Sunday, November 19, 2017
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By Award winning Travel Writer John Trew

I FELT REALLY at home during my recent Dutch Bulbfields Cruise when I spotted something surprising that nearly made my wee heart burst with pride — it was the familiar flag of the gallant Northern Ireland football team contesting the Euro 2016 campaign this summer in France.

It was fluttering over what turned out to be an Irish pub on a corner of the bustling Marketplace of DELFT alongside — it must be admitted — the less-conspicuous pennant of the Republic of Ireland. According to a Dutchman enjoying an alfresco Ulster Fry in the spring sun, the explanation was that both Irish teams are among the underdogs adopted by disappointed fans of the Holland team which has ignominiously failed to qualify.

That’s typical of the Dutch who are globally renowned as decent, fair-minded and non-sectarian (in spite of having given us King Billy and Orangeism, some might say!). Holland is, after all, the location of ANNE FRANK’S HOUSE, symbolic of the support given to a Jewish family by their Christian neighbours in the face of Nazi tyranny. It is such a global monument to Good versus Evil that it remains top of Amsterdam’s must-see visitor attractions and is usually so crowded that tourists really have to be there first thing in the morning.

Lynda and Don Blake, a lovely couple from near Bath we met on our river cruiser, were put off by overwhelming queues, so they walked miles to the JEWISH HISTORICAL MUSEUM — unbeknown to us — and turned up exactly as Karen and I arrived off the Metro. (The chances of that happening in a huge city like Amsterdam are about the same as Northern Ireland playing against the Republic in the Euro Final on July 10!)

Anyway, it’s about time I told the whole story of how we came to spend one of our most enjoyable Spring Breaks ever, cruising past windmills for nearly a week towards the highlight — KEUKENHOF GARDENS, easily the world’s biggest and most popular celebration of flowering bulbs…

My name is John and I am a Plantaholic

KAREN AND I WERE married in early spring and I vaguely remember that I wore a daffodil bloom in the button-hole of my sports jacket. Every year since, I have promised that I would treat her to an Anniversary Trip to the Dutch Bulbfields.

Regular readers know that I am a Plantaholic, unable to pass by any great gardens encountered on Trew’s Travels throughout the world. Also, we are both particular fans of flowering bulbs — notably amaryllis, which we grow as Christmas gifts, plus lots of pots of daffodils and tulips timed to add colour to our home and garden from January to July. We also share a love of canal holidays based on steering idiot-proof boats along the likes of Le Canal du Midi and the Shannon-Erne Canal. Over the years I have also written enthusiastically about our River Cruising adventures; the most recent was on the Rhone between Lyons and Avignon a couple of years ago.

This is why I was a pushover for an all-inclusive Newmarket Holidays package involving direct flights from Belfast to Amsterdam, five nights on board a well-regarded river cruiser, plus trips to interesting places including the once-in-a-lifetime highlight of KEUKENHOF. All of this cost not much more than £500 a head. That also included highly-popular on-board entertainment — largely fuelled, I must say, by ‘free’ wine, beer and soft beverages. As a teetotaller, I am not grumbling, because Karen (being relieved of her usual driving duties) imbibed her full share of the generous allocation to Table 21!

On the subject of the table allocation — we were really lucky to sit next to Don and Lynda who shared our interests in so many things it was uncanny; we also got on well with John and Linda from Kent. Indeed, it was John who took us to within one single point of winning the Table Quiz Night by knowing that the ball used in the 1966 World Cup was coloured orange — he was the only participant of nearly 100 passengers who knew that, presumably because the rest of us watched England’s triumph on black-and-white TV.

Nightly entertainment included a lively Music Party which proved that many over-70s are still able to boogie until midnight; a Crew Show which proved that their Eastern European humour does not always travel as well as their musical ability; plus a dress-up Gala Dinner on the last night which was up to five-star hotel standard.

