A traveller hardly needs an “excuse” to travel, but it is nice to have one anyway. Talking of excuses, what better than the one that makes you feel very “justified” in making the trip — about to expire frequent flier miles! No matter how much we business travellers complain about the compulsions and rigours of international business travel, I have not met one who does not enjoy using his frequent flier miles for a trip. Since I stopped flying KLM a few years ago, I did not use these miles which were almost enough for two tickets to Amsterdam — and they were about to expire in May. How can we ever let that happen? So even though time was tight, me and my dear wife planned to visit the Netherlands, alias Holland — just a quick trip, little over a weekend. Our friend and business associate Martin had always been inviting us, and the tulip season (which is only a four-weeks opportunity in a year) gave us an even more compelling reason to go. I am glad we made the trip.
Think of Holland, and you will think of — tulips, windmills, canals and cheese. I have made dozens of trips to Holland for work over the last fifteen years, but it never happened during the “tulip season”, so this trip was special. Very special. Holland is the largest flower exporter in the world, and certainly has a reputation to hold in the field of horticulture. The tulip bulb has bloomed in the Dutch landscape since four centuries, and attracts millions of visitors to the country each spring. Vast fields of tulips, narcissi, hyacinths and crocuses create an exceptional spectacle of color, the landscape sprinkled with windmills is quintessentially Dutch. Keukenhof in Lisse is arguably the most beautiful spring garden in the world and receives over a million visitors in a year. It boasts six million bulbs in bloom during the two months it is opened for. Just 20 kilometres from Amsterdam, it is considered one of the most photogenic tourist spots in the world. We reached Kuekenhof at 5:58 p.m. and the last entry permitted was at 6 p.m. What luck! As a result we had almost the whole garden to ourselves with very few other tourist inside the gardens, and I really had a field day with photographing the incredible flowers without the views being “spoilt” by humans! The gardens are indeed one of the prettiest in the world not just for flowers, but the sculptures, layout, water bodies, gazebos, glass house, restaurant, and last bus not the least — birds and swans.
It was fascinating for us to visit the Dykes in Holland. Almost 40% of the land area of Holland lies beneath sea level, that explains why the Dutch have a rich tradition of battling the rising sea water. The country has hundreds of kilometres of strong dykes to protect against the North Sea. Nature also lends a hand in the form of many dunes along the sea. The region of Zeeland is the most interesting spectacle of human tenacity and common sense solutions to this seemingly permanent threat. We started our five-day trip with Nordwijk, a cute little town on the sea side. Cafes, restaurants, shops lining the ocean front with elegant places to stay add to the charm of this place. The sunset was soothing, and happened nearly at 9 p.m.! The Greek restaurant along the breezy ocean front provided the perfect flavours in the prefect setting for a candle light dinner for two. As we enjoyed our romantic dinner on the first evening, we knew we were in for a lovely short trip to this pretty country.
Almost 40% of the land area of Holland lies beneath sea level, that explains why the Dutch have a rich tradition of battling the rising sea water. The country has hundreds of kilometres of strong dykes to protect itself against the North Sea.
The windmills not only present the most unique feature of the Dutch landscape, but also play a major role in the water management system of the country. This time we were lucky to visit inside the windmills too, as it was just by chance the “Windmill Day”. It is the only day in the year, when windmills are open for tourists to visit. The windmills were traditionally used to grind corn and protect against flooding. Over the years, many windmills have been pensioned off, and made into museums, restaurants and even homes! We visited one which is still functional for water management as well as serving as a home for an old retired couple living a relaxed life in the countryside not far from Amsterdam. The family memorabilia, old furniture, traditional heating and plumbing systems — still functioning perfectly — were a treat to see. There used to be about 9,000 mills all over the country powered by water or by wind. Now, there are about 1,600 which are carefully preserved as a beloved inheritance.
The Dutch are second to none when it comes to preserving their traditions and handicrafts. We were lucky to see one example of it — the Alkmaar Cheese Market. Alkmaar is close to Amsterdam, and is a historical city like most others in Holland. Tens of thousands of visitors from all over the world visit Alkmaar for the unique spectacle of its Friday Cheese Market. The bright yellow cheese “cakes” all over the church front, along with hauling cheese carriers have been there since 1622. From the first Friday in April up to the first Friday of September, there is a cheese market from 10 a.m. onwards. The market takes place on Waagplien, with a majestic cathedral in the background, a canal on one side, shops and restaurants all around — it was my favourite part of the trip. Lorries filled with cheese from the Campina and Cono factories drive to the Waagplien from 7 a.m. Some 30,000kg of cheese in about 700-1000 varieties are put up in the market under the watchful eye of the market superintendent. Traditionally-clothed men and women were a really special sight, some busy with the actual business of the cheese, while others keeping the crowds in good humor. We were offered cheeses to taste — the stalls around the courtyard sell a large variety which one can buy alongside other traditional Dutch crafts, including the famous wooden shoes. The bell rings at the stroke of 10, often done by a visitor, and business starts, the same way as centuries ago, with large manual weighing scales, shouting prices, bargaining claps. It felt like a “stage drama” in modern Europe, but in fact was real commerce of cheese, creating further commerce of tourism simply because the spectacle has been preserved since ages. By 12:30 p.m., all the business was done and the square was cleared to make way for cafe seating. Within minutes life slid back to “normal”, the tourists enjoying sumptuous international cuisine, quaint shops, cobbled streets and cute cafes. I would strongly recommend including Alkmaar in a visit to Holland. There are bus excursions from Amsterdam, but staying overnight in this town is a much more interesting experience.
I doubt if anyone visits Holland without a stay in Amsterdam. 220 square kilometres of one of the most densely populated landmass on the planet forms this legendary city, also called Venice of the North. Amsterdam is a truly liberal city with a laid back atmosphere, watery setting, picturesque houses, “coffee shops” (for the uninitiated, coffee shops are places one can buy drugs, and are not the same as cafes), excellent museums and the infamous nightlife give the city a unique flavour. Nearly everyone owns a bicycle, the city has a count of about 600,000 bicycles, and the cycle stand in front of the central train station is considered to be the largest cycle parking in the world. Our visit to Anne Frank’s House, where she wrote her incredible diary during the Second World War, was a touching experience. We had nice walks around the city, some good shopping, and gourmet dinners, and late night cappuccinos on the central plaza in front of the City Hall.
Most tourists, think of Amsterdam as the main idea of visiting the Netherlands. However, there is much more to enjoy and explore in the country. Safe travels!