Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Day 18 - Aalsmeer Flower Auctions; Keukenhof Gardens; Dinner at De Witte Uyl

Friday 13th April 2012
I stir. I check the time. 06:40.  Aagh.  Rouse the sleeping spouse.  We need to be out of here asap.  Today we are going to Aalsmeer and the famous flower auctions.  Resist the delectable aromas emanating from the kitchen. Forget that our host is a trained chef. On your bike. …… although this is Amsterdam I don’t mean that literally.  Just before we duck out the door, I pop into the kitchen and make sure we’re not expected for brekky… aaggh, it smells even better in there. Sigh.

We retrace our steps of last evening and head down to the bus stop in Hobbemastraat.  It’s very quiet and cold thismorning. Only the birds singing and chattering in the trees and the sound of hubby’s shoes ringing on the pavement.  The birds are chasing eachother. Perhaps it helps them keep warm.  Our breath hangs in clouds on the air. 
The bus shelter has the various timetables and route numbers displayed so it is not at all difficult to figure out where we are supposed to be.  Once again we part with 4 Euros each. A nagging voice in at the back of my mind tells me that there may be a better way to handle the transport cost. Nagging voice once more told to shut it.  We take our seats on the bus as it gets underway.  Everything is a new adventure but even odd or dull things are exciting when you’ve never seen a place before.  At first we pass through an area that seems very square and grey.  Industrial in look though perhaps not in fact.  Someone craved some excitement when deciding the colours for the VUmc Cancer centre. It is in bold stripes of red and blue with regular windows.  Just as I am starting to wonder how it could be tolerable to live in such a geometric landscape we enter an area of attractive domestic housing. There seems to be a high level of competence in the community for plant training techniques such as espalier.  Neat gardens on newly constructed homes which seem to me to be in a distinctive Dutch style.  We have noticed here and previously in England that people seem to like their new houses to be constructed in a simple traditional sort of style. 
The suburban landscape suddenly opens into fields with chimneys releasing clouds over in the distance.  The bus driver announces the next stop as being the main entrance to Flora Holland.  The bus stops. Half the bus stands up ready to hop out.  Hubby is quick to spot the signs directing tourists to where they need to be.  We navigate around a large group and pay our entrance fee (€5).  The lady behind the counter hands me over a couple of documents and points up the stairs. Your tour begins at the top of the stairs. "The auction rooms are at the end of the corridor. There are plenty of flowers today so no need to rush, but don’t take too long about getting to the auction room."  Noted.
When we get into the “corridor” what we find is a long air bridge which passes above the warehouse floor. Stack after stack of flowers or trolleys is arranged. There is seemingly no end to the warehouse. It shows no sign of ending for as far as I can see. Forklifts and road trains of flower containers wiz this way and that.  Hubby comments: “It’s like dodgems with flowers”.  We walk. We pause very briefly to read the interpretive panels placed along the walkway.  We stop to try and capture the scene in a picture.  A photo seems inadequate.  A lady ahead of me is stopped and is simply using the video to try and capture the breadth of activity.  The air is full of the smell of fresh flowers.  Some of the workers wear white masks. There must be a lot of people employed here.  The floor seems to have a great number of people moving flower containers this way and that.
We eventually reach the auction room and we observe the scene. The set up is like a tiered lecture theatre with two huge screens at the front of the room.  These are the auction clocks.  We have been handed a paper that tells you about these screens and what the various numbers mean.  Hundreds of transactions can occur in a minute or so.  Auctions are conducted in the Dutch manner where they start at the maximum price and first person to bid has them.  On the tiers are seats with computers where the buyers participate. It’s all very quiet. Only those with an inclination to study the figures on the screen would ever guess that anything much at all is actually happening in there. Everything is conducted electronically so there is no auctioneer with entertaining patter.  As soon as the purchase is made there is someone standing buy to move the containers purchased into the order for the particular buyer.  When we first arrived the auction room was having a break.  Action on the floor was fairly low quay.  When the auctions get going however the activity on the floor is frenetic with vehicles and people buzzing around.  There are several windows where you can observe the auctions in progress. People tend to crowd the first window because they don’t know it won’t be their only opportunity.  It took us about 20 minutes to get to the first auction window.  We did pause briefly to take a photo or read a sign but over all I’d say we were moving at a steady pace.  It’s a mind bogglingly large warehouse.  We continue back on the return leg and would you believe it they have an on-site hairdressing salon!
