Amsterdam’s Flower Festival

Check out what we've done with our Oslo terrace this year. Red Climbing Lilies (Gloriosa Rothschildiana) blossomed from bulbs we bought at the Amsterdam Tulip Museum.
Check out what we’ve done with our Oslo terrace this year. Red climbing lilies (Gloriosa Rothschildiana) blossomed from bulbs we bought at the Amsterdam Tulip Museum.

April 27, 2016.  As you probably know by now, Matthew and I are landscaping fanatics.  We both enjoying grubbing in the dirt and watching the fruits of our labor pop up each spring.  Which is why, for his birthday this year, we decided to check out Amsterdam’s famous flower festival.  It might sound deadly dull to you, but for a gardener, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event.  Think of it as the equivalent of a Rolling Stones fan getting front-row seats to a London concert. It’s that big.  So be prepared for my long-winded post extolling the virtues of the experience.

To do justice to such an occasion, we decided to upgrade our hotel expectations.  Our first trip to Amsterdam had been hastily planned, and as a result, we’d found only one room available in the whole city.  It came at the hefty price tag of $275 per night — the most we’ve ever paid for a hotel.  Sadly, it looked like an SRO for vagrants.  I’d swear there were remnants of bodily fluids and police tape on the floor from an earlier homicide.  At one point, we had to get the manager to evict a drunk homeless guy who’d set up camp in the single bathroom facility shared by the entire floor.

The panoramic vista from our attic room at Hotel Nes made us want to window gaze the day away.
The panoramic vista from our attic room at Hotel Nes made us want to window gaze the day away.

I can’t show you a picture, because it wasn’t a visual I care to preserve.  I went to bed every night with my eyes squeezed shut, clicking my heels and repeating “there’s no place like home.”  But it just goes to prove two things: procrastinators pay heavily for their tardiness, and photos on Booking.com can be seriously misleading.  Luckily, on this second trip we found an incredible bargain (half the price of our previous place) at Hotel Nes — great breakfasts and an adorable attic room with a spectacular view.

Native Amsterdammer Emmanuel Sweerts created the world's first commercial nursery catalog.  Called the "Florilegium," it was dedicated solely to documenting the beauty and value of tulips, of course.
Native Amsterdammer Emmanuel Sweerts created the world’s first commercial nursery catalog.  Called the “Florilegium,” it was dedicated solely to documenting the beauty and value of tulips, of course.

After checking in, we decided that we needed a remedial Tulip tutorial to brush up on the basics before boarding our tour bus.  So we headed to Amsterdam’s tiny but adorable Tulip Museum.  Informative exhibits and great videos, all shoehorned into about 1,500 square feet, managed to succinctly trace the almost farcical history of Tulip Mania.  For those of you who haven’t read the tulip chapter in Michael Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire, tulip bulbs became a form of currency during the Dutch Golden Age and single-handedly crashed the nation’s economy when speculators finally wised up.

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The painting “Flora’s Carnival Cart,” by Dutch artist Hendrick Gerritsz Pot (1640), mocks Tulipmania. The goddess Flora, her arms filled with bouquets of tulips, presides over a wagon full of fools. Frenzied investors follow the horseless cart as it careens into the sea.
I'm now seriously obsessed with the museum's collection of Dutch tulip pyramids. Sadly, I don't have $350 to spend a vase.
I’m now seriously obsessed with the museum’s collection of Dutch tulip pyramids. Sadly, I don’t have $350 to spend on a vase.

The museum itself takes you through the tulip’s humble beginnings as a mountainside wildflower in the Himalayas, to Turkey where it was cultivated by Ottoman Emperors, to the Netherlands where a canal-side mansion could be purchased with a single bulb, and finally to the modern era where farmers and horticulturalists still make small fortunes crossbreeding and selling new varieties every year.  It’s a great primer before viewing the Keukenhof Gardens, plus, the museum also offers a fabulous selection of bulbs and tulip vases for your shopping enjoyment.

On the way into Haarlem, Aaf pointed out the postcard perfect De Adriaan Windmill. Haarlem is in North Holland, one of the Netherland's 12 provinces. In the 17th century, North and South Holland were conjoined as the County of Holland -- the wealthiest area of the country. That's why the name Holland has become synonymous with the Netherlands.
On the way into Haarlem, Aaf pointed out the postcard perfect De Adriaan Windmill. Haarlem is in North Holland, one of the Netherland’s 12 provinces. In the 17th century, North and South Holland were conjoined as the County of Holland — the wealthiest area of the country. That’s why the name Holland has become synonymous with the Netherlands.

Thus educated, we felt adequately prepared for our full-day tulip tour.  Normally we’re not big fans of organized tours.  We prefer to go at our own pace, rather than being herded like cattle by a woman wielding a collapsed umbrella over her head as a sign of her authority.  But since there are so many events connected to the festival — the Keukenhof Garden display, the flower parade, and open houses at bulb fields and farms — we decided a tour was the best way to go without a lot of hassle.

