Dutch travel feature: Petals, pots and politicians

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Crossing the North Sea for a weekend visit to the Keukenhof Gardens and to learn more of a magnificent porcelain pot, travel writer Alan Wooding and his wife Jo set about tracking down the Royal Delftware factory which had produced his prize after he was recently named ‘Journalist of the Year’ at the 2014 Dutch Press Awards in London.

Located close to the small town of Lisse in the northern part of the Netherlands known as the Bollenstreek, last Thursday marked the 65th opening of Keukenhof Garden’s wonderful parkland to visitors and, for the first time, Holland was its theme.

Each year since 2006, the gardens have taken on a special theme. The first was in honour of Dutch artist Rembrandt while Sweden and China were the choice in 2007 and 2008. Since then the USA, Russia, Germany, Poland and the UK have all featured while this year a special planting of over 60,000 tulip bulbs marks out a huge depiction of Amsterdam’s pretty canal houses.

With more than seven million tulip, crocus, hyacinth and daffodil bulbs being planted by hand in specially designed flower beds throughout 32 hectares of wooded parkland, there are more than 800 flowering varieties which makes for a truly amazing spectacle.

With around 80 percent of the world’s tulip bulb production coming from Holland – most of which are grown below sea level – Keukenhof is a real showpiece which can be easily explored on foot although as an extra, special electric ‘whisper boats’ take you out of the park and into the surrounding bulb fields which produce a glorious blast of colour.

For centuries, Keukenhof was actually a hunting area in which game freely roamed. It was owned by Jacoba van Beiereney, the wealthy resident of nearby Teylingen Castle while the name Keukenhof actually means ‘kitchen courtyard’ in Dutch.

Down the years the whole area has been worked and improved and in 1857 under the guidance of architects Jan David Zocher and his son Louis Paul, it became the castle’s sprawling garden having been redesigned in an English style, a style which the older part of the garden still retains to this today.

It was in 1949 that Lisse’s then mayor had the foresight to bring all of the region’s bulb growers together – and out of that, the eight-week season became an annual event which today attracts almost a million visitors from around 100 different countries.

Dotted throughout the wonderful parkland settings you come across a series of pavilions named after Dutch royalty, all of which have a host of different flower shows. This year there are some 30 different and varied shows which will chop and change throughout the eight weeks; the Tulip show in the Oranje Nassau Pavilion being followed by Freesias, Gerbera, Roses and Daffodils.

The massive modern Willem-Alexander Pavilion has so many different plants that it’s a real treat on the nostrils, with a heady scent being given off by the thousands of hyacinths. Then there’s the never to be forgotten display in the BeatrIx Pavilion which houses so many different orchids, anthuriums and bromeliads that it leaves you giddy.

The majestic windmill at the far end of the park is not actually Dutch. In fact it was brought over in a derelict state from Persia (now Iran) where it was used for pumping water. Beautifully restored, it is yet another focal point in a garden that has a photo opportunity at every twist and turn.

With a permanent staff of 30 full time gardeners and 15 others manning the offices in the Wilhelmina building, I must thank Keukenhof’s public relations manager Annemarie Gerards-Adriaansens for giving us two wonderful days in what is the most amazing colourful spectacle you’re ever likely to see.

The gardens themselves are open between 8am and 5.30pm daily with admission at 15 euros (children 7.50). Boat tours are eight euros per person and car parking six.

After spending our first full day in the gardens, we decided to hire cycles from the Rent-a-Bike Van Dam kiosk outside Keukenhof’s main entrance and we peddled off around part of the area’s vast bulb fields on a series of dedicated cycle paths.

There are two well signposted ‘A’ and ‘B’ routes of approximately six and 12 miles respectively although it’s very easy to make slight diversions. We took several for a total of around 10 miles, checking out a nearby golf course and watching fishermen on the canal system – they catch huge carp and zander which the Dutch call ‘snook’. But most off all we enjoyed the stunning kaleidoscope of colour that makes up the vast flower growing region of the Netherlands.

However, upon our return cycle trip towards Keukenhof’s main entrance, we were momentarily held up by the arrival of King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima at the Teylingen Castle gate for what was to be a rather special occasion.

With massive security measures in place and with police and army everywhere, a helicopter circled overhead as a huge motorcade with motorcycle outriders turned into the castle’s gateway located opposite Keukenhof Gardens former main entrance.

The procession passed a large contingent of mainly Chinese nationals who waved frantically at the Dutch Royals who were accompanying China’s President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan who were there to name a new variety of tulip.

The new purple tulip – it’s called ‘Cathay’ – was finally unveiled before having champagne poured over it. That was followed by Keukenhof’s director Mr Bart Siemerink who spoke of Holland’s strong links with China, a country which accounts for more than 40,000 visitors to the gardens each year.

