Never go to the Netherlands in April without your woolies. It may be 80 degrees one day (the day before you arrive) and 40 degrees and raining the next, with an icy wind blowing off the North Sea.
Like the one that blew my umbrella inside out as I stood, groggy from seven hours on the plane, trying to get my bearings outside Amsterdam’s Central train station. (Leave the umbrella home; it’s useless.)
I went directly across the tram tracks to an old-fashioned cafe and tried out my Berlitz phrase book, “Ik wil graag een kopje espresso.” Then I had another. The coffee in the Netherlands is rich and bracing and probably evolved because centuries of tulip pilgrims needed to jump start their hearts after slogging over the sodden polders — the flat Dutch fields that would still be under water had not all those dikes been built.
I had come in mid-April to see the bulbs blooming at Floriade 1992. But unlike rational beings, tulips don’t show their faces in bone-chilling gales and under pouring rain. There were thousands planted, of course, and thousands more daffodils and hyacinths (the fragrance of these silly flowers was everywhere), all bedded out in 19th-century-style opulence. But even the pansies looked cold in that first week of the mammoth international flower exhibition, which takes place every 10 years.
Yet despite the gale, there was an air of festivity to the place — 21,000 people flocked through the gates the first day, and more than half came from other countries — as children and parents and lovers and grandmothers fanned out across the 168 acres of paths and lakes, flower beds and perennial gardens, eco-exhibits, greenhouses full of strange and wonderful vegetables, exotic cacti and the Exposarium, one of the biggest pavilions, which is stuffed with a mind-numbing number of the very latest cultivars in tulips, daffodils, alstroemeria, tropical plants, orchids and ancient bonsai specimens. (This pavilion is where you will find the fanatics, with pencil and pad, taking notes from 9:30 A.M., when the gate opens, to 6 P.M., when the pavilion closes.
The extravaganza, which has exhibits from more than 20 countries, lasts until October and the last rose, and I’m guessing that late May will be just about paradise. By then the perennials will be bushy and blooming, and the roses will be out. The place looked a bit bare when I visited, though if you like the yellow haze of spring willows and the white wash of woodland shadblow — which the Dutch call currantberry — you should have braved the April winds. Then again, if you love mums, hold off until September.
The first Floriade, organized by the Netherlands Horticultural Council in 1960, was held in Rotterdam, the second two in Amsterdam, and all three were left as city parks when the shows closed.
But Floriade 1992 has an altogether different feel to it, having been carved out of pastureland on the outskirts of the new boom town of Zoetermeer.
“Zoetermeer has grown from 8,000 to 100,000 in the past 20 years,” said Michiel den Ruijter, Zoetermeer’s city planner and the show’s chief landscape architect. “And only a third of this Floriade will remain park. The rest will go for housing.”
THE exhibit, which cost $115 million to build over the course of six years, is basically an enormous trade show for the country’s horticulturists and farmers, who export more than $30.3 billion a year in plants, cut flowers and produce.
The serious gardener can learn a great deal here, from the fruit and vegetable pavilion, where nutrient-treated water, piped to each plant, is recycled through a closed computerized system, and insects are controlled with natural predators (it was in the pavilion that I was intrigued by a new fruit called pepino in Dutch that is half pear, half melon, and the dark purple peppers and white egg-shaped eggplants galloping up their trellises). In the outdoor perennial beds, specimen evergreens, all clearly identified, set off unusual herbaceous plants and bulbs, and intensively planted fruit crops include elderberry, medlar, Japanese wineberry and currants (which will be bearing fruit, of course, later in the summer). There is also a butterfly garden, but the butterflies were still in their cocoons.
There is whimsy, too. I liked the willow house — the only “growing pavilion” at the Floriade — which is a circular structure of 12 young willows that have been planted to form 20-foot-high leafy green walls. Inside, the Van den Berk Brothers, a family nursery that specializes in specimen trees, showed off pictures of the pollarded tilia, whose stumpy contorted branches, cut back hard for 120 years, have traditionally been used to shade a farmer’s house without casting broad shadows on his land. They are collector’s items now: A Belgian woman bought three for $14,400 apiece.
