In writing about Amsterdam as one of the top 10 cities for 2013, Lonely Planet says “Golden Age charmer prepares to party.” There are anniversaries and more anniversaries this year, including 400 years of the canal ring that marks Amsterdam out as one of the prettiest cities in the world and 40 years of the Van Gogh Museum. It’s not as if Amsterdam needs any of these reasons to party; the high heels and the disco music are on all the time.
Picture Amitabh Bachchan in a white sweater and Rekha in a tight white churidhar kameez floating in a cloud of dazzling colours, the whisper of a windmill in the backdrop. Remember? “Dekha ek khwab toh yeh silsile hue.” Yes, those tulips. A far prettier scene than heroines in yellow chiffons against lush fields of sarson, don’t you agree? But I digress. I won’t go so far as to claim that I always wanted my first visit to Amsterdam to coincide with the tulip season ever since I saw that song (especially since I must have been 8 or 9 then). But I do hum it under my breath as I walk out of the tourist office clutching a bunch of brochures about Keukenhof gardens, tulip shaped dreams in my eyes.
After what seems like a dozen transfers by bus and train, we finally reach Keukenhof the next morning. Thoroughly enchanting: no idea tulips came in such colours and shapes. I walk around in a daze, mouth slightly hanging open. Reverie is punctuated briefly and frequently at the sight of Japanese tourists posing for cameras in front of particularly bright tulips, fingers in the quintessential V sign. Husband is meanwhile entertained by the sight of me crouching under a tulip with my camera, trying to capture the play of light through the translucent petals (as I told him sheepishly). Just goes to show that thing about doing not unto others and so on.
Later that day, we head to Haarlem to catch the end of the flower parade (this year on April 20). Typically European pretty town by the river. Medieval churches, over a dozen museums, buzzing city center, pedestrian only lanes, al fresco cafés. We grab a pizza and coffee at one of the latter and settle down in the evening chill to wait for the parade. This annual parade begins in the morning and travels 40 km from Noordwijk, through Keukenhof, finally stopping at Haarlem at 9 in the night. The theme for the year is ‘Musicals’ and after a long wait, the floats begin to stream in; tableaux from Lion King, West Side Story, the Sound of Music and all the usual suspects, created entirely with flowers.
Another day, another trip. This time, a half day whirlwind tour of North Holland (really, the country is that small). It is a fine spring day and the entire tour is like being inside a ‘Visit The Netherlands’ poster. First stop, the Zaanse Schans village. I could swear there was a Hollywood set designer at work there: windmills, gabled houses, pretty wooden bridges over narrow canals, more tulips. Even a cheese factory specializing in the round cheese that nearby Edam is famous for. And inside, a milkmaid straight from central casting, explaining the cheese making process and handing out generous samples.
Then an hour at the fishing village of Volendam, with lots of activities suggested by the tour guide. But we spend it watching the sailboats bob up and down the slightly choppy water. And finally Marken, a short boat ride away, also scattered with picture postcard scenes (I have become blasé about Holland’s breathtaking beauty by then) and a stop at a traditional clog-maker’s shop to see how these wooden shoes are made.
Meanwhile Amsterdam has been on a roll as usual, the streets crowded with locals and tourists. People are playing chess on giant chessboards painted on street corners, buskers are doing brisk business at Dam Square, the canal-side cafes are full of people chatting over a beer and happy couples are stretched out on the grass at the sprawling Vondelpark. On the main roads, trams, buses, cycles and horse mounted policemen all travel together in perfect harmony. One morning, we browse idly through the open-air Albert Cuyp market and then we take a late evening canal cruise. We walk aimlessly for hours by the canals and narrow side streets, giving Amsterdam’s famous brown cafés and red light district a miss.
And we end it all on a sad note with a visit to Anne Frank’s House. As I step out, I am so thankful for Amsterdam’s sunny friendliness that manages to lift that cloak of gloom that has settled on me.
Tip: Keukenhof Gardens is open this year from March 21 to May 20.
A slightly edited version was published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine – Tulips from Amsterdam