The Chinese premier was in Holland, along with 34 other world leaders – Britain’s David Cameron and America’s Barack Obama among them – together with more than 5,000 delegates for a special G7 Nuclear Summit Conference in The Hague on Monday where Russia’s recent actions in the Crimea were discussed. It was originally the G8 but as President Putin failed to show, it’s now down to seven!

We arrived in the Netherlands early on Friday morning after crossing the North Sea from Harwich to the Hook of Holland on an overnight sailing aboard Stena Hollandica, one of Stena Line’s massive German-built superferries before we headed along the coast bound for Scheveningen and The Hague.

But going back to those ‘ferries’ for a moment; the Hollandica and its sister ship the Britannica are the biggest ferries current operating anywhere in the world. At £375million to build, they were launched in 2010 and are both 240 metres in length and are some 2.4 times taller than the London Eye.

Each can carry up to 300 freight vehicles and 230 cars on 5.5 kilometres of cargo deck – and that’s exactly equivalent to a full lap of Silverstone’s Grand Prix circuit. Each has 1,376 beds on board in 538 luxury cabins, the likes of which make it seem more like a luxury cruise ship than a mere ferry. In fact the six-hour evening crossing was more like a mini cruise. We also enjoyed a three-course dinner in Hollandica’s luxury Metropolitan restaurant while we also arrived completely refreshed having been able to shower in our Comfort Class cabin’s roomy en-suite bathroom.

Having arranged a visit to the Royal Delft porcelain factory for mid-afternoon on our day of arrival, with heavy rain pouring down during the morning, there was little point in walking around The Hague (Holland’s Royal City by the Sea) or it’s beachside resort of Scheveningen, so we headed inland to Delft to try and arrange an earlier tour.

And on arrival the staff there couldn’t have been more accommodating after we arrived at their Rotterdamsweg headquarters a full four hours ahead of time. With general tours costing 12 euros per person, we were taken to the museum part of the building where we watched two cleverly made videos depicting the art of porcelain making from its early European roots in 1653.

In fact so popular became Royal Delftware’s Delft Blue pottery – the craft having been discovered years earlier in China – that a total of 34 factories were set up. But one by one they disappeared until just the one was left.

All Delftware ceramics – plates, jugs, vases and amazing pictures – are still painted by hand after having had a graphite design marked on them first. All the graphite marking are then burned off when the item in question is fired at 1,200 degrees centigrade which leaves it with its traditional blue markings.

We toured the factory itself, saw a recreation of Johannes Vermeer’s dining room, a massive ceramic depiction of Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’ painting plus a huge collection of Dutch Royal Family tablewear along with special one-off pieces that mark Royal births, deaths and anniversaries.

Naturally there’s a gift shop and showroom with an extensive selection of heavy Dutch earthenware, exquisite ceramics and delicate porcelain.

Driving east, we arrived at the pretty town of Lisse where we booked into Hotel De Duif which, translated from Dutch, means The Dove. It’s a three-star hotel conveniently located just a 12-minute walk away from Keukenhof Gardens and, while the hotel has no parking facilities of its own, right outside there’s a free car park.

Having 44 rooms made up of senior and junior suites plus ordinary bedrooms, the De Duif is on a bed and breakfast basis although it has its own separate restaurant, the Op Visite, a buffet-style establishment at the back of the building.

The junior suites (which you reach down a long passageway) were very comfortable with a small kitchen leading off the lounge with a divider to the bedroom plus a separate bathroom. Each suite also has a large flat-screen television and, being Holland, you can get most UK channels.

The town of Lisse itself was quite surprising as far a places to eat went. Just around the corner there were two Italian restaurants plus a lovely Chinese while a few steps further on there was plenty of Japanese, Greek, Egyptian cuisine plus, of course, the famous Dutch establishments. And as if that were not enough, besides that were plenty of the usual pub-type establishments.

One tip given by Annemarie and Keukenhof’s marketing manager Win van Meerveld was to make the shortish drive towards the coastal sand dunes of nearby Noorwijk and to dine at Strandrestaurant Nederzandt. It was really brilliant and, on such a cold evening, the restaurant’s large firegrate gave off plenty of heat and soon took away the chill.

Clothes shopping was also a big surprise to my wife as there were so many fashionable clothing outlets. The beautifully paved high street was absolutely full of shops together with a thriving arcade that it puts many much larger British towns to shame.

It was on our way back to the Hook of Holland on Monday morning that we encountered a few problems. We knew that all motorways between Amsterdam, Noorwijk and The Hague were out of bounds as the stream of G7 Summit delegates and the world’s leaders headed west under the watchful eye of the army and the police who put up cordons.

