From tulips to Amsterdam

Today was an odd day. We split it between Lisse and Amsterdam. We’d never been to Amsterdam together and since the first monument to the gay victims of the Holocaust is in Amsterdam – near to Ann Franks’ house – it felt like a good reason to go and see it. We could also take the train from Amsterdam straight back to Shiedam, where we can change for Hoek van Holland and on to the overnight ferry. We weren’t sure whether it would be possible to exercise Zoly very much in Amsterdam so Matthew suggested visiting the botanical gardens in Lisse.

The fire alarm went off at the hotel at about 6:00am (a false alarm, but everyone was out in the street in their nightwear), so we were up and about quite early. We wandered around Lisse and it took a while to find the gardens – it seemed to be hidden out beyond the suburbs and when we eventually found them on the outskirts of town, they were closed! Still, we did happen upon a rather nice thatched windmill.

As we weren’t in a hurry we had plenty of time for one last circuit of Keukenhof forest before getting the bus the Haarlem (a beautiful city – we must go back to explore) and then the short train ride to Amsterdam.

Walking through the narrow streets near Amsterdam station was a bit nerve-wracking and a a little unpleasant with Zoly because the streets were so crowded and also because so many people were smoking (and not all of them tobacco, this being Amsterdam). It’s curious how quickly we’ve become used to smoke-free public spaces in the UK.

On our way to the homomonument my sister Lisa called – she’d finished the Milton Keynes marathon – only her second – in a London marathon good for age qualifying time of 3:48:33. This despite the fact that she lost a few minutes after tripping over a tree root and falling at about 14 miles in. I’m so proud of her – and hopefully this means that both she and me will be running in London next year. Can’t wait!

The monument was good to visit – I worried a bit that people were sitting on it and picnicking, perhaps without realising what it was or its significance. It’s a pink granite triangle that steps down and juts out into the canal. But maybe it’s fitting that it’s enjoyed as well as being serious.

The Olympic stadium was lovely, but also closed! We did a quick circuit and then there was time to visit Vondelpark – built in 1865 and named after a 17th-century playwright and poet. The park is fantastic – long and narrow, with hundreds of runners and cyclists. It was lovely to walk through with Zoly off his lead after the streets of Amsterdam. There were lots of other dogs to meet and greet, lakes and fountains, an outdoor gym, open air theatre and lovely little cafés all over. Zoly had been so good today that we treated him to an ice cream while we had a picnic and wrote postcards.

We’d done quite a bit of walking around today by now, so we took a tram back to Centraal Station for the train back to Hoek van Holland. Zoly and Matthew were both very tired.

Keukenhof gardens – part two

Keukenhof gardens were becoming very crowded yesterday morning so we left to take Zoly for a run in the forest. He’d been so good and well-behaved in the garden, it was lovely to see him running around getting excited with sticks and smells. After our walk we returned to our hotel for lunch and then a snooze – well for Mike and Zoly at least. I had a few matters to attend to on email. Once that was done I left the sleeping beauties to it and walked round the corner to visit the Black Tulip Museum in the centre of Lisse.

Who knew there were so many different kinds of hyacinth bulb vases?

The museum is not very large, but it does tell the story of the tulip and has a lovely collection of botanical drawings and prints of spring bulbs. There was also a film about the discovery and spread of the tulip bulb, some ceramic tulip holders and a rather nice collection of glass hyacinth bulb holders. It was a pleasant enough place to while away a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon.

Some rather pretty tulip art

After the museum I collected Mike and Zoly so that we could go back to the gardens. It was about 5.30pm and we hoped that Keukenhof would be starting to quiet down. It was still very busy, but the crowds were mostly drifting towards the exits. It definitely seemed like we were moving against the tide when thousands of people were heading in the opposite direction to us as we wandered back into the gardens. Zoly was enjoying his return visit back to the gardens very much – he spent lots of time Hoovering up the left-over bits of waffle, ice cream, strawberries and pastries dropped by the departing hoards.

Daffodils glowing in the evening sunshine
Seeing Keukenhof in a whole different light

We had definitely made the right decision to return to the gardens later; not just because they were quieter, but also because the evening light made the flowers and fountains look so lovely. The sun hanging lower in the sky created the most beautiful backlit effect on many of the flowers. Long shadows were cast on the pathways and lawns and the warmth of the spring sunshine helped release incredible scents from the hyacinths and narcissi – the whole experience was wonderfully intoxicating.

