NIGEL HEATH looks for­ward to spring af­ter a river cruise through Bel­gium and the Nether­lands

Nottingham Post - - GETAWAY -

ATEAM of more than 30 gar­den­ers has been busy plant­ing seven mil­lion tulip, daf­fodil and hy­acinth bulbs in a very large gar­den in Hol­land. And the spec­tac­u­lar re­sult next April and May will be the now world-fa­mous Keuken­hof Spring Flower Show, set in 80 acres of wooded park­land.

Lit­er­ally tens of thou­sands of blue hy­acinths will cre­ate the il­lu­sion of a river me­an­der­ing through the trees in just one of many spec­tac­u­lar show­pieces.

Around 800,000 vis­i­tors will en­joy the show, with its car­ni­val at­mos­phere, over eight weeks and it’s reck­oned that nearly 50 mil­lion peo­ple from more than 100 coun­tries have come to see the flowers since Keuken­hof opened 69 years ago.

Like vis­it­ing the Taj Ma­hal, this was, for me, a once-in-a-life­time ex­pe­ri­ence and, of course, we bought some tulip bulbs for our cot­tage gar­den back home.

It all be­gan in the spring when my wife Jenny and I had a ‘bulb’ rather than a light bulb mo­ment and de­cided on a flight to Am­s­ter­dam for a river cruise through Hol­land and Bel­gium on­board the MS Seren­ity.

This ‘Venice of the North’ is not only fa­mous for its canals but as home to the largest flower mar­ket on the planet, in nearby Aallsmeer.

The morn­ing after board­ing the ship in the heart of Am­s­ter­dam, we were be­ing ush­ered into the flower mar­ket where the process of auc­tion­ing a stag­ger­ing 20 mil­lion cut blooms from all around the world ev­ery week­day morn­ing was in full swing.

But noth­ing could have pre­pared us for the sheer scale of the world’s largest trade build­ing stretch­ing away into the dis­tance.

Here, dozens of flower cart tow­ing trucks, each with an op­er­a­tor, buzzed about like a swarm of de­mented bees, not col­lect­ing pollen, but de­liv­er­ing blooms to the var­i­ous despatch points.

Not far from this madding crowd, we en­tered Aallsmeer’s his­toric town gar­dens to see a replica of the sim­ple wooden Dutch auc­tion clock used after two lo­cal flower grow­ers chanced upon the idea of sell­ing their blooms to the high­est bid­der. The rest, as they say, is his­tory.

This is a ‘liv­ing’ mu­seum tended by lo­cal vol­un­teers and fea­tures award-win­ning va­ri­eties of roses dat­ing back to the early 19th cen­tury plus lilacs, hy­drangeas and many other species.

Lunch back on­board was fol­lowed by a sunny af­ter­noon boat tour around the bustling canals of old Am­s­ter­dam.

What with all the his­toric build­ings, pass­ing wa­ter traf­fic and crowds of tourists just above our heads, it was dif­fi­cult to know just where to look next.

Fol­low­ing a fine six-course din­ner, we

– and no doubt 140 other extremely well-fed pas­sen­gers – slum­bered the night away while MS Seren­ity cast off from her berth and slipped silently out of the city.

Sleep­ily, I pulled back our cabin cur­tains at 7am to see a wind­mill float­ing by! No silly, it’s us mov­ing, not the wind­mill, I re­alised.

The cru­cial wa­ter-pump­ing role the old wind­mills played in al­low­ing the Nether­lan­ders to lit­er­ally keep their heads above sea level, was ex­plained by an extremely knowl­edge­able guide on our visit to the nearby UN­ESCO World Her­itage Site of Kin­derdijk.

For cen­turies be­fore the in­ven­tion of steam en­gines and elec­tric power, these now iconic wind­mill homes, were the only means by which the land could be drained. Even the po­si­tion­ing of their sails was used as a sig­nal to tell neigh­bour­ing mill op­er­a­tors when to start pump­ing – or even to an­nounce a birth or a death in the fam­ily.

“But what about the lit­tle boy who put his fin­ger in the dyke?” I asked.

“Huh! That was a story made up by an Amer­i­can au­thoress who never even set foot in Hol­land,” our guide replied, to the huge amuse­ment of our fel­low ship­mates. Soon we were back on­board for lunch while MS Seren­ity cruised on to the pic­turesque river­side town of Dor­drecht, where we dis­em­barked for a coach drive to the vil­lage of Ap­pel­tern. Here, lo­cal land­scape gar­dener Ben Van Ooi­jen also had a light-bulb mo­ment by de­sign­ing three small, but dif­fer­ent, gar­dens to give clients an idea of just what he could cre­ate for them.

That was 35 years ago and to­day there are more than 200 of them, in­clud­ing one in­spired by the Dutch pain­ter Ver­meer, an oblig­a­tory Ja­panese gar­den and many oth­ers il­lus­trat­ing ev­ery imag­in­able hard and soft gar­den­ing con­cept us­ing all man­ner of dif­fer­ent ma­te­ri­als. “No need to visit Chelsea ever again!” I thought. While we were out, the ca­ter­ing crew had dec­o­rated the din­ing room for a Pi­rate Din­ner and fan­cy­dressed up to serve us as MS Seren­ity cast off and set course for the busy in­land port of An­twerp in neigh­bour­ing Bel­gium. Sea shanties were played over the PA sys­tem and all man­ner of barges and other cargo-car­ry­ing river craft

came float­ing past our big pic­ture win­dows, con­tribut­ing to the nau­ti­cal theme.

Our des­ti­na­tion the fol­low­ing morn­ing was the 17th cen­tury Chateau De Grand-bi­gard and gar­dens, de­scribed as a show­piece of Bel­gium’s ar­chi­tec­tural her­itage and with its pic­turesque five-arched bridge, flo­ral gar­landed moat, flo­ral dis­plays and an­cient stone tower, few could dis­agree.

On a far larger scale, while based in An­twerp, was our visit to the coun­try’s Na­tional Botan­i­cal Gar­den set in over 200 acres of English-style wooded park­land with the moated Bou­chout Cas­tle as its mag­nif­i­cent cen­tre­piece.

An im­pres­sive high­light of the gar­den was its Plant Palace where we were trans­ported in­stantly to the trop­ics.

Sail­ing out of An­twerp that evening, bound for Rot­ter­dam and those fa­mous Keuken­hof Gar­dens, there was only one build­ing dom­i­nat­ing our har­bour sky­line.

That was the port HQ, a large old stone of­fice block with a huge ‘fu­tur­is­tic’ struc­ture ‘float­ing’ over the top, de­signed to re­flect the sky in all its chang­ing moods but look­ing for all the world like a gi­ant crab that had just crawled out of the wa­ter and was about to de­vour the build­ing.

Bloomin’ re­mark­able, re­ally.

Bou­chout Cas­tle

Port of An­twerp HQ

The flower auc­tion at Aallsmeer

Spring flowers in Keuken­hof Park, The Nether­lands

Flower fields at Kin­derdijk MS Seren­ity Chateau de Grand-bi­gard Am­s­ter­dam

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