Separately for the most part because we have skillfully managed to lose eachother in the crowd.  We are all done with Flora Holland by about 9 am.  The bus stop is right outside the main entrance.  We catch the 172 bus on the return leg.  These buses leave very regularly.  The transport journey planner has said that we should change to a route 300 bus to get more quicly to Schipol and thence to Keukenhof. However when the time comes we’re not entirely sure where we are supposed to do the change and we are enjoying looking around were we are so we decide to just return to familiar territory where we can easily regroup if things go wrong. No worries there. This is easily done.
We go straight across to the stop where the 197 will leave from.  There’s a 197 already sitting waiting there. As we approach the doors slide closed and we await the next service.  This takes about 15 minutes.  As we returned from Aalsmeer and wait for the Schipol bus we note the growing queues at the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum. Mostly elderly people so far thismorning.
The 197 bus is quite full when we board.  At the next stop two more people get on and the bus is full.  No pick up for passengers from then on.  Passengers at Concertgebouwplein are left standing at the stop looking rather dismayed.  At least it’s not too long to the next bus.
Having to stop at the airport is quite convenient today.  Our universal currency adaptor gadget doesn’t fit the notebook cord (oops) and we need some more Euros.  Easy to do here.
Errands completed we follow the signs to the Keukenhof shuttle which is quite a distance from the regular bus stops. The queue snakes around the corner of the building and out of sight.  There’s nothing for it but to get on the end of it.  Nearby there is an intriguing bus. Presumably amphibious it has “The Floating Dutchman – the most splashing way to explore Amsterdam” in huge lettering on the side.  Its very large for an amphibious vehicle! I decide that I will google it.  (PS I did and it looks like fun.)
There’s luggage trolleys abandoned here and there and some nifty bike lockers.  The crowd is cheerful and smiling despite the waiting and the grey cold weather. People talk and smile, anticipating a great day out. I feel rather than see the sun break through the clouds.  The sunbeams warm my back.  The queue moves steadily.  I entertain myself by trying to pay attention to the details.  Caps, beanies, bare heads.  Blonds, brunettes, black hair with a nice auburn rinse.  Fur lined hoods and quilted jackts.  Polka dot socks.  Chatter in a multitude of languages.  The queue moves steadily and we round the corner in sight of the bus. No sun here just a promise of nearing departure to warm me.  The bus is loading. 5 steps and stop. 3 steps and stop. Hubby jigs up and down on his toes and estimates we’re probably another bus away from departure.  An Asian girl strides past confidently in black ankle boots that have large tassles attached. The tassles flick and dance with each step. Extrovert shoes!  She wears them well.  The fully laden bus thrums to life with a wiff of exhaust and drives away.  We’ll be on the next one.  A lady comes along the queue asking for tickets. She’s carrying a stamp and a board to stamp the papers against.  Dismay as a group of Asian girls just ahead of us discover they need tickets already and cannot buy them on the bus.  False eyelashes blink and turn to the people in front of us, questioning. After waiting in the queue the news is just too aweful to accept immediately.  Most of the group rush off to the tourist information shop to address the problem.  The ticket lady gets to the remaining two girls.  There’s a no nonsense response “You must go buy tickets (wave of the arm) and join the end of queue. That is the rules. Too busy to wait here.”  Oh, how I feel for those girls! 
Perhaps I’m just more patient now than before we left Australia on a long haul flight. I find I can tolerate the queuing quite well. It’s only about 25 minutes between joining the queue and driving away.  It could have been a lot worse.  We are only the second couple to board the bus and have our pick of seating places. We go for the left hand side in the raised section at the back. We have traced over the same ground on our bus trips so far and rather than finding it tedious, I’m feeling happy to actually be able to remember things along the way. I’m starting to feel more like I know where we are. 
It’s not long before we’re in new territory.  There’s a ripple of excitement through the bus as colourful stripes in red, blue, yellow and pink appear.  I mentally slap myself. We are on the WRONG side.  How frustrating when we could have sat anywhere.  All the bulb fields are visible on the RIGHT hand side of the bus, so no photos. Sigh.  Oh well. At least we have a seat!
From fields of flowers to fields of coaches.  Holy Moly!  The bus pulls up and pours the latest wave of a human tide out into the reception area of the main entrance.  The queue looks long and I wait behind a large group while hubby does a reccie to make sure I’m in the right place.  Nope.  They’re not in the queue just very near it. There’s a separate queue for e-tickets and this is short and moves quickly. We’re in. We’re in.  We are in the most beautiful spring garden in the world. That’s what Keukenhof says about itself. At this moment I believe them.  
There’s a Dutch mechanical street organ playing and central to the area is a large pond with a miniature El Alamein Fountain in the middle of it.  Glorious spring flowers are arranged in the garden beds round about.  I almost cannot believe I am here.  Keukenhof is living up to all my expectations.