An alternative kind of bedding

With the crowds thinning we were able to explore the smaller demonstration gardens that we had avoided earlier in the day. The ‘inspiration gardens’ were more contemporary and intended to show off flowers in a more modern setting. I think it would be fair to say that Mike is not a great fan of the more ‘conceptual’ garden. The sight of bulbs growing out of old metal bed frames, or plastic Miffy the rabbits or bits of smashed up Delft is just the sort of thing to send him into his Catherine Tate ‘Nan’ character – “What a load of old sh*t!”. Fortunately, the conceptual gardens were fairly limited and so I was soon able to distract Mike’s attention with something much more to his liking: some big fountains that changed and danced in the evening light.

Mike loves a good fountain 

The whole of Keukenhoff is landscaped with beautiful water features – rills, canals and gurgling streams then huge jetting fountains and waterfalls. Nothing is ever far from the sound of water, which is always a lovely addition to any garden. However, for men of a certain age, this abundance of flowing water also has its downsides! At least in Keukenhoff you’re never far from a toilet either! Meanwhile, Zoly seemed perfectly happy leaving his mark on every corner, every bed of tulips and daffodils and any tree that he could get near. It’s fortunate that the Netherlands has such an extensive flood defenses and drains.

Man (and dog) afloat

Mike was determined to get Zoly onto the stepping-stones that crossed part of the lake, (they were actually made of wood, but that doesn’t have the same ring). I’m not entirely sure what Zoly thought I of this, but he seemed happy enough to pose for photos mid way. He was distracted by a passing duck, so a tight grip on the lead was required – although a shot of Mike going head first into the lake following Zoly with a duck in his mouth would have been priceless.

Don’t be surprised if these two don’t turn up in next year’s Keukenhof marketing material 

We have been so lucky with the beautiful spring sunshine for our visit to Keukenhof, it made the gardens appear even more magical. Seeing the variety of colours and scents is quite unreal. I’m sure that I’ll wake up in a few days and think ‘was that real?’ If you like spring bulbs as much as I do, then I’d certainly recommend a trip to come here at least once, and if you have a dog – bring them along too!

Vizsla mania

At its peak, the tulip mania that engulfed the Netherlands in the early seventeenth century resulted in hugely inflated prices – with single bulbs apparently selling for small fortunes. Of course it all ended badly when the ‘tulip bubble’ burst and many people were left bankrupt. Thankfully, tulips today are modestly-priced and there are plenty of opportunities at Keukenhof’s many retail outlets to purchase any of the bulbs on display – or in fact a just about anything from a wide-variety of tulip-inspired merchandise: neck ties (extraordinary), scarfs, handbags, jewellery, serviettes, tissues – you get the idea. If you can put a tulip on it, it’s for sale at Keukenhof.

So photogenic – the husband’s not bad either!

We could have capitalised on another popular Keukenhof activity – particularly among Japanese tourists: what to do after taking several hundred tulip photographs? Take pictures of all the dogs in the gardens of course! Especially handsome ginger dogs! Zoly could have earned our entry fee back easily today if we’d charged €1 for every picture taken of him. Everywhere we went we were asked. The Japanese tourists were particularly keen, which was ever so slightly nerve-wracking as I kept thinking that it would probably only take a good tail wag from Zoly to knock some of these very petite Japenese tourists off their feet and into the nearest flower bed or water feature, (also, he has been known to jump up at people when he’s overexcited and send them flying). Fortunately everyone stayed standing this morning.

You can imagine the looks we got

The best Zoly-shot of the day, though, was taken by me. I call it ‘Delft Lovers’ a sort of homage to Banksy and Delft pottery in one – I’m sure it will go viral!

