Spring is always welcome in Northern Europe. A reminder that winter is over and summer just around the corner, the world seems to come back to life: birds arrive from distant lands, daylight extends into the evening and colour comes flooding back into the landscape. It’s no wonder that throughout history civilisations around the world have celebrated the arrival of spring as a joyous event, the cycle of renewal and rebirth starting anew.
This takes on a different meaning in the Netherlands, a country where tulips vie with clogs and windmills for most popular cliché. Not many people wear clogs these days; there are plenty of windmills, most surviving as quaint reminders of a bygone era; but flowers are still a massive industry in the Netherlands, particularly tulips, which are as popular as they’ve ever been since they arrived in the country in 16th Century. For a brief period in spring, brilliantly coloured flowers illuminate the Dutch landscape. It’s magical, and luckily for me the main centres of flower growing are just up the road.
The Dutch have taken flower growing to extremes, vast swathes of land are given over to cultivating blooms of one sort or another. I missed the flower action last year, but was determined that I’d see the bulb fields in bloom this year. The main season lasts for around eight weeks, but timings are still determined by nature; knowing where and when is a bit of a lottery, but there are websites dedicated to tracking where flowers are flowering. While this is regarded as tulip season, there are also huge numbers of daffodils and very strong smelling cut lilac. All you have to do is hope for good weather and get on your bike.
There are bulb fields everywhere in the region between Leiden and Haarlem, free to view for those who are prepared to cycle around the country lanes. Yet each year vast numbers of people visit the Keukenhof Gardens instead. One of the Netherlands’ most popular tourist attractions, the Keukenhof is a vast estate that in spring comes alive with a riot of around 7 million flowers – no, that’s not a typo, 7 million. It also comes alive with visitors. During the eight week flower season over 800,000 people visit the gardens – 100,000 per week, 15,000 per day.
I’m sure Keukenhof is beautiful, but the idea of rubbing shoulders with thousands of other people while trying to enjoy nature isn’t my idea of fun. Besides, cycling around the lanes gives you a much better understanding of the countryside and a real sense of Dutch flower growing. In some fields I saw flowers being harvested. Unless you want to follow one of the several cycle routes, once you’re in the right area you can largely just go in any direction and there will be bulb fields.
I was constantly heading off down small lanes because I’d spotted more flowers. It’s not like you can miss them, huge numbers of flowers, spread over acres of land, so bright you can probably see them from space. En masse the sight of the flowers is truly astonishing. I’d set off with an ‘it’s one of those things you have to see’ attitude, but after actually seeing them I found myself becoming a little mesmerised. This probably accounts for the eight hours I spent cycling around, and the severe sunburn I received as a consequence.
It will be another twelve months before the tulip fields of the Netherlands bloom again, but if you were wondering if they’re worth seeing, the answer has to be ”yes”. The huge blocks of colour are an amazing sight. I’ll be back to see them again next year, that’s for sure.