Brilliant tulip fields, interlaced canals and famous windmills. A rental car, an improvisational spirit, and a love for adventures are all that’s required on this journey.
At 10am, our cross-border journey started from Dusseldorf to southeast Netherlands. My friend Nitin proved himself an extremely professional driver and was infatuated with our rented Ford Focus, whilst I was fascinated by the countryside of Dusseldorf with fields and woods in the early spring’s lime green sunshine. Owning a colorful and lively personality, my friend drove as if he were an action movie star. Nitin, perhaps as many other gentlemen with vehicular passion, was like an uncaged bird when driving in Germany, with its maximum speed of 130 km/h and rare speed cameras. Therefore, on the Dutch roads with 100-120 km/h speed limits plus an abundance of cameras, a more forlorn look crept across his face.
Located nearly an hour and a half from Dusseldorf, Maastricht – one of the ten oldest European cities – has a gentle beauty. We parked the car near an international hostel named Stay Okay, and from here walked around the downtown area. Maastricht’s old and new towns are situated along the Meuse river. The old town features bright white buildings and walls. In the central square, I met a middle-aged Vietnamese Chinese woman born in Saigon, refugeed in the U.S. and married in Holland, who has lived in Maastricht for almost half of her life. Hoa had opened a kiosk selling Vietnamese snacks with delicious fried wontons and chicken spring rolls served with sweet chilli sauce.
Leaving Maastricht we headed north, passing by the residential side of the picturesque Ijssel river. After more than two hours, we arrived in Dieren, with Polysport as the next stopover. This is a sports and resort complex, with 100% wooden cottages, tennis courts, soccer pitches, and vast forest roads for those who like jogging, biking, or horse riding. “Dieren means ‘animals’ in Dutch,” noted Nitin. “The name says it all” was my conclusion after encountering some animals in a hiking afternoon. The bartender told us that during our stay we were to climb across seven mountains, much to our bemusement. Luckily, he added “well, you know, mountains in Netherlands do not differ from mounds that much.”
The actual journey was a little longer than expected. Wandering in the dark was not a great idea, so we spent only half an hour break in the extremely cozy restaurant De Carolinahoeve in the middle of the forest. While I was half walking, half dancing along the trail, Nitin called softly, then pulled me back. A big wild boar had discovered two strangers entering its territory.
It seemed to have been hunting, and was now looking straight at us. “Calm down, walk slowly,” he said. Luckily, the huge creature ignored me. The shortest way was blocked, so we followed the bike path. However, only twenty minutes later, I had another hair-raising experience when at least three boars were crossing the tracks, just 100 meters in front of us. “Bad luck! Maybe they are used to humans’ presence here. Just keep walking,” Nitin whispered.
Finally we reached the forest gate. At that moment the steel fence and wooden gate made me feel like home. After years of following his uncle in the forest of Mangalore in India, Nitin was trained with many survival skills. “Wild boars have weak eyesight,” he said. “They can smell you from far away but do not know your whereabouts. If you find a boar earlier you might escape successfully. But if – like this afternoon – you were only 50 meters from her, and she had raised her head and looked straight at you, then your chance of survival was nearly zero, unless she had just finished her dinner.”
Approximately 60 kilometers away from the dry forest where Polysport is located is the city of Amersfoort in Utrecht. I gazed at the scenic houses and brilliant spring flowers reflecting on the canals’ mirror smooth water surface. This was such a wonderful beginning to our coming days in Keukenhof – the garden of Europe.
The fields of yellow daffodils outside Keukenhof seemed to be nothing when compared to the vast, crowded car parks. Keukenhof’s theme of the year was honouring Vincent Van Gogh and the 125th anniversary of his death. The vast European gardens seemed a way for the Dutch to boast of their fantastic history in the floral industry. The tulips which particularly enlightened me were a species with fantastic feathers and flame-like colors suffering from a viral infection. The virus, also known as tulip break virus or tulip mosaic virus, changes the normal color of the tulip perianth into an outstanding display.
After the Keukenhof tour and a brief visit to the political capital The Hague, we drove to a rural farm in Hoogmade nearly 50 kilometers from Amsterdam. I relished the forest and animals in Dieren, the attractive gardens in Lisse, and during the coming days I would experience the busy, exciting and strange Amsterdam.
Amsterdam – “the dam on the Amstel river” – is the site of thousands of ancient houses and bridges built in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. The old houses were constructed with red or brown bricks and lightweight materials. Geological characteristics have also made many buildings lean sideways and hence put them in need of restoration after years of operation. People call them dancing houses even though they look more like drunk houses, especially in such a paradise of alcohol. Usually buildings here are narrow and steep with winding stairs and have no balcony, however, there can be 20-30 windows in one house, making it easier for people to both move furniture and to welcome summer breezes.
Amsterdam is truly a tourist destination: beautiful scenery, plentiful and delicious food at reasonable prices, and of course some weird facts. Here in the Netherlands, drugs, just like tobacco and alcohol, are considered personal problems, which means people take responsibility for their health. Nevertheless, only some drugs including marijuana and mushrooms are allowed in limited amounts: only in bars and cafes, only sold to adults, and so on. Heavy drugs such as cocaine, morphine, heroin, and LSD are prohibited as in other countries.
While Nitin was busy inhaling the odour of weed from a group of youths smoking nearby, I found a pancake restaurant in a narrow, cramped alley. Diners can choose from different kinds of famous Dutch pancakes with sweet or salty flavours. The big apple cake which looked like a family-sized pizza made me feel sick after only half was eaten even though I had been really famished. But my experience with cheese was totally different. Holland is undoubtedly the best place to taste cheese, and I finally treated my addiction with a delicious smoked cheese.
The Netherlands is not only one of the world’s most densely populated countries but also a multiracial nation, and Amsterdam is proof. It might be impossible if you plan to stay in this capital for a couple of days to observe the daily life of local people. Therefore, after a day wandering, my desire was to take a rest in the organic farm Buitenverwachting of Hoogmade.
It was nearly 8:30pm when the red sunset shone over the skyline, and probably the most stunning twilight I had ever seen. We drove as if we were chasing the sun, chasing that bright colourful afterglow. The old white caravan greeted me in afternoon when the light was gradually fading away. It was under a cherry tree and behind a gray wooden gate and fence,the green grass was dotted with daffodils of white and yellow. Inside the caravan was quiet and familiar, especially with a blue vintage sofa decorated with red and light yellow rose patterns. All electricity and hot water systems were operated with gas. We cooked food purchased from a supermarket near Amsterdam. Every dinner always ended at midnight, with beer and late night discussions.
Easter was our last morning in the Netherlands, waking us up with sunshine and the sound of church bells. We borrowed two bikes from the landlady to cruise around the village. We had coffee in De Kromme Does restaurant adjacent to the canal and along the channel with white-navy blue painted canoes silhouetted against the clear water. From afar the dark green propellers of red windmills rotated slowly, bringing the countryside a wonderfully calm and peaceful beauty.
In spring’s cold weather, the sea looked coated by a smooth and glossy cream from our Germanwings flight, reflecting the sunset. The Netherlands did not disappoint. Nevertherless, instead of longing for heavenly flower fields, my mind was now devoted to the countryside where sunset spread over the roads.
Published on Vietnam Traveller Magazine, Jul-Aug 2015. Click here to view .dpf file (bilingual).