It’s a good idea to bring a notebook, even if you aren’t a fanatic gardener, because you are bound to be seduced by some cultivar and the Royal Horticulture Society of the Netherlands, which has a booth inside the main pavilion, will answer questions on where to find it and how to cultivate it.
Almost everyone speaks English in the Netherlands, so it is fairly easy to get such questions answered, but there are far too few horticulturists on duty at specific exhibits. Many explanatory plaques are only in Dutch, so the inquisitive foreigner is at a disadvantage. This especially holds true at the big splashy exhibits on agriculture and ecology, which feature slide shows and games — again, most of them in Dutch. A Sony Walkman with an English-language tape can be rented for a two-hour tour of the Floriade’s main events, but the details of specific exhibits and demonstrations are lost to the non-Dutch-speaking. Not that I minded. After all, since when have Americans bothered to translate Disneyland? So stand forewarned: you have 10 years to learn Dutch before the next Floriade.
What I liked most about this grand exhibition had more to do with its bold landscaping than the plethora of plants. (How many frilled and doubled and divided and big-little-trumpet-pink-yellow-orange-cupped daffodils can you look at without turning into an ax murderer?)
Ten years ago there were still cows on this land, which lies nearly 15 feet below sea level, and in the spirit of the dike builders who turned lakes into miles of tulip fields and pastures, Mr. den Ruijter divided the old polder landscape straight down the middle with a dike that rises 12 feet over the former farmland.
The dike forms the central axis of a giant goosefoot, or patte-d’oie, a Baroque design popular in the grand gardens of 17th-century Europe, including Versailles, where the Sun King liked to stand by his bedroom window and look down the central axis to his empire, which stretched, in his mind, to the vanishing point of eternity.
Humbler gardeners can ride along the Floriade’s central axis — Mr. den Ruijter’s dike — via a monorail that takes them to a 250-foot high observation tower. Or they can wander along the northern axis of the goosefoot, which is a 4,000-foot flower border that will change according to the season; or along the southern axis, which is a broad canal, where islands of willow trees and a pavilion of lime trees offer a little respite from the frenzy of flowers.
Zoetermeer, which means sweet lake, is the first sweet-water lake behind the dunes. But the Floriade’s freshwater lake, about 16 acres, is an artificial one, and an emblem of a land where people are fond of saying, “God made the world, but the Dutch made Holland.”
Walking along the southern axis, you will come to the Netherlands-under-water-land, designed by the water authorities of Delftland, Rijnland and Schieland, the three districts whose borders meet at the site of Floriade. Here you descend a set of steps and stroll along a glass corridor that bisects a giant aquarium about the size of an Olympic swimming pool and stare the glass walls: on one side plants are thriving in pure water, on the other the water is murky with phosphates and nitrates. It is a simple demonstration of the importance of clear water, a constant challenge in a land saturated with the chemicals used to grow bulbs and food. The water table here lies a scant four feet below the polder. The same exhibit has a 30-by-30-foot scale model of the Netherlands — like a giant jigsaw puzzle of lakes, polders and dikes — that can be periodically flooded and drained by a user-friendly hydraulic system. Kids love this one, so bring extra shoes, because their feet will get wet.
The planet’s limited resources and the importance of clean air and water are emphasized in the slide shows and exhibits at the Ecodrom, designed by Wim van Rijn, and built out of recycled steel and concrete. It is an open-walled circular pavilion bounded by upside-down obtuse triangles, like some kind of three-storied U.F.O. sent here from a more enlightened world to teach visitors about the fragility of Earth. It is popular among children, because there are plenty of buttons to push to start things like convection currents and windmills, and videos explain the Dutch Government’s environmental policies. Unfortunately the ones I saw were in Dutch only.