As we are quite happy to be here after 3pm when we understand crowds reduce, we are happy to start by ticking off lunch before the eating places get too crowded.  I head into a self service café. Short queue. Hubby says he liked the look of the more upmarket looking option across the courtyard so we go and have a look. It looks busy. I approach the girl near the service desk and ask if they have seats for two. She looks at me strangely and peers around the corner. “ya, there’s plenty of seats” she says in a puzzled, offhand sort of tone which I, with some generosity of spirit I have to say, interpret as “welcome, just take a seat anywhere and we’ll be with you in a minute”.   Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be generous.  We find a seat and make ourselves comfortable. Menu is already on the table.  Do we order here or at the bar I ask. Hubby’s seen the girl taking orders so clearly we just wait. The lampshades are nice. Circular tubes with the interior side a forest of attractive black and white tree trunks. It matches the raw tree trunks that form a partition between areas of the café.  It’s a nice ambience in here... and we wait some more.  The people at the table near us are having the apple cake.  After about 5 minutes we decide we’d better time it. We chat. Increasingly the chat moves onto how long we are prepared to wait.  After 15 mins no-one has said boo to us, or given any indication that we are on their radar at all.  The risk assessement kicks off in earnest. The people sitting behind us finished their food a while ago. The man is looking at his watch and looking for a waitress. Not having much joy. Service attention seems to be mainly on the outdoor area. Tables vacated and promptly cleaned.  A woman asks if she can sit at the table being cleaned and then proceeds to do so.  Food has been trickling out of the kitchen.  If it takes this long to order, how long does it take to food delivery and then to payment. I recall the 3 hr lunch we once had in Mudgee. Too much opportunity cost. We head back to the self serve place across the way where we share a chicken and bacon roll, a sausage roll and a grilled Panini.  They sell freshly squeezed orange juice so I opt for that. Hubby had a Pepsi… which can only mean that Coke is not available. We head to a table with our wallets €20.20 lighter.  The food is OK.  If you’re one of those people who love the pastry on a sausage roll but just tolerate the filling, you’d love the sausage roll here. Beautiful pastry. Almost no filling at all.  I don’t miss it.  :o) 
 Lunch over and done with it’s time to explore.  At this point, and for quite a while on the day I was thinking all I could possibly say in this report is that words are simply not adequate. The gardens defy description.  I’m almost in tears of joy as we wander through the Beatrix and Juliana areas of the gardens. I’m so glad I didn’t die without seeing this.  Keukenhof is a very beautiful place even without the spring bulbs.  These queenly sections are overhung by mature deciduous trees. Currently bare of leaves, the branches filter the light creating an ethereal beauty.  Strategically placed sculptures, ponds, fountains and everywhere named varieties of bulbs cultivated to perfection.  Birdsong.  Fragrance.  Delightfully cool for strolling hand in hand.  You can’t rush. You simply cannot rush. I can barely tear myself away from one glorious scene to discover the next.
The display designers have worked immaculate artistry everywhere we look.  Graceful arcing curves across slopes.  Crossing beds in contrasting colours. Large beds sculpted through colour and height into a floral landscape.  At one point we stop and behold with incredulity beds of perfect dark pink tulips with petals that look like polished silk.  And the hyacinths!  Oh my lord the hyacinths!  Purple sensation is well named!  And Daffodils.  ;o) Have I mentioned I love daffodils? ;o))   A reasonable number of beds of tulips are not yet in flower, the green of their vigorous leaves offsetting varieties with an earlier display.  But oh the daffodils!  Named varieties of every sort.  Pink ones, white ones, miniatures, they are displayed at their very best.  Spring blossom trees are weeping floral tears speckling the grass all around with natural confetti.  There is something here for everyone. Bold contrasts of purple against yellow. Soft pastel confections. 

We arrive at the Willem Alexander pavilion. Hubby asks “what’s in this?”.  “ I don’t know, let’s go have a look”.   Given the above ravings.. I’m sure those who know Keukenhof will be chuckling in satisfaction at this point.  The Willem Alexander pavilion is full, full of spectacular flowers.  Of course there are the tulips and daffodils, there’s also hippeastrums (which always make me think of my grandfather who loved “hippies”) and hydrangeas with heads both perfect and supersized.  
I thinkof mum again as we admire a frilly convection of a tulip that has been named "Queensland".
We wander back outside completely dazzled.  We head to the windmill, which I’ve noticed is the departure point for the whisper boat tours through the bulb fields.  I reassess my level of interest. Why would I want to leave these gardens?? No. What time I have will be spent in the gardens themselves.  There are more food vendors here and they smell great.  Hubby succumbs to the temptation of the waffles and so we share one. They are thick and hearty served just with cream.