Indeed, the food throughout the cruise was excellent, served with style by our Serbian waiter Vladimir who was ever smiling through the generous buffet breakfast, light four-course lunch and four-course dinner. He had an afternoon break while bar staff served Afternoon Tea and Cakes — an excellent, if highly-calorific institution — as we cruised smoothly through the rivers,canals, harbours and seaways of the flat landscapes for which the Netherlands are famed.

Tulips from Amsterdam and other great places

AS A REGULAR visitor to AMSTERDAM and its wonderful mix of cultural attractions, it was refreshing to sample some of the lesser-known ‘must-visits’ off the beaten path. The MS Olympia had a convenient berth on the River Ij close to the newly-refurbished Central Station’s FREE FERRY service to the fast-developing NORTH AMSTERDAM district.

The youthful vibe of this up-coming part of the city is echoed in THE EYE, an amazing amalgam of Movie Museum, Arthouse Cinema, Image-based Shop,Cool Cafe and evening Fine Dining Restaurant. It is housed in an imaginative eye-shaped white building with outdoor eateries overlooking the River Ij — pronounced ‘eye’, thus giving a title and function — to this remarkable celebration of the moving image.

In stark contrast to this 21st Century marvel is the JEWISH HISTORICAL MUSEUM based in four monumental synagogues representing Jewish life in Holland from 1600 to WWII. I find it bewildering to learn that that during the Occupation, 80,000 men, women and children were stripped of all their possessions, humiliated by being made to scrub pavements and suchlike, then deported in cattle trains to be murdered in Nazi extermination camps. If this museum does not sound like much fun when you are on holiday, let me tell you that I found it an uplifting experience with all the astonishing silver and gold ceremonial artefacts, a playful Children’s Museum plus a totally unexpected, mind-blowing bonus — an exhibition on the family life of AMY WINEHOUSE who was proud of her European Jewish heritage. I spent a fascinating hour listening to her demo recordings and peeking among her clothes while while admiring her tasteful vinyl collection of jazz and blues — including many artistes I collected myself, such as OTTILIE PATTERSON from Newtownards whom I once described as “our own petite blonde with the big brunette voice.”

After refreshment in the Museum’s kosher cafe, you should wander around the JEWISH CULTURAL QUARTER, taking in the ancient PORTUGUESE SYNAGOGUE and the NATIONAL HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL which has just — this year — instigated a programme of activities in a nearby building used as a WWII creche for children separated from parents; the Dutch Resistance smuggled out 600, many to be kept secretly safe by courageous non-Jewish families.

A remote berth on the fringe of UTRECHT was the Quiz Night destination on our cruiser, but I didn’t go exploring the city because I was upset since the correct answer to the question “What is Britain’s Oldest Newspaper?” is the Belfast News Letter (1737) and NOT The Times (1785).

Early next morning we were conducted by our genial driver Jim to delightful SCHOONHOVEN which is almost a Disney replica of a Dutch village. Our group wandered around its ancient streets waving their iPhone cameras on selfie sticks like teenagers on a spree, until we all ended up exhausted in the same café, nibbling local waffles and sipping herbal tea.

The Disney-like theme continued at KINDERDIJK where the landscape is dominated by 19 quintessentially DUTCH WINDMILLS, such a rare site that it has been awarded UNESCO status such as our own Giant’s Causeway. At least one family continues to live in one of the 1740 windmills, putting up the washing and having lunch under the gaze of ten thousand tourists every day.

All this walking tired me out so my afternoon nap after Afternoon Tea and Dutch Apple Pie, meant that I slept through the cruise around the gigantic harbour of ROTTERDAM. As it happens, many years ago I was there on a Press Trip to see the completion of EUROPOORT, world’s largest deep-sea anchorage. My monosyllabic table-mate from Kent summed it up over dinner: “Big.”

Pottering around the World Capital of Pottery

KAREN AND I go pottering at Leisure Ceramics classes at Bangor SERC, so we had already booked in advance the optional tour to DELFT which gave its name to DELFTWARE, the plates and tea-sets adorned with iconic blue-and-white windmills or pagodas.

