Friday, 13 April 2018

Tulips in Holland

Several years ago, I became aware that at some point during spring the fields in Holland are fleetingly striped with glorious bands of colour as hundreds of thousands of tulips bloom. The images of this stayed with me and every spring I've felt quite desperate to see it with my own eyes. The window for this happening changes each year depending on the temperature - sometimes it's early March, sometimes as late as May, so ideally a tulip-viewing trip would be booked at the last minute with an eye on the flowering forecast. However, fitting in with school holidays, we decided to go when we could and keep our fingers crossed. 

It was a decision that didn't entirely pay off, but wasn't a complete failure either. When we visited, some bands of colour had started to appear, but there were still vast areas of green that in a week or two's time will be a deliciously colourful patchwork that I still feel hungry to see. 

We were rewarded with fields of daffodils though...

And perhaps even better, fields of hyacinth whose heady scent was intoxicating. We had hired bikes and were cycling through the Dutch countryside when we saw this and the scent made it feel like an immersive being bathed, or perhaps buried, in hyacinth, with every bit of fresh air eaten up by sweetness. 

I've cycled very little in England because it's such a terrifying experience: the roads are dotted with potholes ready to flip you over the handlebars if you don't have time or space to swerve around them and many English drivers are angry at having to share the road and express this by driving as close as possible as they pass. Given this experience, I was a little apprehensive about cycling in Holland, especially as not wearing a helmet is de rigueur and, added to this, my hire bike seemed to have barely functioning brakes. But the experience was oddly liberating in how incredibly safe it felt in spite of these things and I realised that our bike-unfriendly roads are an entirely cultural creation. I think, in part, the Dutch have achieved this by not only changing the infrastructure (proper cycle lanes on both sides of the road), but also the law: in the Netherlands, if you get knocked off your bike, the law assumes it's the driver's fault; in England it's the driver's word against the cyclist's. It's such a simple change, but the Dutch have forced drivers into caring. 

As a random aside...most people in the Netherlands seems to ride traditional bikes where you can sit up with a straight made me wonder how these have ever gone out of favour here - so much more comfortable.  

We'd heard amazing things about a place called Keukenhof, so we also headed there, but we left with mixed feelings. It's only open for the seven weeks of the year that daffodils, tulips and hyacinth are in bloom and, without the need to focus on year-round interest, the planting is totally magical. If you could visit after hours, I think it would feel similar to some kind of wondrous fairy kingdom. In-hours though, sharing the space with most of the tourist population of Holland, it feels more like a tulip circus and we found the number of people and selfie-sticks overwhelming. It's very commercial. It would be wonderful if they limited the numbers of visitors, but it probably wouldn't be financially viable when they have such a short window for making an annual income.

The photos below were carefully composed to avoid any people in the shot, which probably perpetuates the false internet image of Keukenhof that we based our own trip on. It's nothing like these photos would lead you to believe and if you're planning a trip, I'd probably say that taking to the roads is a better way to see tulips.

Flowers aside, we stayed in an amazing house that we rented through AirBnB. The house was in the centre of Amsterdam, in a gorgeous area known as Nine Streets. It was only a fifteen minute walk to Amsterdam's central train station, but well away from the bustle of that area, set within streets of boutique shops and independent cafes and restaurants. Our apartment overlooked a canal, so it was perfect for people-watching. 

I took this photo from the living room of our apartment and it shows both the inside and the reflection outside merged together - if you have a moment, double click on the photo to enlarge it and you'll see the bookshelves disappearing into the houses in the next street. 

This photo was taken from the same window during the day, albeit in black and white. We didn't have too much time to explore the city, but we did visit the Van Gogh Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, which was showing some work by artists that my daughter is studying. We walked through the central passageway of the Rijks Museum (where we heard a five-piece playing Pachelbel's Canon, which was fairly special) and the architecture inside looked amazing, but everyone else had gallery fatigue by that point, so that's on my list for next time. As is the Anne Frank House. We'd been warned by friends to book early, but my version of early was two days before we left for's a version that wasn't rewarded with tickets. I'm always amazed by how organised other people are. 

The number of bikes in the city centre is just incredible and they seem to have priority over both cars and pedestrians. The bikes are fast and silent compared to cars, so even crossing the smallest road made me check and then double-check. During rush hour, when the offices emptied out for the day, the bikes seemed to move in swarms and I found it fascinating to watch the riders, many of whom looked at their iPhones or ate while they rode. The roads have a chaotic feel to them as a pedestrian, but we never saw any collisions or near misses. 

In other thoughts, let's talk about contact lenses. I'm increasingly finding it impossible to navigate a station or the underground without my glasses on...or to recognise people until they're a short distance away. I wear my glasses for driving, but generally I don't enjoy wearing them...they make me feel like I'm talking to people from behind a wall and they leave a red mark on the bridge of my nose, which means that once I've put them on I then have keep them on to disguise the red mark. In the house, I can no longer see the faces in the photos on our walls until I'm standing next to them and the spines on the bookshelves are a blur of muddy colours. So, with that in mind, I'm thinking I may switch to contact lenses. My mum and sister have both worn them for over thirty years, but they both wear hard lenses and soft ones seem to be more common now, so my mum said I should ask around to find out about here I am, asking around :) Also, daily wear, extended wear, many options, so much room for indecisiveness. Tell me about your contact lenses - I'd love to hear. 

Just in case anyone doesn't already know about this piece of cleverness, my mum was telling me that her contact lens are built so that one eye's prescription corrects short-sightedness and the other corrects long-sightedness and that the brain then adapts to make her overall vision perfect in all situations. Isn't the brain amazing - that seems totally miraculous to me. 

Florence x
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