Keukenhof gardens – part one

I’ll start with the health warning – if you don’t enjoy tulips turn away now. As advised in yesterday’s post – today we visit Keukenhof gardens. When we were planning a spring mini-break we discovered that dogs on leads are welcome in Keukenhof, so that sealed the deal. 
The forecast for today was bright sunshine all day, so what with it being a Sunday we knew it would be busy. The plan was to be there for when they opened at 8am so it was early to bed last night and the alarm set for just after 6am to be ready for the start of breakfast serving at 7am. 
I have to confess it wasn’t the best night sleep. The bed was comfy enough, but in the early hours of the morning there was something of a ‘parting’ of the ways. Our ‘double’ bed is in fact two two separate single beds pushed close together. This is practical and with two single duvets it avoids that nighttime ‘battle’ to keep warm. The trouble is that Zoly tends to sleep on our bed when we’re on holiday, he had positioned himself equidistant between me and Mike at the bottom of the bed – that is effectively on top of the fault line. 

At around 2am I was woken by whimpering and scrabbling sounds. As I reached down to touch Zoly, I was not met by the dog but rather a gap. It must have seemed that there’d been some sort of earthquake for Zoly and the two beds had parted – poor Zoly had sunk into the hole between mine and Mike’s bed and was suspended on a sort of hammock formed by the blanket that he was wrapped in and he couldn’t get out. I rescued him and set him free. 

Understandably he was wary of going anywhere near the ‘canyon’ after that, so he positioned himself firmly on my part of the bed. Mike was still fast asleep – he didn’t rouse once during this entire dog rescue incident. The remainder of my night was a choice of sleeping with my legs apart (one each side of Zoly) with them suspended over the side of the bed or curled up in foetual position. None of these were very comfortable, so a restless night ensued.
We did get to the gardens at 8.30am, not bad given that when on holiday Mike runs on GST (Gay Standard Time – that is usually between 30min to an hour behind). Even at this early hour on a Sunday there were already around ten coaches parked up and groups of visitors waiting to get in. We purchased our tickets and headed in.

Tulips in every shade and shape – simply stunning

Even though we sort of knew what we were going to see, it still takes the breath away. Massive swathes of tulips and other spring flowers flow in all directions. Pink, red, yellow, white, purple… the colours go on. It’s not just tulips though: grape hyacinth, daffodils, iris and heavily scented hyacinths are all there too. The bulbs are planted in big blocks of colour and set out in lots of different patterns. The beds weave among the trees with the canopy providing beautiful dappled light. Streams, cascades and fountains and beautifully manicured grass and sculptures are dotted around too. The whole effect is quite delightful.

Can you believe we actually queued up for this shot!

Paul Smith stripes in tulip

Obligatory dog and husband amongst tulip shot

Our first two hours were not too crowded, so we visited most of the garden – including the more formal beds of tulip combinations, the woodland garden, the Willem-Alexander pavilion (like the grand pavilion at the Chelsea Flower Show, except they have to keep it looking stunning for 3 months not 3 days!) and the windmill with its views across the stunning multi-coloured striped tulip bulb fields adjoining the garden. 

Tulip mania traffic gridlock

Keukenhof gardens – part oneBy 11.30 it was getting very busy indeed, so we decided it was time to leave. Zoly had been amazing walking round, but we didn’t want to risk a repeat of the Harwich terminal woofing at strangers incident so we headed out. Before we left to take Zoly across the road for a run in Keukenhof bosch (forest) we got ‘stamped’ so we can return again later this afternoon, when hopefully the coach-loads of tourists have headed away. It was definitely the best decision, as we walked the short distance to the forest it was apparent that the draw of a visit to Keukenhof in the sunshine had resulted in gridlock on all the approaching roads. Of course those on foot and bikes were all moving ok – which just goes to prove: bulbs are better by bike!

Going Dutch

We love the Netherlands – ok it’s a bit flat, but it’s such a civilised place to visit. From the moment you step off the boat you’re made to feel very welcome – it obviously helps if you have an orange dog as Zoly attracts lots of loving glances wherever he goes.
I think I may have written before about the wonderful cycle infrastructure in the Netherlands. However, there can never be too much of a good thing when it comes to cycling, so here’s a little bit more! As well as beautiful segregated cycle lanes everywhere, the spaces provided to park and store bikes are just jaw-dropping. Every little suburban railway station has covered and secure bike parking that makes the so-called ‘extensive’ bicycle parking at our local mainline station – Temple Meeds in Bristol – look third rate. At major stations and interchanges, such as at Leiden the bike parks are even more amazing. At each entrance to Leiden station a ramp takes cyclists down under the station to a vast underground bike park that is staffed and free to use. Such wonderful bike facilities means it’s no surprise that just about everybody from nought to 80 (and over) rides a bike in the Netherlands.