First stop on the half-day tour was to one of this beautiful city’s few surviving potteries, PEACOCK DELFTWARE (De Delftse Pauw) where our charming guide described all the processes culminating in the hand-painting of each object by steady-handed artists (their top one is from Africa, painting on clogs etc made from Cornish clay, reflecting the cosmopolitan nature of Delftware since its earliest days.) Every single item manufactured under the Peacock name is sold through the shop; the days of mass-manufacture in the former World Capital of Pottery are long gone. At around £10 each, our nicely illustrated egg-cups with their Certificate of Authenticity are helping to keep the tradition alive.

It was also somewhat disappointing to discover that the big VERMEER CENTRE did not have any actual works by the city’s most famous son, the artist Johannes Vermeer who painted the sublime Girl with the Pearl Earring. Admittedly, there are only around 37 paintings by the 17th Century Master still in existence, but to have a three-storey celebration of Vermeer’s life and work which has NOT ONE artwork — or even artefact belonging to him — is a common cause for complaint by tourists.

However, Karen and I also do courses on Art History (what a pretentious life we lead!), so we reckoned we got our nine euros worth from the ingenious exhibits which examine, for example, how he became known as The Master of Light through clever techniques which have influenced the artistic world since the 1600s. For YEAR OF VERMEER 2016, there’s another cafe/shop nearby. Both places involve 80 volunteer art fans and they deserve support. On which subject — the Northern Ireland football flag featured at the top of Trew’s Travels adorns FINNLEY’S IRISH PUB just across the street from the Vermeer Centre.

Also nearby is DELFT MERKT, the main square where a famous market is held between the TOWN HALL (Stadhuis)and the NEW CHURCH (Niewe Kerk). This is only new in relation to the Old Church — having been the site of worship since the 1300s!

Our walking tour of the old Zuider Zee port of HOORN, 10 miles north of ‘cheesy’ EDAM, was all-too brief, due to the fact that our coach drive was half way across Holland to get us to our much anticipated climax, Keukenhof.

Seven million flowering bulbs make magic

RARELY am I lost for words, but I find it difficult to communicate the overwhelming effect I experienced passing through the majestic entrance to Keukenhof Gardens at Lisse, west of Amsterdam. Wow! And again WOW!

Although I knew that the Dutch Bulbfields were more than just miles and miles of tulips, hyacinths and daffodils grown by the square hectare in the dead-flat sandy soil of North Holland, I was mentally unprepared for the astonishing infrastructure that has developed to make this place one of the country’s most visited attractions.

Considering that it is open only for eight weeks from mid-March to Mid-May, I was impressed by the manner in which everything worked so well, from the immaculate toilets and fleet of wheelchairs to strategically placed shelters and spacious pavilions to cope with mass-tourism in all weathers.

My fellow cruise passengers joined over 500 coach-loads of tourists from every corner of the planet who arrived around the same time as us, including easily recognisable Indian Nuns and a Scots Pipe Band, plus 4,500 car-loads of local families who did not stop smiling throughout the sunny public holiday on which we arrived.

Here’s just a flavour of the treat in store for next year’s visitors (sorry, but the 2016 season ended on May 16). Orange-Nassau Pavilion: Different cut flower shows every week with heaven-scent fragrances and a programme of demos; Beatrix Pavilion: Permanent Orchid and Anthurium exhibitions; Willem-Alexander Pavilion: Every type of spring-flowering bulb ever known; Juliana/Tulipmania: How tulip bulbs were worth more than gold and a nation nearly foundered because of a collective madness! IN ADDITION are football-pitch size outdoor reproductions of famous Dutch paintings; boat cruises through bulbfields; a mighty Windmill which has become the favourite site for Photo Ops; plus Restaurants, Ice-cream carts and cafes with views to die for. Think Balmoral Show, Chelsea Flower Show, Garden Show Ireland — put them together and multiply by 10 and you get the idea!

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