It was the best $200 we’ve ever spent.  Not only did we avoid having to rent a car and battle intense traffic on our own, but our small group status (20 people) with Tours & Tickets got us in everywhere ahead  of the lines, and included a quick walking tour of Haarlem, entry into the Frans Hals Museum and floral exhibition, and lunch in a bulb farmer’s garden.  On top of that, our guide, Aaf, was knowledgeable, funny, unflappable under pressure, and skilled at calming the annoyingly pretentious complainer in our party (there’s always one in every group.)

Frans Hals' "Innkeeper" looks like a kindly woman, although she's no beauty. Hals loved to portray common folk; some speculate that this woman might have been the bartender at his favorite pub, the Coninck van Vranckrijck.
Frans Hals’ “Innkeeper” looks like a kindly woman, although she’s no beauty. Hals loved to portray common folk.  Some speculate that this woman might have been the bartender at his favorite pub, the Coninck van Vranckrijck.

A half-hour drive brought us into Haarlem and our first stop, the Frans Hals Museum.  A master of incredibly lifelike portraits, Hals is  famous for capturing the not-so-pretty details of a life well-lived: spider veins, red noses, ruddy cheeks, and all.  He frequently used quick impressionist brushstrokes to imply motion –and often that motion involved hoisting a beer.  Many of the hard-drinking subjects have a good-humored glint in their eye and look like the kind of down-to-earth folks you’d want to hang out with.  But if you’re not into portraits, the museum has a fabulous collection of still lifes, both floral- and food-oriented, as well as decorative objects and furniture from the Dutch Golden Age.

Hals' ortraits of a married couple peek through the forest of peacock feathers and "pearls on a string" plants that decorate a gorgeous marble library table.
Hals’ portraits of a married couple peek through the forest of peacock feathers and “pearls on a string” plants that decorate a gorgeous marble library table.

In honor of the flower festival, the museum had invited students from the nearby floral-arranging and glass-blowing schools to create displays scattered throughout the building.  Seeing Hals’ realistic portraits of ruff-necked, partying people — all peeping out over lavish bouquets set atop gorgeous 17th-century furniture — seemed wholly appropriate.  I felt as if we’d just interrupted a fancy Dutch-costumed dinner party.  And me without my crinolines.

Talk about your planned development, the St. Elizabeth's Hospital (1610) also offered a series of "little guesthouses" for the families of the sick. Folks still live in them today.
Talk about your planned development, the St. Elizabeth’s Hospital (1610) also offered a series of “little guesthouses” for the families of the sick. Folks still live in them today.

Next on the agenda was a quick walking tour of Haarlem’s core.  Aaf, gave us a brief history of the city as she escorted us through its major sites.  The furbelowed and frilled architectural details of its Market Square, Town Hall, Great Church, Meat Market, and more testify to Haarlem’s heyday, when it was a major port and the tulip capital of the world.  By the way, in case you’re wondering, Dutch merchants established its namesake — Harlem, New York — as a fur trading and farming colony.

BFields of flowers cover practically every square inch of the Netherlands Duin- en Bollenstreek ("Dune and Bulb") Region.
Fields of flowers cover practically every square inch of the Netherlands’ Duin- en Bollenstreek (“Dune and Bulb”) Region.

Our next stop took us to a bulb farm by route of a short drive through the Dutch countryside.  Flatlands stretched out far and wide as we crisscrossed canals and hopscotched between pastures.  Before long, we spotted our first bulb fields.  Giant patchwork quilts in a range of Crayola colors had us oohing, aahing, and begging the bus driver to pull off so we could snap better pictures. Aaf, pointed out places where petals lay thick upon the ground, evidence that, while we love the blossoms, the farmers must lop off the flower heads shortly after blooming to retain the bulbs’ energy.

A third-generation bulb farmer, Daan gave a great overview of the cultivation process. His crop includes tulips, hyacinths, daffodils, crocuses, and other spring bulbs.
A third-generation bulb farmer, Daan gave a great overview of the cultivation process. His crop includes tulips, hyacinths, daffodils, crocuses, and other spring bulbs.

Our long-suffering chauffeur eventually pulled up in front of a huge barn, and we all piled out to be greeted by Daan Janze,  who owns De Tulperij farm.  He walked us through the process of planting and harvesting,  proudly pointing out a field of Tang-colored tulips.  “One year, I planted a field of red tulips, and when they bloomed, a single orange mutant stood out in the crowd.  I nurtured that lone bulb, dividing it season after season, and five years later, I have three huge rows — and a tulip named by me.”

Our groups sits down to lunch beneath lamps made of bulb baskets. Bulb sifters hang on the wall at the end of the table.
Our groups sits down to lunch beneath lamps made of bulb baskets. Bulb sifters hang on the wall at the end of the table.

