Determined to escape the bustle of Amsterdam and resisting the very small temptation to stand for hours in the queues for all of the museums, we decided to spend the next two days exploring outside the city. We bought tickets costing 20 Euros for an escorted coach trip to probably the most famous gardens in the Netherlands, Keukenhof. Diane had read that the Netherlands produces 90% of the world’s bulbs and here many of the varieties are displayed in full bloom for only two months of the year April and May. For once we were in the right place at the right time.
Again we headed out towards Central Station where we were told by the hotel receptionist we would find the tour centre and the coach. We were getting very adept at tram travel, it is not difficult once you know which number you want and they arrive every few minutes which is wonderfully reassuring. We queued with many other tourists outside the tour centre which we found difficult to find in the end. Some people pushed and shoved their way to the front of this queue totally disregarding those at the front. I found it quite amusing, if slightly irritating, that stereotypes are so often correct! Finally the tour guide arrived and to the dismay of those who had pushed in, she marched us down the pavement with a banner in her hand leading us from the middle of the queue, this put Diane and me right at the front. She walked quickly with no patience for stragglers until finally, about five minutes later, we were able to get on the coach. We got the upstairs front seat, to the dismay of our other less well behaved fellow travellers. The commentary became rather tedious but then I never did like tours very much. She explained how the Polder areas in the Netherlands have been reclaimed from the sea and how they are all below sea level. It began to rain slightly as we approached some of the bulb fields so the photographs really only give an impression of the colour through the dirty wet coach windows.
The gardens, although very busy in some areas, never really felt crowded. I was totally amazed at the colours and the inspired planting. There were moments when I wished people would disappear but others when I waited for them to walk into my picture. To say these gardens were spectacular would be an understatement. It is difficult to find the words to describe both the colours and the overpowering scent that delights your eyes and fills your nose. We felt high on the perfumed aromas and had to sit for a while just to absorb them as we both felt light headed. As the sun came out the colours grew brighter and I started to really take in how the gardeners had matched the various colours hoping that any knowledge gained would improve my creative eye. My photographs are intended to give a sense of colour and scale so I have not processed them much at all, only reducing the highlights, lightening the shadows and cropping slightly in the hope that you will enjoy the flowers as we saw them!
We walked back through Amsterdam’s Red Light district as Diane had never seen it before. Although colourful, it remains a rather seedy place where I was warned that taking photographs may result in my camera being snatched and thrown into the canal. Needless to say we didn’t even attempt to take photographs. It was sad and strange in equal measure to see scantily clad young girls sitting in windows tapping into mobile phones whilst they waited for the next customer. It might be the oldest profession in the world being plied in one, if not the most tolerant countries in the world, but I couldn’t help feeling glad that neither of my daughters were sitting in those windows.
On our return to the hotel that evening , still wanting to escape the city, we asked the rather abruptly spoken hotel receptionist where else we could go to find a more tranquil and charming atmosphere. She recommended the ‘hop on hop off’ bus service which runs from village to village on the northern outskirts of Amsterdam. For just 10 Euros we could visit up to nine villages in one day.
Once again we set off to Central Station on the tram to find the EBS bus service office which can be found we were reliably informed, on the far side of the station and up the escalator. Initially we were concerned about how we got to the far side of the station as there are many ticket barriers that in this country would require a ticket for entry. We dithered and finally went back to the tourist information centre at the station and asked how to reach the bus. She explained that we could walk straight through the barriers without a ticket as they were actually open – we both felt a bit stupid! We found the EBS ticket office up the escalator on the left and paid the money receiving a map of the route in return, it all seemed so easy.
Our first port of call was Monnickendam, a very pretty village with a small harbour and some huge boats. We wandered through the village area stopping to watch the local lock keeper open and close the lock gates. We enjoyed a coffee in the local pub before exploring further. We found a walk way through a small park and at one point we were being followed by a small vehicle as the driver was cleaning the pathways. We stopped to let him pass. I was very amused five minutes later to see that two locals who were enjoying a chat, had no intention at all of moving out of his way. The driver sat for several minutes whilst they continued to talk and I couldn’t resist capturing this laid back moment in my lens! It didn’t take long to explore this pretty and very charming village so within an hour we were back on the bus looking forward to the next village.