Going underground with your bike at at Leiden station.

Netherlands’ towns are neat and well cared for, most are designed on ‘home zone’ principles where the priority is firmly given to pedestrians and cyclists. Back in Bristol we live in one of our cities’ few home zones, but here in the Netherlands they are the norm. The gardens here are lovely – many have pleached trees, clipped borders, beautiful herbaceous plants and of course at this time of year: tulips. The Dutch clearly take a lot of pride in how their streets look and we’re getting to enjoy their efforts too.

Dutch gardens are a delight

The one element that foreigners might struggle with in the Netherlands is the language. Fortunately the Dutch tend to be incredibly well-versed in English and we barely have to open a mouths before they realise they need to speak to us in English. It has been a little bit of a challenge trying to read ingredients on the packets to try and make sure we don’t eat anything that isn’t vegan. Thank goodness for translation apps – that has is quite handy for that sort of thing. 

Zoly leaving his mark on the Netherlands

I don’t think Zoly is having any such language difficulties. The international language of dogs seems to be working just fine for him. Sniff the other dogs bits, maybe a quick lick (not to much on first encounter), a friendly wag and a low-down crouch to indicate you want to play. The other dogs seem to get it – either that or they think: ‘an orange dog, he must be Dutch!’

Flower town

After the excitement of the Bedminster Secret Gardens open day last Sunday, it’s nice to be visiting someone else’s garden, as opposed to having hundreds of people visiting mine! Keukenhof is the garden we’ll be visiting; it’s a bit larger than mine, which is probably a very good thing at there will be thousands of others inside it with us.

Keukenhof is the finest spring garden in the Netherlands – in fact in Europe. The garden is only open between March and May and it’s open to show off the thousands of spring bulbs at their best. Situated just outside Lisse, the gardens are at the heart of the Netherlands bulb district of Bollenstreek (which translates to ‘bulb region’). The gardens were created to help bulb growers show off their products to the world. It must have been a success as the gardens attract nearly a million foreign visitors a year – and given that its only open for three months is pretty impressive.

Mike looking very Dutch with his orange coat and orange dog in the centre of Lisse

The quiet little town Lisse with a population of just over 22,000 people, suddenly becomes the centre of the Dutch tourist industry every spring. Hundreds of coaches full of tourists arrive each day. Of course Lisse now appears to be well-prepared for this horticultural invasion. All the shops in town decorate their windows for the event and planters are beautifully filled with spring delights.

Lisse looking lovely from top to toe

Most visitor appear to arrive and leave on the same day, but some – like us – choose to stay locally. It’s fair to say that Lisse much makes the most of it’s one big asset – as well as visiting the gardens, it’s possible to hire a bike (painted orange of course) and ride around a special route to see the bulb fields. If the weather isn’t good there is the black tulip museum where the history of the tulip is explored. If retail therapy is more your sort of thing then you can always go shopping for, er… bulbs. Whether it’s at pop up stall along the roadside or in the local Aldi, bulbs are for sale everywhere.

Adjacent to the gardens is the Keukenhof forest, a beautiful woodland that is cris-crossed with paths. The forest is the perfect place to exercise an energetic ‘hond’. Although the signs say ‘dogs must be kept on leads’ all the local dog walkers we saw jut ignored this (don’t you just love the Dutch?!). So, as the saying goes: ‘when in the Netherlands… do as the Dutch do! Zoly was very appreciative of this civil disobedience and was zooming and whizzing around the forest paths like a demon.

The soil in this area is very sandy (perfect for bulb growing), so underfoot it feels a bit like being on the beach – and Zoly loves the beach, it’s so good for exfoliating the paws!

Into the woods of Keukenhof 

After the forest we called into the Keukenhof gardens information office to plan our trip to the gardens tomorrow. The women at the desk spoke perfect English and was incredibly helpful. She advised on the quietest times to visit and confirmed that provided we get ‘stamped’ on our way out tomorrow, we can come and go as many times as we like in the same day. So with tomorrow’s plans sorted we wandered back into Lisse, wandered around the pretty town centre, picked up a pizza and headed back to our hotel where we have very nice apartment suite with a lounge, kitchenette, large bedroom, bathroom and walk in closet (I should have packed more clothes!). We’re now fed and watered and ready for an early night to prepare ourselves for a full-on day of tulip mania tomorrow. 