“And when you are sick and tired of the exhibits, go walk in the polder,” suggested Mr. den Ruijter. These are natural areas lying between finger-like hills (created by Mr. den Ruijter’s bulldozers), which demonstrate the subtle complexity of the wild plants that have self-seeded on sandy terrain, on peat, and on the banks of a fresh pond.
“This is how the Netherlands looked at the beginning of the century,” said Mr. Den Ruijter. “The Romans hated this place. It was too cold and windy.”
He stared off at the enormous white rotating head called the Kolossus of Zoetermeer — by the Dutch artist Rob Scholte — that seems to float over the Floriade, turning so slowly that visitors with jet lag may think they’re hallucinating, and grumbled that the hair — made up of a scraggly plant called symphoricarpos — should perhaps be beefed up with a bushier cultivar.
The Floriade is one of those huge happenings you feel compelled to go to, like an international car show if you love cars. But the artificial compilation of such enormous detail and information — bits and pieces of historic gardens, gardens from Thailand, Belgium, France, Russia, Austria, not to mention the jillions of plants, indoors and out, all clamoring for attention — is somewhat numbing, to this gardener’s mind, anyway. A good antidote is to wander the bulb fields that color the western coast with great swatches of yellow and crimson and purple, from Leiden northward, nestling into the good sandy loam that lies just behind the great dunes of the North Sea.
Take a drive through the old towns and see the gardens that grow in the smallest of yards. Warm yourself at some pannekoekhuisje, when you feel the need for cholesterol and sugar (try spekpannekoek, a pancake the size of a pizza, loaded with bacon and molasses) and have another good dark Dutch espresso.
Then come back to Amsterdam and wander the cobblestone streets and the quiet canals, and peek in the big high windows that let in whatever light there is — in between the rainstorms.
There will be tulips in the windows and in pots on the stone stairs. Or maybe, when you arrive, roses. 168 ACRES OF BULBS AND BLOOMS Getting There
Floriade 1992, in the town of Zoetermeer, is about a 15-minute drive from The Hague and 45 minutes from Amsterdam. There is plenty of room to park. It’s also easy to get there by train or bus; public transportation in the Netherlands is excellent. What’s on View
The show offers 168 acres of park, gardens, greenhouses and special exhibits. The outdoor plantings of bulbs, perennials, trees, fruits and vegetables change as spring turns to summer, so time your trip to your obsessions. Perennials and roses will come into their own this month and June, lilies and chrysanthemums in the fall and so on. The last day is Oct. 11. Times and Tickets
Daily hours are 9:30 A.M. to 7 P.M., though the pavilions close at 6 P.M. In September and October, it closes at 6 P.M.
Tickets, available at the gate, cost $12 and $7.50 for children (ages 4 through 11). Group prices are available and advance purchases may be made through the Netherlands Board of Tourism in Chicago; (312) 819-0300. In the Netherlands, call the Floriade Organization Bureau at (079) 681992. BOOKING A TRIP TO FLORIADE Getting There
The following tour operators are offering trips to the Netherlands that include a visit to Floriade:
Holland Approach, 550 Mountain Avenue, Gillette, N.J. 07933; telephone (908) 580-9200. A three-night package that includes round-trip travel from Newark to Amsterdam on Martinair starts Sunday, May 10, and continues every Sunday through Oct. 25 at $912 a person double occupancy.
A similar package costing $874 starts Thursday, May 28, and continues every Thursday through Sept. 17. Midweek rates go up to $998 in June, July and August; the weekend rate from June 3 to Aug. 31 will be $1,042. The package includes three nights at the Roode Leeuy Hotel in Amsterdam, three dinners and train transportation to Floriade and admission ticket. The stay in the Netherlands can be extended up to 21 days on the Martinair Apex ticket.
Maupintour, 408 East 50th Street, New York, N.Y. 10022; (800) 255-6162. Three programs featuring Floriade are being offered: “Holland in Bloom,” “Brussels and Amsterdam” and “Middle Europe Leisurely.” Each will provide a full day at Floriade.