Marken is an unusual and very traditional, if somewhat commercialised village. Small wooden houses surround the harbour area and the odd shopkeeper dressed in traditional costume offers a variety of fish both fresh and freshly cooked. We wandered around the wooden decking to the edge of the harbour. It was here we discovered the Dutch custom of publicising the names of the occupants of each house somewhere near the front door. This was done as we were to discover, in a variety of ways in different places , but in Marken it was done using clogs.
From Marken we took the ‘world famous’ ferry to get to Volendam, as this was included as part of the travel price for the day. There were only two other passengers on this huge ferry. We both found it amusing that here, right out of the chaos of Amsterdam this ferry owner had the audacity to describe it as ‘world famous’. As we arrived in Volendam it was clear that this was a much bigger ‘village’ and the harbour was buzzing in a calm way, with cafes, fresh fish outlets and the odd heron and grebe flying in. We sat outside in a bar as by now it was wine o’clock. I wandered over trying to capture the heron as he was fed fresh fish. Unlike the British version this one had no fear of people at all. The grebes were fun to watch as their head bobbing grew in intensity but they were too far away to get a good shot. We wandered around the small harbour area and then finally headed out to find the bus stop. On our way across a small shopping area we heard sirens which got louder and at one point we thought the fire van was going to head straight for us. We ran back to the harbour area following in its wake, in the hope that we might be able to photograph something interesting. We never did discover where the fire was in the restaurant but we assumed that something in the kitchen had caught alight. I am not sure the fire service is very busy in this village as we were amused to watch one fireman testing the foam hose. He did this by pointing it down a concrete embankment and its force nearly took him off his feet! I don’t think he had checked that hose for a long time. The hose was left snaking across the walkway but undeterred by the possibility that their legs could become entangled or that they might be in the way, local people continued with their daily routines and walked or pushed buggies across the hose. Once again and by accident we found the bus stop. It was a much longer walk this time. When it arrived I was glad to rest my feet and very glad that I had had the sense to buy good boots before I came.
Our next stop was Edam and once again we were in a place that captures your heart. Waterways and empty pathways are a joy and finally we felt we were in an authentic Dutch village. We walked and found a small hotel at the water’s edge where we drank coffee and relaxed in the sun. There were a few bikes but they were ridden with care and consideration and far more slowly. We were smiled at and welcomed. We watched a huge boat turn and moor in a very small waterway and just enjoyed the slow pace, pretty buildings and waterway views.
Reluctant to leave, but aware that we still wanted to visit one more village before returning to Amsterdam we caught the bus to Broek in Waterland. This was the smallest of the villages and it is dominated by waterways and canals. The largest area of water has a large duck house in the middle. Wooden houses line a crescent shaped and narrow roadway and here we saw small children riding bikes with their parents. It is totally idyllic a wonderful place to live, quiet and pretty. As we watched two young girls clamber out of a small boat on their way home from school, I thought of ‘Swallows and Amazons’.
It was at this point we got on the wrong bus home. Jumping on too hastily was my fault and we suddenly realised we had missed the slipway onto the motorway that leads into Amsterdam. We alighted at a strange stop in the middle of what appeared to be an industrial area surrounded by flats. We wandered up and down the bus stops and waited at least 30 minutes for a bus that would take us back into Amsterdam.
It was our last evening and despite the total madness of the city and several near death experiences with bikes, we were growing accustomed to its vivacity and speed. We walked and walked to find the famous Narrow Bridge, and enjoyed our last meal in a fantastic Turkish restaurant where the waiter made us a very special salad. We walked again to find the Seven Bridges only to be disappointed that we couldn’t see all seven at once from one viewpoint. It was late and although the sky had a purple tinge a real sunset had eluded us. It was nearly time to go home!