Keukenhof here we come 

Deserted at sea

We’ve caught the ferry from Harwich quite a few times now. Usually we travel by bike, but as Zoly wasn’t quite ready for that experience yet, we came by train. I think it’s fair to say that Zoly has not exactly fallen in love with our lovely Dutch Doggride bike trailer! It’s quite a long journey to Harwich, even for us to cope with (especially with Mike’s persistent back pain) so we were also a little anxious about how Zoly would cope – especially going on the ferry for the first time.

He was great on the trains and even on the Underground in rush hour. A top tip – if you want to avoid the crush on the Tube in rush hour – take a dog. We seemed to create an exclusion zone around us. Of course, little did people know that if Z decided to shake his head his slobber would have easily exceeded this zone. Fortunately for everyone the saliva mostly remained attached to the dog. The journey from Liverpool Street was pretty uneventful apart from a woofing incident when a leather clad bloke suddenly came through the train door from another carriage, but mostly Zoly snoozed on the floor.

On arrival at Harwich International (somehow it doesn’t quite have the same ring as St Pancras International) we trekked over to Morrison’s (or maybe that should be ‘Morrison’s International’ as we needed to get some food for our and the dog’s breakfast. In our rush to leave the house I’d forgotten the carrot and meat for Zoly plus there was no point in caring soya milk from the west coast to the east. The trudge through the arse-end of Harwich to reach a desolate and windswept retail estate really makes you wonder what the European visitors disembarking the ferry must think of when this is their first glimpse of Britain. No floral clocks or fluttering European flags here, just a B&M warehouse, Costa coffee, Bargain Buys and a massive ‘Vote Leave’ banner on the first roundabout as you leave the ferry terminal. If I were them, I’d be tempted to turn around and head straight back to the Netherlands.

A very warm welcome (not) to England for our European neighbours

Mike did have a go at dislodging the ‘vote leave’ banner, but it was too well staked into the ground. Zoly gave it a sniff but even he couldn’t be bothered to waste his piss on it. It did seem particularly ironic that a little town stuck out on edge of Essex that must be so reliant on Europe for trade and jobs should be where we found this banner – the first we’d seen. In previous journeys across the east of England at election time the countryside had been coming down with UKIP banners, but not this time. Maybe all those farmers are starting to worry that Brexit would bring an end to their free money subsidies. 

There she blows!

The sight of the ferry berthed at Harwich is always exciting. The ship is so huge it looms large above the quayside making the lorries look like Dinky toys. We’re used to boarding the ferry on our bicycles via the car-loading area, but being on foot this time we entered via the foot passenger terminal. The terminal building is pretty uninspiring, a large waiting room with café (closed of course, just to demonstrate the great British customer service!), vending machines and toilets. It was very crowded as one train after another emptied. 

Unfortunately Zoly who had been so good on the journey didn’t cope very well with the crowded waiting room and woofed at a group of unsuspecting Indian passengers. As you can imagine for me and Mike this is very upsetting on two levels – a) Zoly shouldn’t woof at anyone as we don’t want people thinking he’s a dangerous dog (he’s not – if he ever got hold of you he’d more likely lick you to death than maul you) but more concerning is the thought that b) is Zoly being racist? Why did he woof at the Indian passengers? Can dogs be racist? How could two left-leaning gay men end up with a dog that woofs at people from different continents? I think our anxieties about b) says more about us than Zoly!

We retreated to the far end of the waiting room, round the corner where the waiting crowds were well out of sight and there was no one for Zoly to get wound up about. Mike went and spoke to the women checking people through the walk on passenger gate and explained that Zoly was a bit anxious (not to mention us!) as this was his first foreign trip. She was very nice and said she’d let us know when the crowds went down. This was about thirty minutes later and once we’d passed through security and check in we were loaded onto a bus to be driven onto the boat. The foot passenger walk way is closed for replacement – hence the bus ride.

