Keukenhof, the Netherlands


After a few days in Amsterdam trying not to trip over any one of the 600,000 bicycles lying around, or fall into a canal; the latter potentially precipitated by the former, I went in search of tulips. Sure, Amsterdam has tulips, but it doesn’t have a 32 hectare park filled with four and a half million of them in a hundred varieties, plus another three million or so other bulbs — all planted by hand. To see that, I travelled to Keukenhof near the city of Lisse, less than an hour’s drive away.

Thanks to a cool spring in Europe, peak blooming coincided perfectly with my visit — and also with the visit of a large percentage of the other 850,000 tourists that drop by each spring; yet with 15 kilometres of pathways, the park easily accommodated us.

Keukenhof is only open for a couple of months each spring, but the added attraction on the 21st of April was the Flower Parade, called the Face of Spring. Huge floats and vehicles of the bulb growers, all spectacularly adorned with flowers, travel a forty kilometre route through towns and villages before arriving in late afternoon to a huge welcome at Keukenhof.

Before squeezing onto the main street of Lisse to watch the parade, I spent the day in the park admiring endless beds of spring flowering bulbs arrayed in clumps, swirls, strips and circles. Spellbinding? — I’ll say. They wound around the lake edge, flowed across open parkland, and swept like rivers between the trees to fill glades and dells. Swans on the lake added grace, but played second fiddle to tulips in this beauty contest, while masses of daffodils invited wandering like Wordsworth, though perhaps not so lonely as a cloud.

And the fragrance? The half a dozen hyacinths near my patio are always a delight, but when a breeze carries the output of a thousand, it’s incomparable. Must be why the birds were singing a chorus to this floral symphony. The place is a gardener’s dream, and certainly many an artist’s. Vincent Van Gogh managed to knock off a few tulip pictures, though not at Keukenhof; the current gardens were only created sixty years ago. He would be happy to learn that just last year a reddish brown tulip was named the Van Gogh tulip.

Today, the digital camera has captured every flower growing there, including those being cultivated in the distant tulips fields beyond the park. Laid out like a huge, striped blanket, the striations of colour will vanish overnight when the flower heads are snipped. This is done to prevent seeds forming at the expense of the bulb. I managed a few pictures myself despite thinking a Google search can probably find more than enough images on the internet. Check it out and see the blue rivers of grape hyacinths and beds of regal fritillaria, but it can’t compare to being there. The number of visitors has now surpassed 44 million, almost three times the population of the country.

The meaning of Keukenhof in Dutch is kitchen court, or herb garden, one of its uses when part of the estate of Baron and Baroness Van Pallandt during the nineteenth century. Shortly after the end of the Second World War, a flower exhibition was held at Keukenhof and went on to become this amazing annual event. Originally conceived by a group of bulb growers and exporters as a means to promote their product, it is now operated as a foundation.

One day at Keukenhof with a parade thrown in was a wonderful experience — more would be heaven, but I had to leave to brave the streets and canals of Amsterdam once more. The center of the city may be designated car free, but those bikes are everywhere — but so are wonderful museums, art galleries, botanical gardens, flower markets, pancakes — and one or two tulips. 

First published May 2012 Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury 
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