Tiptoeing Through the Tulips in Holland’s Keukenhof

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Holland may have a cold spring, but its hardy tulips are already blooming all over the place. I spent Easter weekend this year in Lisse, with the highlight of the trip being the amazing tulip festival at the Keukenhof.

We planned to visit the festival on Saturday only to find rain and clouds in the morning. So instead we headed off to Amsterdam for the day and saved the festival for Sunday. This ended up being the perfect choice – Saturday turned out not to be too wet after all but Sunday was full of sunny skies setting an ideal backdrop for one of the most famous flower shows in the world.

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I highly recommend this festival to anyone in Europe in springtime looking for something scenic but unique to do. The extensive Keukenhof park tumbles out a maze of meandering walkways, scenic waterways, and row upon neatly planted row of colorful tulips and many other types of flowers. This year the theme of the festival is Van Gogh, commemorating the 125th anniversary of the famous Dutch artist’s death. A special display of bulbs arranged in the shape of one of Van Gogh’s self-portraits forms a new “Selfie Garden.” The flowers haven’t yet bloomed but the shape of his old-fashioned selfie is clear.

Van Gogh "Selfie Garden"
Van Gogh “Selfie Garden”

And while on the topic of selfies, no modern tourist needs a special garden to prompt them. Self-obsessed visitors from all over the world, many with those selfie-stick things, can be seen clicking away all over the park. In addition, many people obnoxiously ignore the “keep off the grass” signs to have their friends take pictures of them standing up close and personal with every bloom in sight.

Cheese wheels for photo ops
Cheese wheels for photo ops
Clogs for every occasion
Clogs for every occasion

Tourist complaints aside, there are a lot of great encouraged photo opportunities set up throughout the property in addition to the beautifully landscaped outdoor gardens. Small themed areas of the grounds have props and sets visitors can use for photos like giant clogs, big plastic wheels of cheese, rowboats full of flowers, paint palettes and easels, and a climbable recreation of an Amsterdam balcony.

Inspiration Garden
Inspiration Garden
Insect Garden
Insect Garden
Orchids display
Orchids display
Sunflowers surround a Van Gogh's sunflower painting
Sunflowers surrounding a Van Gogh sunflower painting

Many areas of the Keukenhof hold particularly creative displays of flowers as well. The Inspiration Garden, for example, presents imaginative alternatives to traditional flowerpots and garden beds. Here flowers have been planted in dresser drawers placed on an antique set of shelves, the cushioned seat of an old chair, and the middle of a table built with scraps of a wooden fence. One of the many indoor exhibits scattered in various corners of the park currently displays orchids dripping from cakelike structures and lining a stretch of love-themed pillows. In another, still-life paintings by Van Gogh are surrounded by their real life inspirations.

Dutch folk dancing
Dutch folk dancing
Drying eels
Drying eels
Windmill overlooking more flower fields
Windmill overlooking more flower fields

Entertainment and delicious food round off the festival and help to turn it into a full-day event. We visited during Dutch Heritage weekend where music, dance, and demonstrations highlighted aspects of Dutch culture. Traditionally clad people crafted fishing nets, showed and explained how to dry and smoke eels, and sang shanties of the sea. Meanwhile children and adult visitors tried their hand at a hoop and stick game or sat perched on hay bales in the shadow of a windmill filled with more visitors. Each weekend of the festival between mid-March and mid-May follows a particular theme for its entertainment. The biggest events are around King’s Day on April 27. By that time even more flowers will be in bloom to enjoy as well.

Stroopwafel!
Stroopwafel!

I was also fortunate to discover Dutch Stroopwafels this weekend – a sandwich formed by two crispy round waffle cookies spread with a thick caramelly syrup in between. Earlier in the day we tried a savory bean mixture flavored with ham. You can top it with chopped onions and either a sweet syrup or a piccadilly sauce similar to mustard. Other stands in the park sell herring sandwiches, local strawberries, and standard fest fare like hot dogs, popcorn, and ice cream.

Kasteel Keukenhof
Kasteel Keukenhof

Before heading home on our last day of this trip, we explored the grounds of Kasteel Keukenhof, a castle (more like a stately manse) whose grounds once included the area of the current Keukenhof gardens. We didn’t have time for a tour of the inside of the castle, so instead strolled around the grassy lawns and forest paths dotted with the occasional modern art statue.

It turned out that we were lucky to have to go elsewhere for lunch (the castle restaurant was reservations-only for Easter Monday), because this led us to discover the charming Station Kasteel Keukenhof just down the road. This former train station turned quaint café was the perfect place to enjoy sandwiches, coffee, and a slice of Dutch apple pie  before ending our stay in Holland.

For visitor information on the Keukenhof festival, see their website: http://www.keukenhof.nl/en/

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Double Dutch: Q&A with a Pair of Flying Dutchmen

Much more on this trip coming soon – for now, enjoy a few fun facts about Amsterdam with this Q&A. On our last night, Nora and I met two local pilots who enthusiastically answered many questions we had come up with during our time in their beloved hometown.

Scene of the Q&A: Café 't Smalle
Scene of the Q&A: Café ‘t Smalle

Q: What typical Dutch food do you recommend?
A1: Pancakes!
A2: Oh, and this place over here on the corner has the best apple pie in all of Amsterdam. [Pointing to a café called Winkel]

Q: Dutch is spoken in many areas of Belgium, too. Is the culture there more Dutch like in the Netherlands or more similar to the French-speaking Belgian culture?
A2: They only share a common language with people from Holland. The Dutch-speaking people in Belgium are Flemish, which is similar to Dutch culture but not the same.

Q: Sorry, do you only call it Holland then? Not the Netherlands?
A1: Yes. Our country is Holland.

Q: So about the Red Light District… What services exactly can people buy?
A1: There are different levels. At the first level, you can put coins in a machine to see a peep show. At the second level, you can watch a live sex show. At the third level, you can watch a banana show – that’s like a sex show, but just women with bananas. And at the fourth level you can, well, you know… have sex with a prostitute. [disclaimer: I have no idea how accurate this is.]

Q: We only saw women of the night. Are there male prostitutes too?
A1: Ah, not really.
A2: Hey ladies, you found them!

Q: Haha. Isn’t it uncomfortable being there with other guys?
A1: Yes, it’s weird.
A2: No, it’s not a problem.

Q: In addition to legalized prostitution, the Netherlands – sorry – Holland has a lot of liberal drug policies. How do you feel about that?
A1: The laws are too lenient. I think too many things are allowed.

Red Light District at night
Red Light District at night
One of many canals - an Amsterdam highlight according to these locals
One of many canals – an Amsterdam highlight according to these locals

(I only regret that I somehow forgot to ask them my most pressing question:
Q: Why are the stairs in Dutch houses so steep?!?! Wouldn’t it be safer to go up a ladder?!

I doubt any explanation of this would satisfy me. We had to climb four flights of these treacherous steps to get to our hotel room. And when I say “climb” I mean more like sneak on tiptoe, because they were not only steep but unbelievably narrow.)

Hard to tell here, but these steps are as close to perpendicular as stairs can be
Hard to tell here, but these steps are close to perpendicular