Once on board we went to passenger services to get the kennel key code and took Zoly down to his accommodation for the night. The kennel was already occupied with two other sheep dogs in their cages. We chose a cage above these for Zoly so that he wouldn’t be looking at the other dogs. He was very good going into the cage. I lifted him up and put him on the blanket we’d carried for him to sleep on. Stena Line also provide duvets for the dogs and water bowls so we took advantage of these. There was no woofing, just a bit of whimpering – but to be clear, this was mainly from Mike who was getting more and more anxious about being separated from Zoly for the night. Maybe I’m hard-hearted but I was trying to stay calm as I didn’t want Zoly to pick up on any vibes.

We left Zoly without making too much fuss. Mike stood outside the kennel with the door ajar for a while just to make listen that Zoly wasn’t howling or crying. There was none of that so we headed up to our cabin. I’d barely taken my coat off before Mike had tuned the TV onto the kennel channel. The cctv had six camera angles, Zoly appeared in shot six. He was sat bolt upright with his head facing the door, clearly awaiting our return. The other dogs all appeared to be snoozing (although we watched one owner come into the kennel and then proceeded to sedate her dog), so watching Zoly clearly alert and waiting for our return was heart rending. 

A horror movie – the sort of things you could have nightmares about!

Now where did I put those sedatives – I think Mike needs one

I wasn’t sure watching the kennel channel all evening was going to do any of us much good. Fortunately after about 25 minutes Zoly was looking more settled, if not entirely relaxed. The boat’s engine shuddered into life at 11pm to mark our departure. Zoly perked up at the rumble, but soon was down again. We switched off the TV and hoped that the gentle engine throb might lull him to sleep rather than the far worse prospect of traumatising the poor love into never wanting to go on a boat ever again – a bit like the bike trailer, but on steroids!

Keukenhof 2016

We travelled overseas with Zoly for the very first time. He has had a Pet Passport issued especially. The original plan was to cycle with Zoly in a Dutch Doggyride trailer – but he really doesn’t like being in his trailer unfortunately , so we think we’ll need to be very patient and give him more time and training to get him used to travelling in it. Luckily, Zoly likes trains and buses – so that’s how we’ll travel + the overnight ferry crossing of course. We’re not sure how Zoly will deal with being on a ferry in a cage in a kennel – he’s not been on his own overnight since he was a small puppy – all the more reason to keep the joys of travelling in a dog trailer for another time.

King of the hill

It’s been four whole weeks since we came home from our Easter break in Cornwall – so it’s about time we wrote the last entry in the blog (just before we start our next mini-break blog).

Thursday 31 March was our last full day in Cornwall and after a week of quite showery weather we were finally blessed with full sunshine and no rain. We couldn’t pass up the chance for one final long walk and we had our sights set high. Mike and Zoly had climbed up and down Kit Hill on their long walk the previous day, but were keen on going back and showing Matthew around. Located between Callington and Tavistock, Kit Hill is a country park managed by the country council, but for most of the nineteenth century it was a home to a quarry (where the stone for the William Yard and most of London’s Thames bridges was cut) and a mine. These industries have now long gone and in their place paths and bridleways cross the hill.

Until the 1980s the Hill was the property of the Duchy of Cornwall (so basically our land robbed from us by the crown). To commemorate the birth of Prince William the hill was ‘gifted’ to the people of Cornwall (in other words, we were all given something that we already owned and since there was no more money to be made from it for Charlie Philip Arthur George Mountbatten-Windsor, handing the hill to the council meant that we could all pay for the upkeep). Did I ever mention I’m a republican?!

Kit Hill is the highest point in this part of Cornwall and the summit it topped with a granite column. Unfortunately it’s been somewhat vandalised by the multiple mobile phone masts and communication dishes strapped all over it. The only good thing is that the view from the top was superb – so there was no need to look at the heritage phone mast.

With the clear sunny weather the views extended all the way to Plymouth and over the Tamar Valley to Dartmoor. We could just make out the Royal William Yard and the inlets that form the outline of Plymouth Harbour. It was the perfect place to eat out lunch and savour the view.
Our return trip was down the hill to Callington (not much to write about there) and a hop on the bus back to Calstock before walking back through the Cotehele estate to the cottage. The end of a holiday is always a little sad, but it’s nice to go home too – and anyway it was only going to be a four week gap before our next trip. More blog entries to follow. Hup, hup Holland (and Leicester)!

We conquered that there hill!