Susan Pigg, Associate Travel Editor
The road to Holland's Keukenhof gardens is paved with good intentions. But today, at least, it's also jammed with tour buses and lined with cars.
Its sidewalks are overflowing with visitors on foot and on bike. Virtually every strip of asphalt leading to the world's biggest spring garden is blocked, it seems, thanks to the annual Bloemencorso, a delightful show of flower power that wends its way over 12 hours and 40 kilometres through Dutch villages and countryside with sweet-smelling parade floats heralding the end of winter.
Oh, there are lots of other distractions on the way to Keukenhof, as well. Bulb sellers are doing a brisk business from roadside stalls, tourists are posing for pictures in oversized wooden shoes and some have wandered into the surrounding fields to marvel up-close at tulips that are planted in rows as straight and neat as the red, white and blue stripes on the country's flag.
Just getting to the gates of this sprawling spring garden about 40 kilometres southwest of Amsterdam has been such an unexpected chore – especially given the 1.6 million people lining the Bloemencorso's nearby parade route – you can't help wonder if it's really worth all the effort. But all doubts disappear as you step into this extraordinary spectacle of sight and scent.
No one celebrates spring quite like the Dutch. And Keukenhof is the country's party central.
"When you ask somebody what is well known in Holland, first they say (soccer player) Johan Cruyff, then the Keukenhof," says long-time local John van Veen. "Everybody's seen the beautiful pictures in a magazine or a leaflet. It's like a fairy tale for two months. And when there's not a million people here for the flower parade, it's very quiet."
Next year Keukenhof celebrates 60 years as a unique showcase for Holland's world-famous bulb industry. Some seven million bulbs are hand-planted here each year – supplied by almost 100 of the country's top growers – in gardens and around whimsical sculptures scattered throughout the 32-hectare site, which also bills itself as the Netherlands' largest sculpture garden.
Come April and May, these carefully tended bulbs explode into incredibly elaborate designs that are gone by the end of May, when the gardens close for the season. Months later they are rearranged into yet more spectacular shows of bright reds, yellows, blues, pinks, oranges and whites so there will be another surprise the following spring when the garden reopens in March.
"It's 10 months of work for two months of show," as one Keukenhof staffer says. But by planting the bulbs in layers like lasagna – those that flower last are at the bottom of the subterranean pile – the gardens' 30 horticulturalists ensure there are always flowers in bloom throughout Keukenhof's short, but spectacular, eight-week season.
From this year's Olympic rings fashioned out of multicoloured hyacinth, to celebrate the summer Games in Beijing, to the stunning "river" of brilliant red tulips, yellow narcissus and purple-blue muscari that meanders between trees like a babbling brook, there is something in the delicate petals that powers down the heart rate.
"So many Dutch have never been here. They think it's just for tourists," says van Veen, who has added to the quiet quotient at Keukenhof this year with tours on historic "whisper boats," some of which used to ply the waters in the flower fields around Keukenhof and carry the bulbs from the fields to market.
"It is so quiet," says van Veen, who's never grown a tulip, but felt the boats were the best way to give visitors a close-up view of Holland's almost 7 billion euro flower industry, which accounts for about 60 per cent of the world's commercially grown blooms. The 50-minute trip takes you past some four kilometres of fields where many of Keukenhof's flowers, and others for export, are cultivated.
The tours, like the flowers – which have been late blooming this year because of Holland's harsh winter and cool spring – didn't get off to a great start.
"The first three weeks it was impossible for sailing. It was snowing and cold and stormy. But now you can see, the view is beautiful," says van Veen, 58, sporting a jaunty captain's hat and a scarf secured with a tiny wooden shoe, motioning to fields full of fragrant tulips and hyacinth. "In this world where things are fast and must be faster, faster, faster, it is so important to have those moments of silence. And this is the silence."
Van Veen became determined to find some of the old flat-bottomed, fluister boats that used to ply the gentle canal waters adjacent to Keukenhof (the boats are moored at the base of Keukenhof's historic windmill) after visiting the gardens last year.
"I was standing here looking at all the beautiful flowers – it was like a painting. I said to my wife, `It must be possible to sail here with boats in that painting,' and now we've done it."
One of the boats, the Westlander, dates back to 1934 and was used in the south of Holland to transport vegetables to market along canals, some of which date back 350 years. These canals were vital lifelines for the Dutch and often connected all the way to massive seaports such as Rotterdam.
"I looked for these boats all over Holland because I think it's so important not to sail a new boat or a plastic boat. People like it that each boat has a story."
It took him just two weeks – "but two weeks of 24 hours a day," says van Veen with a grin – to track down four of the vessels, known as whisper boats because of their quiet electric engines.
He found the 80-year-old Bollenvlet on Google and its Amsterdam owner was so happy the boat would be going back to its watery roots, he cut the price.
"He was sailing it a bit on (Amsterdam's) canals, but the boat was in a terrible way. I painted it and put in a new floor. Now it's a very beautiful boat."
They've proven to be a big hit with tourists who have no idea that the tulip, now considered as consummately Dutch as windmills and wooden shoes, is really Turkish. The name is derived from the tulbent, the Sultan's turban headdress, which the flowers were thought to resemble in shape.
The first tulips were taken back to Europe in the 16th century. But until recently the flower hadn't been seen in Turkey – except in classic artwork, such as on old tiles and carpets – since an uprising by Turks who felt the brilliant blooms had become too costly an obsession for the Sultan.
Now Turkey is restaking its claim to the ancient blooms, with a massive bulb-planting program which began three years ago, aimed at restoring the tulips to the gardens of Istanbul where they once adorned the grounds of the Sultan's palaces and the homes of the rich. Istanbul has also held a tulip festival and begun agricultural production that it hopes, down the road, will produce thousands of jobs.
"There is a lot of experience in these flowers in Holland now. Turkey may want the tulip back," van Veen says, breaking into a smile, "but I say No. No. Never."