Friday, May 24, 2013

Holland's beautiful Garden, and 'the loveliest village'

        Our river cruise in Holland, Part II ...
        Don't know which was more fun, what we saw and did while we were on the MS Allegro, or the sightseeing we did after the boat docked and we went on land.
         In five days/four nights, we made eight stops -- in Haarlem, Zaandam, Volendam, Hoorn, Medemblik, Enkhuizen and twice in the big city/harbor, Amsterdam (once unscheduled).
         Part of the allure of the cruise -- as I've mentioned in previous blogs -- was the main feature: A visit to the Keukenhof Gardens, in the heart of Holland's flower-growing district. On Day 2 of our cruise, we enjoyed the sights.
The Keukenhof, in its splendor
          If you're going to Holland, from mid-April to mid-May is an ideal time because that's when the flowers -- most notably, the tulips -- bloom. Bea had gone at this time in 2001; I probably had seen the spectacle as a kid in the 1950s ... but I don't remember.
         The tulips are one of the country's best-known commercial products, and we saw the abundance of flower fields, row after row of bright colors, when our friends Peter and Patricia DeWeijs drove us around the area a couple of days before our cruise began.
           The Keukenhof, located near the town of Lisse (closer to The Hague than Amsterdam), is not where the flowers that go world-wide are grown. Those come from the surrounding fields.
          No, these are showcase gardens, open only in the spring.
          There are beautiful gardens all over the world; we're partial to some right down the street, at the Fort Worth Botanical Gardens. The Keukenhof, no doubt, is the best Holland has.
          It's huge -- 15 kilometers of walkways (got this info from its web site) ; it's spotless (in that regard, it reminded us of Disney World and Augusta National Golf Club); and, yes, it's enchanting.
           This year, because it was one of Holland's coldest and longest winters in recent times, it wasn't in full bloom. But there was still plenty to enjoy and much to see; we walked around for a couple of hours, and then had to rest a few times.
           And it was crowded. We met people from Minnesota and Georgia and Texas, and heard languages from all over the world. Loved the huge barrel organ near the front gate (; the many swans in one of the lakes; the clean eating/restroom/souvenir stops (named for members of the Dutch Royal Family), and -- of course -- the flowers.
          At each stop on the cruise, other than Amsterdam (more on that in a moment), we had the opportunity to walk into town and explore.
          Each place had its harbors/marinas, with yachts -- expensive yachts -- that obviously were pleasure/recreational boats, with tall sailboats (some, we found out, used for cruises and parties), with boats used for commercial fishing, with rowboats for transportation, etc.
The windmill at the edge of downtown Haarlem
          Each had its tourist area, with shops for souvenirs, and restaurants and bars, and each had gorgeous architecture -- churches with giant steeples and buildings that have stood for centuries.
           Our first stop, Haarlem (20 kilometers, by land, from Amsterdam), we were told has some of the best shopping and nicest downtown area in the country. We didn't get there.
           It was a good 30-minute walk from where the boat docked to downtown. I thought we'd take a shortcut and -- my penchant for wrong turns -- that cost us 15 minutes. By then, we were too tired ... and headed back to the boat (dinner time was growing close). But we did see the wonderful old windmill at the edge of downtown (I got a picture).
          Spent the night on the boat in Haarlem, took a bus from there to Keukenhof, a 45-minute ride through lucious farm land -- mostly dairy farms -- and through an area with the most spectacular homes we saw in Holland. Not homes; mansions. 
           When we got to Keukenhof, I asked a bus driver who lived in these mansions. "Only bus drivers," he said, laughing. Yeah, bus drivers who in their spare time headed multi-million dollar corporations.
          After the Keukenhof visit, we took the bus back to Zaandam, where the boat had traveled and was now docked ... right across from our host Kitty's apartment. Felt like home for us.
          From there, it was back to the Amsterdam harbor -- unscheduled, because there was no other place for our boat to dock overnight. As a bonus, the travel company -- -- provided a night cruise through Amsterdam in one of the city's famed canal boats. Among the sights: a glimpse of the Anne Frank House (on the Prinsengracht) and the red-light district (yes, that's as close as we got).
        The first stop the next day was Volendam, Holland's best-known fishing village. Bea and I each had been there before, but it was worth seeing again.
         If I had to live in Holland again -- and I prefer the U.S., thank you -- I would choose to live in Volendam. This is a beautiful, quiet place of about 30,000 residents and, just a few blocks from the quaint tourist-oriented harbor area -- where some shopkeepers/tour guides and townspeople still wear the traditional Dutch fishing garb -- you can see a modern town. 
         Here were people just going about their daily routine, headed places on foot and by bicycle, and people meeting on visits to stores, greeting each other and conversing near the entrances. On the way back to the boat, I stopped in a fish store and bought a couple of smoked eels (they were waiting for me).
         Quick story: After our visit to The Hague area, we caught a train from Leiden -- home of the oldest university in Holland (dating to 1575) -- and it was packed with people. I ended up sitting on some steps next to a 50ish man who was friendly and spoke some English.
           He quickly caught on that we were American and asked where we were from. I told him Texas, but that I was born in Holland back for my third visit. He was happy to talk; in fact, he was happy because, as he explained, he had been to Leiden for the Whiskey Festival -- and he obviously had done some taste-testing. But he assured me that he knew his limits, and he wasn't drunk, just happy.
           He told me he was a music fan -- all sorts of music -- and that he was from "the loveliest place on earth," Volendam. He was quite proud of his little town, and I told him we had been there before and we going again. He seemed pleased.
             And I agree: It is the loveliest place.
             Next:  Our cruise in pictures                                                      

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