, a fuel which is heavily subsidized in The Netherlands. Her car is British, however, which allowed us to play a cool trick: When a car comes toward you on a narrow road, the person in the passenger's side throws up their hands and covers their eyes. Even better, when an impatient driver passes on the left, make a big swerving motion with your arms. That'll teach 'em.
Clearly, having fun was a priority. I even decided to have one more birthday, but this is my last one, I promise. (I'm giving my birthday to Sparky, since he didn't have one. I don't need them anymore; I've had plenty.)
We stopped at Kinderdijk on the way, a place I've been to before. But this time there were families of geese with new babies wandering around amongst the tourists. And nearby we heard lambs, racing to catch up with their mommies who were called for dinner by a handsome blond farmer.
I could see already this was going to be a great holiday.
We stayed in a bungalow park, a popular accommodation arrangement for northern Europeans. We never used the gym or the two swimming pools, but we did eat at the gourmet restaurant on the premises. No wifi, but you could purchase it in the reception area if you felt the need. Near our bungalow we watched a swan pair nesting, the male swimming around to ward off intruding water birds while the female tucked her head in and waited patiently for the arrival of the ugly ducklings.
With an authentic Dutch person to help us translate, ordering in restaurants was easy. I even picked up a bit of the local lingo myself. On a McDonald's sign we saw the phrase Tot Zo. It means "see you soon," Hetty told us. After that I felt right at home, giving the supermarket clerks a breezy "tot zo!" as we left every evening, stocked up with Dutch goodies.
Tuesday we hurried to Keukenhof, where amazing beds of bulbs are on display every year for two months. My poor old camera got quite a workout—we pointed and shot our way over the 32 hectare garden. We came upon a "river" of blue muscari, a two-toned variety that gives the appearance of a rippling river. The theme this year is "Germany", so we also saw wooden busts of German composers, including Beethovan. We never could find the bulb-ized version of Brandenburg Tor, however. But we did wander around the Japanese garden, especially poignant and peaceful this year.
And Keukenhof's children's petting zoo didn't mind when four adult-sized women ventured inside the gates to pose with the animals.
We came close to filling up our multi-gig camera cards that day, with shots like these everywhere:
We stopped each evening at the supermarket, where Hetty translated (although many items feature English). I bought more Speculoos, my favorite tea, and some syrup for the poffertjes I plan to make. Poffertjes are small pancakes about the size of a two-euro coin. They're made in a special grill, turned quickly but carefully and then served with generous sprinklings of powdered sugar.
Dutch pancake syrup is similar to strong-flavored Louisiana cane syrup, not as sweet as corn-syrup based Aunt Jemima. It's served with savory wagon-wheel pancakes as well as sweeter fruit-based versions.
The next day we drove to Gouda. No, not "Guda", as most people pronounce the cheese, but Gouda, which sounds a lot like "how-da". It works best if you clear your throat as you pronounce the first syllable.
Pronunciation sorted, we stopped by the tourist office and procured a self-guided tour map. Then we visited the church, the city hall, and then toured the cheese museum, located in the Waag house--the weigh house.
Although I don't eat cheese, I did buy some Gouda to bring back to my husband. My friend had told me about stinging nettle cheese, which they had there—only they called it "herbs". I guess most people are intimidated by the thought of eating stinging nettles, but not me.
Delft was our next destination, specifically the Royal Delft porcelain factory. The €8 tour includes a 10% discount at the shop. We were able to walk past the cubicles where the artists apply the ink to the unbaked porcelain. Here's the end result of the fish plate one artist was painstakingly applying ink to. Before the piece is fired, the ink is black, but after firing, it turns the beautiful shades of blue that Royal Delft is known for.
The Hague, or Den Haag, is only a short drive from Delft. We found a parking space, then a sweet cafe where a vegan can easily be accomodated. I wish I'd thought to remember the name or snap a photo—the pumpkin soup was fantastisch!
We walked past the working Royal Palace (where the Queen actually works), then on to the Dutch parliament building—both the old and the new. We saw where the young-ish and single (and handsome) Prime Minister works, and passed the museum where Vermeer's Girl with the Pearl Earring hangs.
After five days, it was time to head back across the polders of The Netherlands, down the modern highways and over borders long open to residents of Benelux—Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg.
As we crossed the border into Belgium, near Antwerp, I whispered Tot Zo to Holland. Mainly that's because I don't know the word for Goodbye, but you never know...I just might be back.
For more images of The Netherlands, go here.