Checking our map to find an alternative, we headed off towards the town of Alphen and would then reach Gouda without any stops. But those best laid plans can so often go wrong and we found ourselves stranded for a while until the cavalcade had passed by, the authorities not letting anyone even cross the motorways until all the foreign dignitaries had passed safely by.

It was on to the ‘cheese city’ of Gouda and then to Rotterdam before heading up to the Hook of Holland where we boarded the 2.30pm Stena Hollandica bound for Harwich, our total mileage a shade over 500 miles including those covered from Bedford to the Essex port and back.

Fact File

Alan and Jo Wooding visited Keukenhof Gardens and Royal Delft Pottery having travelled overnight from Harwich to the Hook of Holland aboard Stena Line’s giant superferry, Stena Hollandica. The North Sea crossing takes around six hours, a car and driver costing from £59 one way (economy) with extra passengers at £12 each.

Comfort class cabins are £30 per cabin for overnight sailings while daytime sailings cost £15. There are several bars and restaurants, the buffet-style ‘Taste’ for lunches, snacks, breakfasts, etc, and ‘The Metropolitan’ which serves a superb three-course dinner for 29.99 euros. There is a cinema (7.50 euros), television area, sun deck and even a fully enclosed netball/basketball court.

For bookings see www.stenaline.co.uk or contact Stena LIne Harwich,

Harwich International Port, Harwich CO12 4SR

Tel: +44 (0) 8447 70 70 70.

or checkout www.fourbgb.com who specialise in luxury tourism.

Four-Bgb

20 St Thomas Street, London

SE1 9BF

Tel: 0044 (0) 20 3697 4200

We stayed in the charming town of Lisse in a splendid Junior Suite at the three-star 44 roomed Hotel De Duif, Westerdreef 49, 2161 EN Lisse. Tel: +31 (0) 252 410 076, Fax: +31 (0) 252 410999 – www.hoteldeduif.nl/en/ or email E-receptie@hoteldeduif.nl – which is just a 12 minute walk to Keukenhof Gardens.

Keukenhof Gardens – www.keukenhof.com – is the world’s largest flower garden. It is open for just eight weeks a year (from Thursday, March 20 until May 18) while the park itself opens at 8am daily with adult admission 15 euros/children 7.5 euros, car park 6 euros, whisper boat ride around the tulip fields 8 euros.

Keukenhof Gardens, Stationsweg 166A 2161, AM Lisse. Tel: +31 (0) 25 246 5555.

For Keukenhof Cycle hire, look for the orange cabin just outside the main entrance at Stationsweg 166a NL 2160 AB Lisse or tel: +31 (0) 25 246 5555.

Also from Rent-a-Bike Van Dam, Havenstraat 78, 2211 EJ Noorwijkerhout. Tel: +31 (0) 252 37 37 14.

There are regular buses direct from both Schiphol Airport and Amsterdam which drop customers right outside the garden’s main entrance. These can also be booked as a tour package from Keukenhof Gardens.

We also visited Royal Delft Delftware Manufactory at Rotterdamsweg 196 2628 AR Delft. Tel: 031 (0) 15 251 2030.

A visit to Royal Delft costs 12 euros and includes:

• A journey through the history of Blue Delft and Royal Delft and its development and production process.

• See a master painter at work

• The dining room of Vermeer and the Dutch Royal family Chamber

• Museum with antique Delft pieces

• Ceramic rooms with building ceramics

• Historical courtyard

• Visit to the factory

• The showroom offers a comprehensive collection of hand-painted Delft Blue by Royal Delft, as well as an extensive selection of Dutch earthenware and souvenirs.

We also dined among Noorwijk’s coastal sand dunes at the impressive Standrestaurant Nederzandt, Langvelderslag 52-54, Noorwijk. Tel: +31 (0) 252 372 430 – www.etenbijnderzandt.nl – info@etenbijnderzandt.nl

at the Egyptian-owned Dalida Steakhouse, Kanalstraat 81 2161 JC Lisse. Tel: +31 (0) 252 42 34 84 – www.dalidagrillroom.nl

and at Hotel De Duif’s own buffet-style Op Visite Restaurant at Westerdreef 49, 2161 EN Lisse.

Special thanks to Simone Sagi of the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions (NBTC), Qing Van Rossum and our informative guide Marjam at the Royal Delft Experience and especially Keukenhof’s Public Relations Manager Annemarie Gerards-Adriaansens, Marketing Manager Wim van Meerveld and our lovely guide Elizabeth on our two-day visit to the wonderful Keukenhof Gardens.