The volunteer guide at the charming Aalsmeer Horticultural Museum describes his long and tiring life as a lilac grower. “I started when I was 15 and my father died when I was 19, so I had to take over, being the eldest son,” he says. ‘Is that how it works.’
Her shrug suggests she would have liked another life, but lilacs and caring for family had to come first. And so it has been for generations.
From early April to mid-May, the northern Netherlands transforms into a vibrant tapestry of stripes as the tulips come into full bloom. My husband, photographer Robin, and I headed to Aalsmeer. It’s just a short bus, train or taxi ride south of Schiphol Airport, but it’s a very different world.
This pleasant little town, about half an hour from Amsterdam and known as “the flower capital of the Netherlands,” may lack the elegant historic architecture of nearby Haarlem, but its twin glories are flowers and water. Every three months the entire exhibition of the Museum of Floral Art changes and every morning the world’s largest flower auction and market takes place in the vast complex called Bloemenveiling Aalsmeer.
You can see the spectacle starting at 7 in the morning, when small vehicles full of flowers go back and forth delivering boxes of flowers from growers to buyers who will export them around the world.
On a trip to the Netherlands, Bel Mooney visits the famous Aalsmeer flower market and auction (pictured)
Above, the “charming” Aalsmeer Horticultural Museum
Around 19 million flowers and 2 million plants are sold each weekday, with a daily turnover of around £5 million.
Since lilac is my favorite scent and color, I spend a lot of time getting to know the exquisite shrubs that have made Aalsmeer famous. Surprisingly, 95 percent of the world’s cut lilac stems come from this area. Recently, one of the large family businesses (run by the Kramers, two parents and two burly sons) fulfilled an order from a Middle Eastern family for 30,000 stems of different colored lilacs to decorate a wedding. Violet lilacs symbolize love, blues happiness, magenta passion and white innocence: thus the bride’s father covered all aspects.
We take a boat tour through a labyrinth of small islands on the beautiful lake Westeinderplassen, where the bushes are densely planted. Lilacs are grown all over the world, but the rich black soil of flooded Holland is perfect and the growing techniques in Aalsmeer are unique.
It takes six years before you can cut the first branches from a bush. Cultivation is very tough: each bush is dug up by hand, transported by boat to greenhouses where the flowers bloom, and then (after about five weeks) transplanted back to the islands.
Our base is the cozy, family-run Hotel de Jonge Heertjes, located on a pretty square in the center of Aalsmeer. There are many good restaurants nearby, particularly Restaurant On The Rock and the lively Brasserie de Haven. They are very popular with locals, which is always a good sign.
As for the tulips, we moved to another area: the Beemster. It is a ‘polder’, or expanse of land reclaimed from the sea, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999 and famous for the cultivation of tulips and cheese from the Friesian cows that thrive in the rich, moist grass. It’s a lovely area to ride a bike, but I choose not to because, frankly, my days on two wheels are over.
Instead, Robin drives me around in a little electric car called the Twizy, like a bubble car from the 60s. It’s nice but drafty.
Farmers will allow you to visit their fields as long as you are respectful, so at Nicolaashoeve Farm I can make my dream of standing among tulips with feet covered in black clay come true.
Bel (pictured) travels to Beemster, a UNESCO world heritage site, where she tiptoes through fields of tulips.
The only thing we lack is sunlight to make those rows of pink and violet flowers dazzle, but, after all, this is northern Europe. Plus, there is the warmth of the Dutch, always willing to explain the planting and harvesting of their world-famous bulbs.
When it starts to rain, we buy some delicious Beemster cheese at a popular store owned by the Groot family. They have photographs on display that show generations of the family making and selling their products.
We believe that cheese and tulips nourish the body and soul, but here my husband is in his element and I realize that he is more interested in food than flowers. The store is filled with slices of cheese, whose different-colored wax rings indicate flavors, such as herbs, garlic and chili. We stock up for home because cheese travels well.
Experts in their fields: On his way from Aalsmeer to Haarlem, Bel stops at the Cruquius pumping station (pictured), which “helped turn the vast Haarlemmermeer lake into land for the people.”
To feel the spirit of beautiful Holland it is necessary to understand the constant war against water. The old name ‘the low country’ indicates that much of it is far below sea level, and the Dutch have worked tirelessly for hundreds of years to become experts in flood protection. The land, so calm on the surface, pulses with constant activity beneath to prevent the water from reclaiming its territory.
To find out more we visited the Cruquius pumping station on the way from Aalsmeer to Haarlem. Robin is enthralled as the guide explains the workings of the huge Victorian steam pump (no longer in use, of course) that helped turn the vast Haarlemmermeer lake into land for the people. It was designed by British engineers and manufactured in Cornwall. It is humbling to reflect that without the country’s network of bombs there would be no flowers, no tourists, no livelihoods.
Once we return home, I long to remember our delightful break in Holland. I send my husband to the stores to buy me a huge bouquet of Dutch tulips in my favorite colors. He is not romantic, he does not know that these pink and purple flowers symbolize perfect love.