Friday, June 1, 2012

Amsterdam Trip: Keukenhof Gardens, day one

I'm finding that when it takes me more than a month to get around to posting something, it's very hard to come up with something to say -- and especially now that I'm home in the US for a couple of weeks for a visit, it's like being in an alternate universe, which is to say, weird. So, uh, we spent four days in Amsterdam in mid-April, smack dab in the middle of tulip season. I don't find an individual tulip to be all that alluring of a flower, but wow, something magical happens when you cram a bunch of colorful ones together.

We arrived mid-morning and got settled at the apartment where we were staying -- it was located across the water, via free ferry, from Central Station, ironically in a Turkish neighborhood. We got there early and to kill some time, we went into the only seemingly open place (besides a hugely popular local "coffeeshop"), and it was like stepping back into Istanbul. They even had the same Pasabahce votive candle holder that I have at home.

Once settled, we went out to find the tulips! From Central Station, we took the train to Leiden via Haarlem, a trip that a Dutch acquiantance had told me would take us right through the flower fields. And it was great advice -- it took about 20 minutes until we got to the fields, but then for about 10 minutes, there were just these colorful strips of flowers on either side of the train, a section here and a section there. But it went by so quickly, and I was dying to get off the train and figure out how to we could walk around or ride a bike through the area (which I imagine would not have been so simple -- actually, another Dutch acquaintance told me today that the view from the train is much better -- but still, it just looked so peaceful and inviting).

From Leiden, which came remarkably quickly, we took the bus to Lisse, home to the Keukenhof Gardens, a massive park home to some 4.5 million tulips. Our Airbnb hostess had warned us not to go, saying it was really overpriced, but I'm thinking she's just jaded from a lifetime of being surrounded by tulips because this place was AMAZING. It's 79 acres with more than 9 miles of pathway, and there are just tulips everywhere -- plus exhibition halls, a baby animals enclosure, a windmill, a labyrinth... I'll let the photos do the work:

Most amazing, though, were the parrot tulips, which feature these Alice-in-Wonderland-esque leaves, which curl in on themselves in bizarre shapes.

We spent hours at the Keukenhof Gardens and while I think we saw everything, it was almost too much to take in in a single afternoon. There was also a 50-minute boat ride we could have taken past some of the flower fields, but by the time we got over there, it was pretty overcast and didn't seem worth it; apparently, we also could have rented bikes (through the shortest route through the bulb fields is 14 miles, and I am not sure I am that kind of biker).

We took the bus back to Amsterdam and we had a little wander around town, mainly just following random streets wherever they took us -- which happened to be, at one point, the Anne Frank house and the Tulip Museum.

We eventually stumbled into Dam Square, where a large crowd was gathered in front of Koninklijk Palace. Like good lemmings, we sort of stood around trying to figure out what was going on, finally asking someone -- and it turned out that Queen Beatrix and Turkish President Abdullah Gul were scheduled to come out momentarily, on their way to the theater. That seemed pretty cool so we joined in...and we waited...and waited...and waited. It even started raining and we still waited. Mostly because the police officers kept gearing up, or a car would pull up, or whatever, and it always seemed like their departure was imminent...and after investing all that time, how could we just walk away? But finally, there was movement, and President Gul came out, amid cheers from the Turks in the crowd. And then it was over. I was pretty psyched, but Cagatay was disappointed -- he only wanted to see the queen.

After that, we decided to head through the Red Light District to have dinner at Bird Thai snackbar, a tiny little place that sits across the street from their larger restaurant and which was in the guidebook. It was pretty good and because it's so small, you just sort of sit wherever and with whomever -- we sat with a very quiet Dutchman, which was a little awkward given our proximity.

Of course, we also got a taste of what the Red Light District was like, and I found it disturbing. I guess I expected it to be more "upscale," for lack of a better word, more Disneyland touristy. And it's not -- it's just seedy, and there's a bunch of young guys wandering around looking to have a good time, and you can practically get high just from breathing the air, with all the pot fumes coming out of the coffeeshops. I was especially disturbed by the "famous" prostitutes displaying their wares in the windows -- a Red Light District website says to "Enjoy the honesty of it all," but those girls were young, and there's nothing "tolerant" or "liberal" about the sex trade and the human trafficking that goes along with it. According to Wikipedia, a former prostitute-turned-councilwoman said: "It's supposed to be such a wonderful, cheery place that shows just what a free city we are. But I think it's a cesspit." It's kind of sick that this is considered a tourist attraction or boys' weekend "fun." WTF? Pin It

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