“Holland in Bloom,” a nine-day tour that costs $1,849 per person double occupancy and $2,169 for a single (air fare extra), will have 45 departures from May 6 to Oct. 7.
“Brussels and Amsterdam” will feature four nights in each city. Rates are $2,049 per person double occupancy and $2,669 single, not including air fare. There will be 17 departures from Thursday, May 14, through Thursday, Oct. 1.
“Middle Europe Leisurely” is a 16-day package at $3,798 a person double occupancy and $4,278 single. The tour, which includes a day at Floriade, includes stops in Germany, Belgium, Liechtenstein and Switzerland. There will be 12 departures beginning Thursday, May 7, through Thursday, Sept. 17.
Sea-Air Holiday, 733 Summer Street, Stamford, Conn. 06901; (203) 356-9033. The Holland, with a capacity of 103 passengers, will sail from Amsterdam on May 9 and 16 for a seven-night tour of Dutch canals. A full-day trip to Floriade is included. Prices are $1,779 a person double occupancy.
An optional trip to Floriade is offered as part of a seven-night Rhine trip from Amsterdam to Basel or Basel to Amsterdam. There will be three sailings in May, two in June and two in July. Prices are $1,529 a person double occupancy; the Floriade trip will be about $25 extra.
Carlson Travel Network, attention Alice Hegrat, 11952 Bernardo Plaza Drive, San Diego, Calif. 92128; (619) 487-4096. The “Floriade” tour, from June 14 to 27 and Sept. 6 to 19, will visit gardens in England and the Netherlands. A trip to Floriade will be included on the 11th day of the tour and buses will be available to make return visits to Floriade in the next two days.
“Floriade” will take tour members to Amsterdam, then directly by air to London. Visits will be made to gardens in Cambridge and Suffolk and then travelers will take the night boat from Harwich, England, to Hook of Holland. Visits will be made to gardens, bulb farms, a flower auction and an orchid farm. The price, with air fare from Los Angeles, hotels and most meals, is $4,569 a person double occupancy ($4,400 from New York).
Outlook International, 235 Garth Road, Suite D4C, Scarsdale, N.Y. 10583; (914) 725-2663. An eight-night group tour, “Gardens of England and Holland,” with one day at Floriade, costs $1,050 a person double occupancy. The tour, which does not include air fare, spends four nights in London (with visits to Windsor Castle, Kew Gardens, Kenilworth Castle, Leicester Castle and Stratford-upon-Avon) and four in Amsterdam. About 10 people to a group, and the group sets the departure date. Another tour, “Flowers and Gardens of Holland,” which costs $735 a person double occupancy, spends four nights in Amsterdam, including a day at Floriade. The price is based on 40 people to a group.
Waterways and Byways of Europe, 1027 South Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, Cal. 92262; (800) 925-0444. Six-day cruises of the southern Netherlands that include a day at Floriade leave Amsterdam every Sunday from May 10 to June 28. The price, which includes a hotel stay in Amsterdam the night before the cruise, is $2,495 a person double occupancy. For trips that leave Sept. 12 to Oct. 10 the price is $2,095. Special Fare
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines is offering a special “Floriade Fare” in connection with the show. The fare, $600 round-trip to Amsterdam from New York, Baltimore-Washington, Atlanta or Orlando, is available until May 31. Trips, which must be started before May 31, must be a minimum of seven days and not exceed 30 days.
Photos: Lady Slippers (orchids) in the Alcoa House; 280-year-old bonsai in the Exposarium; fritillary on a polder. African violets in Alcoa House. The Kolossus, with living hair, by the artist Rob Scholte. Part of an exhibition from Florida in the Exposarium. A model of the Netherlands can be both flooded and drained. (pg. 15); Floriade’s Indonesian garden with the Thai garden behind. Aalsmeer flower auction. (pg. 16)(Photographs by Jonathan Player for The New York Times) Map of Netherlands Zoetermeer
ANNE RAVER writes about gardens and the environment for The Times.
The New York Times, May 3, 1992