Checking our map which we have had to purchase with the guide to the gardens for 4 euros, we turn to discover new territory and a view over a nearby bulb field full of blue hyacinths.  The clouds reflect in the dark still water.Photographers are lined along the edge of the bushes aiming long lenses which are being adjusted for perfect focus.  My own attempts are much more haphazard, but I'm not unhappy with the result. 
We continue our systematic exploration. And soon come to a large area for kids.  There’s a petting zoo.  I photograph the kune kune pigs for daughter 2.  There’s a big miffy statue. Some Japanese children race over to it excitedly to get their picture taken with it. I was photographing it and feel bad as clearly the little girls mum tells her to get out of my picture.  I would have been happy to have her in the picture. Such a radiant smile. Miffy was lucky to get such a lovely loving embrace from such a cute little girl.  I get out of the way and look back as mum and dad and the kids smile and laugh and capture happy Miffy moments.
There’s great play equipment in this area too. A huge slide.  A long flying fox and more besides. There’s fun for all the family at Keukenhof.
There are crowds of people, but you aren’t allowed to walk on most of the grass areas, so the number of people around isn’t a problem. Not today at any rate. The camera is working overtime. I know that photos will not come even halfway to conveying the scenes before us.  I turn to hubby “Oh I would love to show mum this place. She would LOVE it here.”  He replies “Well I’m not into flowers and I’m I’M having a great time. It’s pretty glorious!”  I resolve that I have to send mum a postcard from Keukenhof.  “is there a postbox here?”  Hubby proves his worth. He has noticed that there is indeed a post box near the main entrance.
Before we leave I am determined to go back through the Beatrix and Juliana areas. It’s after three O’clock and the number of visitors does seem to be thinning a little.  We have dinner reservations so we have to leave by 4pm or not too long after.  I still have my souvenirs to buy and a postcard for mum.  4:15 pm by the time we are actually heading for the bus.  The queue is not bad.  Luckily some people opted to wait for the next bus rather than stand on the way back to Schipol. We are the last people aboard.  Smooth connection at Schipol for the 197 bus just a few metres from where the 58 bus dropped us. We are back at Hotel Fita by 5:30. Perfect timing for getting changed and walking over to dinner.
So, where is dinner I hear you ask.  De Witte Uyl over at 26 Franz Halstraat.  No issues or delays walking over, the restaurant is easy to find and the terrain is perfectly flat of course!  It takes us a bit less than 15 minutes without hurrying particularly, but it is quite cold and we’re dressed in accordance with our plan that we’ll be spending the evening indoors, so there’s an incentive for not daudling. We head through the park. Past the museumplein, across the grass from the Concertgebouw. I wish I’d brought the camera.
We step into the cosy warmth of De Witte Uyl and are shown to our seats.  It has a wonderful romantic ambience. Candle light. Soft jazz music playing. Our seating is part of a larger table arrangement but is given privacy by a collection of bottles and a large vase of tulips.  The table behind hubby (where I can admire it) has a huge vase of perfect pink anenomes.  I love anenomes. The vases seem like the perfect end to a wonderful day full of flowers.  Our welcome treat is some “poultry pate, it has some mushrooms in it”. I’m not usually into pate or mushrooms.  I tell the grumbling voice in my head to shut it once again and give it a try.  Delicious.
Next we have breads. Delicious, soft warm wholemeal bread with home made herb oil. Delicious.
Somewhere in between we have been brought the menu.  Dishes here are in between starter and main size so you order two from the whole list.  There’s three special options.  All look tempting.  In the end though you have to make a choice. Hubby went for the special Dutch shrimps with watercress, lettuce and avocado served with a warm leek and egg sauce and a croquet of crab and roasted bell pepper (The croquet was very yummy) followed by Rosti of potato spring onion, ginger and coriander served with a herb and cress salad, a poached egg and a sauce hollandaise.  I opted for Ravioli served with gorgonzola and candied onion in a crème of smoked carrot and basil followed by soufflé of broccoli and almonds served with mange touts.  We both enjoyed our meals. Hubby won though.  Will we have desset?  No prizes for guess work on that score. Hubby was sorely tempted by the profiteroles but succumbed to my suggestion of trying the Grand dessert which was 5 small items:  a small chocolate and ginger crème brulee, a choc mint gelato sort of thing, a very narrow slice of cheesecake, a small profiterole which seemed to have been filled with ice cream and in the centre a very potent shot of liquer based liquid.  I opted for the meringue layered with cheesecake and raspberries.  Phew. I won the final round.. well.. I think so anyway!
Another pleasant walk home were settled down and relaxing by 8:30. Just what we need after such an early start. 

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