Tulips and Windmills: A Bicycle Tour of Holland
Buried in a pile of red tulip blossoms – photos by Patty McCrary
[Want to see one of the world’s most spectacular sights? Go to Holland in the spring and feast your eyes on miles and miles of tulips. The best way to see Holland? This author argues it’s from the seat of a bicycle.]
By Dale Fehringer
Making Tulip Angels
Tulips have enchanted people for centuries. The Dutch economy nearly collapsed in the 17th century when, during a period of intense speculation, or “tulipmania,” rare tulip bulbs sold for as much as ten times a skilled workman’s yearly wages –- then dropped to practically no value overnight.
Anna Pavod, who studies and writes about tulips, refers to them as “the sexiest, the most capricious, the most various, subtle, powerful and intriguing flower that has ever grown on earth.”
We noticed them first from the windows of the bus as we rode to the start of our bicycle tour. Fields of tulips: red, yellow, orange, and pink; perfectly lined in rows, and stretching on kilometer after kilometer.
Signs at the end of the rows listed their names: Rembrandt, Parrot, Triumph, Double Late – it went on and on, with each as beautiful as the next.
There were huge piles of purple and red tulips lying at the edge of the flat, green fields. The bus driver patiently explained it to us: “They’re tulip blossoms. The growers cut them to divert energy to the bulbs. The bulbs are the valuable part.”
So we sat and stared at what must have been millions of tulip heads, waiting to be turned into compost. We thought how precious they would be back home and wondered if they were used for anything.
Miles and miles of tulips
“Some of the growers tried feeding them to their pigs,” the driver said. “But pigs don’t seem to care for them.”
We didn’t know then how much we would connect with those piles of blossoms, each in our own way. We walked in tulip piles, and threw handfuls of tulips in the air. A couple of us even made “tulip angels” by lying on our backs and waving our arms and legs.
Our Christmas cards that year included a photo of us in a pile of red tulip blossoms, holding a stem in our mouths, like flamenco dancers.
Make Room for Water
The Dutch have always had a love/hate affair with the sea. They rely on it for agriculture and transportation, but they have also fought for centuries against floods, which have wreaked havoc on the land.
A windmill in Kinderdijk
They think of water as an adversary, to be collected, contained, and sent as quickly as possible back to the sea. Over time, they have worked out a covenant, which they call “ruimte voor water” – make room for water.
By the 19th century, the Dutch had built 1,900 windmills, and there are still more than 1,000 of the giant concrete and wooden structures, though few are functional today.
The largest collection (19 windmills) is at the village of Kinderdijk, which is a ferry ride and half day’s bicycle ride to the coast through insistent wind and rain.
Only six of us made it all the way and the rest opted out or turned back. The six survivors included Joanne, a spunky woman in her 70s who with her husband, Ted, and who was a veteran of more than 20 bicycle tours.
As we drew near, the windmills emerged through the mist like an army of gigantic electric fans. We were impressed with their magnitude and as we rode closer with the size of the blades.
One windmill was open to the public, so we went in. We climbed the steps to the keeper’s quarters, at the midpoint of the blades, and were in a single small room that had a small wooden bed, a washbasin, and one small, arched window.
A tulip field in Holland – photos by Patty McCrary
We looked out over the canal where our windmill stood with its companions like lonely sentries, guarding the polder.
As a blade passed our window, its shadow blocked the light. We felt the power of its movement, gathering force as it sped downward, then pulled back up by centrifugal force and the strength of its hub.
We weren’t prepared for the loud whooshing sound that followed, and stood in silence for a moment in awe.
In the 15th century, Dutch countess Jacoba van Beiren gathered flowers and herbs for cooking in the woods of her estate south of Amsterdam. She called her gardens “keukenhof,” which translates to “kitchen garden.”
In 1949, the estate was turned into the Keukenhof Gardens, an 80-acre showcase of tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, and other flowering bulbs that flourish in the rich coastal soil near the town of Lisse.
The gardens include an incredible six million flowering bulbs along with floral exhibits, art shows, and a world-renowned auction of tulip bulbs.
Our cycling tour included a ride to Keukenhof Gardens, the famous bulb gardens we had heard so much about, and we were determined to get there. We had made our way through a long, tiring day, in which we were rained on and pedaled for hours into a cold wind.
We rounded another bend and the wind was still blowing strong, so we reached deeper to keep from turning back. But around this bend the wind blew us a wonderful perfume. Fields of purple hyacinth surrounded us; their bell-shaped buds in bloom.
The fragrance was everywhere. We stepped off our bikes and inhaled the elixir. We forget our freezing hands and aching muscles – this made it all worthwhile.
Now we could ride on.
At Keukenof, we were enthralled by the colors, made even more vibrant on this gray, cloudy day. There were tulip bulbs of every kind and they stood as armies of splendidly cloaked soldiers with their brightly colored headdresses a perfect symphony of color.
Dale Fehringer is a freelance writer, editor, and documentary video producer. Dale is a regular columnist for Competitive Intelligence Magazine and his articles have appeared in a wide range of publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, The Italian Tribune, inTravel Magazine, WomenOf.com, American Legion Magazine, Road & Travel, and Western RV News and Recreation. He can be reached at 415.602.6116 or by email.
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