Daan then invited us for a closer inspection of the fields, with the joking admonition, “You’re all Americans?  Then you’ll understand this:  Don’t step on the plants, or I’ll have to shoot you.”  (Yeah, our nation’s gunmania has given us a deservedly bad rep.)  Then he bustled us inside from the whipping wind and seated us at a long, farmer’s table for a delicious lunch of soup and sandwiches.  Not wanting to miss a chance to purchase some of his incredible bulbs, we gulped down our meal, combed through his catalog, then placed our order before hopping back on the bus.  Our final stop for the day?  The Keukenhof Gardens, our dream destination.

Hours before the flower parade was due, an unbelievable crowd had already formed along the roads leading to the Keukenhof.
Hours before the flower parade was due, an unbelievable crowd had already formed along the roads leading to the Keukenhof.

To get to the Keukenhof, we had to first fight our way through the long line of cars waiting to enter the parking lot.  The police, in their infinite wisdom, had shut down the tour bus entrance to prepare for the flower parade’s passing later that day.  The crowd was so thick that it reminded me of Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras Day.  Thankfully, flower fans are a bit more well-mannered, so there were no cries of “Throw me some beads, mister! ” or “Show me your boobs!” as we threaded our way through the street-side throngs.

Originally built in 1892 to pump out a polder (land reclaimed from the sea), the Keukenhof's windmill forms the centerpiece of the classic Dutch tulip garden and provides a great viewing platform for the bulb fields beyond.
Originally built in 1892 to pump out a “polder” (land reclaimed from the sea), the Keukenhof’s windmill forms the centerpiece of a classic Dutch tulip garden and provides a great viewing platform for the bulb fields beyond.

Since we’d lost some time in the traffic, Aaf gave us a quick history lesson and orientation session before turning us loose with our maps to wander for three hours.  To recap her tale, the Keukenhof occupies a 15th-century hunting grounds that also once acted as an herb garden for the sister-in-law of Henry VII.  (Keukenhof means “kitchen court / garden.”)  A series of noble owners had the formal gardens laid out and later formed a charitable foundation, which now rents out 80 acres every year as a living showcase for bulb growers and floral designers.  By the way, the Netherlands is the world’s largest exporter of flowers, and the Keukenhof is the world’s largest bulb garden.

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In keeping with 2015’s “Golden Age” theme, the cast of characters from Rembrandt’s “Nightwatch” examines this years crop of competitors in the daffodil show.

Open for only eight weeks each spring, the park is divided into seven sections that get replanted every single year according to a theme — this year’s was the Dutch Golden Age.  Three main pavilions host 30 flower and plant shows where more than 100 growers and 300 designers compete for awards that help establish new hybrids and gardening trends.  At the end of the short season, the bulbs get dug up and fed to cattle … and in the autumn, the park’s staff of 30 gardeners begins planting another seven million bulbs for the next year’s event.

Since the Keukenhof is an intensely visual spectacle, let’s just get right to the photo galleries, starting with a quick overview of some of the various garden sections.  (Be sue to click on the photos for bigger views and captions):

And for those of you who enjoy tulips as much as I do, take a look at these lovelies to learn a bit of tulip lore:

And for those of you who love daffodils or the color yellow, check out these eye-popping arrangements as featured in the Oranje Nassau Pavilion, which highlights how flower bulbs can be used in interiors.  (The sunny shade helped keep the 2106 “Golden Age” theme going.):

Or if you prefer other spring bulbs, peruse these beauties:

Have coffee, will travel -- and it's only 15 minutes to Haarlem from Amsterdam via train. The time doubles in a car.
Have coffee, will travel — and it’s only 15 minutes to Haarlem from Amsterdam via train. The time doubles in a car.

As you can see, we got so wrapped up in photographing flowers that we weren’t able to watch the flower parade as it passed by the Keukenhof.  (I doubt we could have even gotten near it, given the huge crowds we’d seen lining the streets earlier.)  So the next day, we took the local train to Haarlem for a closer look at the floats, which were parked along the main streets for everyone’s inspection.

A bakery chain advertises with their float made of flowers and bulbs (look closely at the stem crossing in front of the baker.)
A bakery chain advertises with their float made of flowers and bulbs (look closely at the stem crossing in front of the baker.)

The official name of the event is the Bollenstreek Bloemencorso (the Bulb Region Flower Parade); it has been entertaining tourists and locals alike for longer than any of its competitors.  Three days beforehand, folks crowd a giant tennis court to watch hundreds of volunteers “pierce” (pin and decorate) 20 floats and 40 luxury cars with hyacinths, tulips, daffodils, and other spring flowers.  Then on the last Saturday in April, the parade gets moving, winding 25 miles from Noordwijk, past Keukenhof Gardens, and into Haarlem.

One thought on “Amsterdam’s Flower Festival”

  1. this is the best post! But then again, I’m a little bulb-crazy. A hobby that Kimberly only encourages… thanks for posting so many pics with this, I loved it.

    Like

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