I don’t remember how old I was when I first saw the pictures of rainbow-colored stripes stretching endlessly into the distance but since that moment, Tulip Time in the Netherlands has been on my bucket list. And this year, I decided to see if I could check it off.
We had to plan far in advance to find affordable airfare and a place to stay, which meant gambling a little bit on which weekend the tulips would bloom, but we hedged our bets on mid-April. This also turned out to be the King’s Day holiday weekend, celebrating the king’s birthday, and everything in Amsterdam was booked. Instead, we found a cute Airbnb in Hillegom, a small town south of the city within walking and biking distance from the primary tulip areas and the famous Keukenhof gardens, one of the world’s largest flower gardens, open for only 6 weeks each year to display elaborate designs made up of some 7 million bulbs (mostly tulip) covering 79 acres of land. We arrived late on Friday night and were driven to our bnb through a ride generously arranged for us by our cheerful Croatian host, Seka. She greeted us at the door and gave us plenty of information and tips about the area, but warned us that it had been a cold spring and the tulips may not have “exploded” yet. After chatting for a while we headed to our room to burrow under the down comforter, hopes still high for the fields of tulips awaiting us the next morning.
We woke up to a chilly wind and an ominous mix of sun and clouds. This was supposed to be the nicest weather all weekend, so we made our way through the streets to downtown Hillegom in search of bikes, the primary mode of transportation in this country. The ice cream shop-cum-bike rental store we had been directed to was closed, but luckily we discovered some at Hotel Flora next door when we peeked in to examine their breakfast buffet. By 9am we were sitting upright on cushioned seats, cruising down the road (or next to it actually, on the incredible network of bike lanes that stretches across the entire country) ready to hit the Keukenhof before the tour busses started pouring in. It was difficult to tell if our strategy worked as we rode in to crowds of tourists already flooding the entrance, like opening day at Disneyland for adults. But despite the masses, as soon as we entered the gate we were swept into a world of dazzling color and it was impossible not to be in awe of the intricate floral patterns that blanketed the garden in every direction, their colors so vibrant they appeared to actually be glowing.
Equally fascinating was the people watching – tourists from all over the world had come to see the flowers, and we observed that each had their own unique way of capturing the moment, be it through telephoto lenses, selfie sticks, sitting in the flowers, sexy poses next to the flowers, it went on and on.
We could have entertained ourselves there all day but the crowds were starting to get a bit stifling so we hopped back on our bikes and pedaled off to find the glorious tulip fields I’d been imagining for so many years. We didn’t have to go far before we came upon one, blazing with color in the newly appeared sun and stretching as far as I could see, just like the pictures that had brought me here. The fields were much less popular than the garden, so we were able to marvel at the amazing sight in peace.
It was hard to tear myself away, but the lure of more fields was enticing enough to get back on the bike and keep exploring. We came upon another set of brilliant fields shortly after, where the owner and his family were selling some of the tulips from a small shack at the edge of the road for only 1 euro per bouquet. We leisurely made our way along the edges of the fields, each covered in a combination of irridescent yellow, orange, red, purple, pink and blue stripes, and then returned to buy some tulips for our host before going on our way.
By the time we got back on our bikes we were starving and it was almost time for the annual flower parade to start winding its way through downtown Hillegom. A few minutes into our journey towards town we passed yet another stunning set of fields that were begging us to walk through them so we took a detour, parked our bikes, hopped the fence, and wandered out into the middle of the flowers to soak up the sun and surreal colors. Once we were fully saturated we continued on the path into town to grab coffee and lunch before squeezing in between the townspeople lining the road as the parade came marching into view.
The parade was nothing short of amazing. Everything was decorated to the max with flowers for the occassion, including the security guards on their motorbikes and the cars belonging to local businesses (even the trash truck). One after another, the floats rolled by, each one completely different than the last but equally incredibly made of tulips. This year’s theme was “fashion”, although it seemed to be a loose interpretation, spanning everything from the king and queen of Thailand to the new Angry Birds film to a very traditional dutch scene of wooden clogs. After the last float went by we jumped back on our bikes and followed a line of bikers down the path to the next town to catch the floats again, passing tables of Amsterdamers toasting their drinks, a woman walking her pet pig, and people out and about everywhere enjoying the festivities on our way. We kept going after the next town to try and catch them a third time but instead reached the end of the parade where the floats were all lining up after their performance for admirers to get an up-close look and pose for the camera.
Our original plan was to head to the city for a late dinner, but we just missed the train. However, as we were running down the platform we noticed some more brightly colored tulip fields not far from the station and decided to ride around until the next train came to get some last views in under the evening light. We set out in the general direction of the fields and after a few winding roads we came upon a hidden tulip landscape that was even more beautiful that anything we had seen yet that day. As we rode, the sun sank lower and lower until it was level with the fields, casting a warm glow on the tulips that seemed to set them on fire.
The next morning we got up early, eager to get to the city for a full day of sightseeing. As we exited the train station we passed a three-story bike parking garage highlighting the city’s wonderful reliance on self-powered vehicles and pedestrian friendly attitude. We headed west, crossing over the gorgeous canals to the Jordaan neighborhood to get lost in the maze of tiny cobblestone alleys and beautiful tilted old buildings as we mostly stared up, at the hooks mounted on each roof to lift furniture in and out of people’s windows, the beautiful decor and obvious slant of the houses, and the symbols carved into the facade to denote the profession that was once practiced on the first floor while the owners lived above.
We ducked into a cozy neighborhood cafe called Winkel for breakfast, recommended by my neighbor, a native Amsterdamer, for their famous dutch apple pie. Snagging a seat on the covered patio facing a large square and marketplace, we were just in time to avoid the first of what ended up being many hail and snow storms that day. We contentedly sat drinking our coffee and watching the confused reactions of the many passers-by as they searched for shelter until eventually we felt the rest of the city calling to us. Slowly, we made our way along the water, past the long line at the Anne Frank house, to the museum district with our sights set on the Rijksmuseum. We crossed under the museum to the entrance through the recently re-opened bike tunnel that runs down its middle – a favorite spot for Amsterdamers to ride. The line was well worth the wait to see the fabulous collection of historical artifacts and art, icluding Van Goghs, Rembrandts, ancient dollhouses, globes created by explorers as they discovered new lands…after a few hours gazing at these unbelievable treasures we were exhausted.
To unwind we decided to mingle with the locals and grab a beer at a tiny pub set on the corner of two of the cities most beautiful canals, recommended by the New York Times. After a forgettable dinner (our mistake for not reserving ahead), we decided to close out the trip with a visit to the Red Light District. I had never seen anything like it – a mix of disturbing and fascinating, it was like window shopping but with women posing where the shoes or purses should be! As we passed through the alleys, each section of paned glass showcased a different type of woman – cheerleader, gothic, different ethnicities…every now and then a man would emerge to cheers from his friends. At one point we passed a tour group of elderly Spaniards. This city has something for everyone. We had reached our limit though, and headed home for a short night’s rest before our early flights. Our weekend complete, we said goodbye…one more item checked off the bucket list but an entirely new list of must-do’s for the next time we return.