In the Netherlands, they know for certain when Winter ends and the Spring arrives. In April and early May, almost every field in the province of Holland is covered in brightly coloured flowers. These are the bulb flowers most often associated with Spring. There are deep blue hyacinths, white and golden yellow daffodils and narcissi, but mostly brash, bold and colourful tulips.

Tulips come in a wide range of colours. They can be the purest white through yellow, orange and red to the deepest purple … sometimes almost black. ‘Broken’ tulips are bi-coloured, usually with a streak of a contrasting hue. ‘Self-coloured’ varieties are of one solid colour.

There’s no such thing as a true blue tulip, or a pure black one. It’s said, however, that fabulous rewards await the grower who can produce one. Botanists and horticulturists say it can’t be done. But, in a country two-fifths of which has been reclaimed from the sea, the word ‘impossible’ isn’t used very often!

Tulips originally came from Turkey, and were first mentioned by a European in 1551. The Austrian Ambassador to Turkey, Ogier de Busbecq, wrote of seeing the flowers, and sent some seeds home. In 1562 Dutch merchants brought large quantities of tulip bulbs to the Netherlands. Since then, the Dutch have been foremost in growing and trading in tulips, and the development of new varieties for sale to gardeners.

They found that, although tulips will grow in almost any soil, their flat, fertile, well-watered homeland provided almost ideal conditions. The tulips flourished, and their vivid colours found universal favour almost immediately.

Most of the bulb-fields lie along the western coastal strip, between Noordwijk and Haarlem, to the west of Amsterdam. The area is easily accessible by car from the Hook of Holland ferry port, and individuals or small groups should be able to find reasonably-priced accommodation nearby, probably at a family-run boarding house or a small hotel. Local Netherlands Board of Tourism (VVV) offices will have details of these. Owners of tents or caravans will find campsites at the nearby seaside resorts of Noordwijk and Zandvoort.

Visitors taking this option who own bicycles, and can carry them, are strongly advised to bring them along. That’s the way to get the best views of the fields of flowers. It’s far easier to take photographs than it is from a car or a coach, for you can stop whenever you wish, without grid-locking the entire province.

Many people take advantage of the coach tours which are readily available from most European countries during the flowering season. At this time of year, however, it is rather difficult to find reasonably-priced accommodation for a whole coach-load of people in the immediate area, so visitors travelling this way are often accommodated some distance away. It’s not a bad thing, though, for the visitor does see more of the Netherlands than just the bulbfields.

And, the coach definitely has the advantage over a bicycle if it starts raining!

The bulbfields are at their very best for only a few days each year. Growers normally let the blooms flower for just long enough to ensure that they are the correct colour. Then, they cut the heads off, so that the plant puts all its energies back into the bulb, and it’s not uncommon to see piles of discarded flower heads just left by the roadside.

However, this isn’t the practice at the flower nurseries in the area. Here, they sell bulbs to both the wholesale and retail trade. There are excellent displays here throughout the Spring, for the grower can advance, delay and prolong the flowering period. This is where to go to send some bulbs home.

Visitors can see the flowers growing and choose the ones they like. The bulbs will be posted almost anywhere in the world at the right time for planting, around October in the Northern Hemisphere. And, the nursery will deal with any formalities or certifications necessary for import to the country of destination.

The best display of all can be seen at the Keukenhof Gardens, near Lisse. Here, the leading bulb-growers bring the best of their flowers to show to the trade and to the public. They also exhibit any new varieties they may have developed. And, here, too, bulbs can be ordered for shipment home to family and friends.

The gardens are really the Netherlands in microcosm. An irrigation canal passes close by, and some of the ladies in charge of the food stalls wear the colourful traditional costume. In the newer part of the garden, which was opened in 1999, they have featured a dune landscape, the body of a dyke and a terp, or mound, which provides an excellent view of the bulbfields beyond the gardens. Of course, there’s a windmill! That’s as emblematic of the Netherlands as the tulip itself!

Under the trees, around the lake with its distinctive fountain … tulips of every shade imaginable, as well as hyacinth and narcissus, grow all around. For a few short weeks, all is vibrant colour and beauty, even on the dullest day. It’s generally much movement and bustle, too, for Keukehhof is popular with visitors from all over the world. But, even when the gardens are at their busiest and their most crowded, there’s usually a tranquil little corner to be found somewhere, to sit down and eat a sandwich.

It’s hard to believe that the tulip was once the subject of such cut-throat trading that many traders were ruined. When the first bulbs arrived in the Netherlands, they were so eagerly sought after that some varieties were traded for vastly inflated prices. At the height of this period, known as the Tulpenwoede, or ‘tulip-mania’, it was said that one single bulb of some varieties could provide the dowry for a bride, or the price of a canal-side house in Amsterdam.

Initially, the trade was confined to growers and experts, but after 1633, anyone could deal in tulips. The rapidly rising prices tempted many families to mortgage homes, estates and businesses in order to speculate in the market. Bulbs were often sold and re-sold many times over without ever being dug out of the ground!

But, in the Spring of 1637, the crash came, and the price of bulbs fell almost overnight. Although the Government intervened to regulate the trade, many prominent families were bankrupted.

From that period comes a story that Dutch people still like to tell. A greedy merchant once cheated one of his closest friends in order to obtain some rare and expensive tulip bulbs. Arriving home, he placed his ill-gotten bulbs on the kitchen table, and went to sleep in his chair until his dinner was ready.

When the dinner was served, the first course was a strangely-tasting soup … which his cook had made from the ‘funny onions’ she had found on the kitchen table!

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I told my Dutch friends I would try to stay away from the ‘tulips, clogs and windmills’ clichés in my writing and photography so I hope they’ll forgive me for the above. I hope I’ve made up for it in the following slide show … although I couldn’t quite avoid the tulips!
(Click on any picture in the gallery to see the slide show)


Sand Sculptures

One of the longest, cleanest beaches I have ever seen is at Scheveningen, in the Netherlands. As far as you can see, the sand stretches in both directions. Where there is sand, children like to build sandcastles.

Their castles, though, rarely last a day, before they are knocked down by the tide.

But, at Scheveningen, the people see no reason not to build sandcastles just because they are grown up. But, they call them ‘sculptures’

The Scheveningen International Sand Sculpture Festival is held in the Spring and early Summer every year. Usually, the Festival starts in late April, and the judging of the sculptures takes place in early June, when they are shown off at their best.

But, the sculptures are almost complete by early May, and can be inspected at any time. The lights and sound effects, however, are only added just before the judging. The secret of their long life is that they are built above the high water mark, and they do not use sand from the beach. Beach sand is no good for this purpose, as the grains are too rounded. Instead, they bring sand from the river, which is sharper, and the grains cling together better. They mix it with water … nothing else is allowed … and really compress it.

Then, they carve it with a variety of instruments … knives, trowels, spades or household implements. All are allowed.

There is a different theme for the sculptures every year. In 2006, the theme was the composer Mozart, for it was the 250th anniversary of his birth. In 2005, to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of Queen Beatrix, who had ruled the Netherlands for 25 years, the theme was ‘Queens of Holland’. The winning entry showed the images of the last four reigning Queens … Holland has not had a King for many years … posed like the Presidents on the Mount Rushmore Memorial.

Unfortunately, though, I could not be there for the judging this time, where, in addition to being seen in all its glory, each sculpture had to play a piece of Mozart’s music.


Maastricht: July 2010

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