Spring in your step

There’s more than tulips in Amsterdam — discovering secret gardens and the greener side of the Dutch capital


We’ve never been more pleased to see the approach of spring than in 2021, and the hope of travel is blooming alongside the flowers, including the first tulips, my favourite flower. One of the most evocative symbols of the Netherlands, the country is also one of the best places to put a spring in your step.

By the time we get the all clear to travel to Amsterdam it may be a little late to tiptoe through those tulips this year, although The Netherlands is still a joyously colourful destination to visit through late spring and into summer.

Plan ahead for next year and the display of over seven million flowers at the famous 70-acre Keukenhof Gardens awaits, where immaculate beds of tulips, hyacinths, daffodils, narcissi and amaryllis are planted by leading flower growers.

For something a little less pristine and tended, the fields surrounding the gardens provide one of the world’s most colourful displays of nature.

Hop on the train from Amsterdam to the small town of Lisse, the epicentre of the bulb-growing industry, for the best views of these alternating bands of red, yellow, purple and pink, planted by commercial flower farms.

From here I like to hire a bike and pedal along the narrow tracks that separate the bulb fields, pausing to picnic amidst a rainbow of blooms on a broodje kaas (cheese sarnie) — the staple Dutch lunch since the Middle Ages.

June sees the welcome return of one of Amsterdam’s loveliest events: the Open Tuinen Dagen or open garden days, a rare chance to snoop around what are known as the “best kept secrets in Amsterdam’, the gardens hidden behind the grand 17th century canal houses of the impressive Keizersgracht and Herengracht.

Known for having the greenest fingers in Europe, Dutch garden design is as varied as the flowers grown, from sprawling community gardens shared between houses to smart formal gardens with their ornate paths of 16th century bricks.

“No tulips?” I ask the owner of one garden, whose flower beds are planted with perfect symmetry. “Those naughty straggly girls? I can’t stand them,” is the typically Dutch blunt — if rather surprising — reply.

Arguably Amsterdam’s prettiest neighbourhood is the Jordaan, where I love to stay at The Dylan, once an alms house, now a boutique hotel secreted away through a 17th century arch off the Keizersgracht.

Like most ageing beauties, it’s vague about its exact age but 245 years is the guess. Full of character, from its wood-panelled walls to the brickwork floors, it has a beautiful flower-filled courtyard garden, where in warmer months guests can indulge in High Wine — a cheeky take on afternoon tea.

Come weekends and warm summer evenings, the city’s ‘green lung’, the Vondelpark, is where dog walkers, joggers, picnickers and sunbathers flock to enjoy what the Dutch call uitwaaien, the concept of replacing bad (indoor) air with good (outdoor) air. It’s easy to join this local scene on the way to the city’s three major museums — Sunday morning is the least busy time to visit — all helpfully set within a five-minute walk of each other.

You’d be hard pressed to find three more diverse displays of creativity than in the Rijksmuseum, The Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum, with its eclectic permanent collection of modern art.

To keep the spring theme going, the Rijksmuseum has an impressive collection of floral still life among its works, one of the greatest art collections in Europe, including the first great 16th century Dutch specialist flower painter Ambrosius Bosschaert’s studies of tulips.

The Van Gogh Museum is devoted almost entirely to the work of the most popular and reproduced artist that the world has ever known, collating his early life in South Holland, through his Impressionist years in Paris, to his last years in St Remy. In a collection so vast, I stay with a flower theme, choosing to my spend time gazing upon Vincent’s Sunflowers, Irises, Vase of Flowers, The Pink Orchard and my favourite of all, Almond Blossom, all of which radiate a warm positive energy.

Another favourite spot to soak up the lazy Sunday morning atmosphere is around Nieuwe Spiegelstraat, which lies just across from the Rijksmuseum over the Singelgracht canal.

Here friends gather for brunch at pavement cafes, cyclists traverse quaint bridges, and below on the water the put-put of small privately-owned boats can be heard as Amsterdammers take to the canals for a pleasure cruise. During my unhurried browsing around the assortment of book, map, clock, ancient artefact, jewellery, antique and contemporary art galleries found in this area, I’m unfailingly greeted with a friendly “Hoi (hi)”, whether I’m spending or not.

Or keep strolling towards the leafy Plantage district — discovering some of Amsterdam’s Jewish history along the way. From the 16th and 17th century, many Jews facing persecution in Spain and Portugal, fled to Amsterdam to enjoy a religious tolerance that was unheard of in the rest of Europe.

Today the Jewish community numbers around 20,000 but the city was once home to more than 60,000 and the Jewish Quarter remains an integral part of the city.

The Holocaust Museum and The Jewish Historical Museum are housed within four historical Ashkenazi synagogues and I take a self-guided tour of the permanent exhibition of Jewish life in Amsterdam from the 17th century, including the Jewish influence on Dutch culture and the persecution of Dutch Jews during the Second World War.

Across the road from here you’ll find the striking Portuguese Synagogue, also known as Esnoga, built in 1665 and modelled on the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.

Beyond a fresh lick of a paint, the synagogue has endured its 355 years gracefully and is regarded as the most important legacy of Amsterdam’s Jewish community. Look for the heartfelt inscription in Hebrew above the entrance that refers to Psalm 5:7: “In the abundance of Thy loving kindness will I come into Thy house”.

The Hollandsche Schouwburg theatre, once used by the Nazis as a deportation assembly point, now stands as a memorial to all who died during the Holocaust. I walk around the memorial hall and say aloud many of the Jewish surnames inscribed on the wall, just as other visitors are doing around me.

“Nooit vergeten (never forgotten),” one elegant white-gloved elderly lady says as we pass by each other.

For a reflective stroll in the sunshine the nearby Hortus Botanicus is perfect. Hidden behind a high wall, the garden was founded in 1682 to supply the city’s doctors with medicinal herbs.

“The smell is for free,” a gardener tells me, bending down to pluck a leaf from a small green shrub, which he passes to me. I breathe in the woody citrusy aroma of marjoram, which has antiseptic properties according to the sign. Further on in the palm house, there’s a 350-year old Encephalartos altensteinii — giant palm-like cycad — the same age as the Portuguese Synagogue.

Back in Jordaan, there’s another botanical in my sights — as well as the chance to visit the home of the city’s most famous Jewish inhabitant, Anne Frank, on Prinsengracht. It’s Amsterdam’s most-visited sight so do book ahead.

The museum received an extensive overhaul in 2018, but the secret annexe, where the Franks were forced to hide for two years during the war, has been left as it was, complete with Anne’s movie star pin-ups.

“Time for a borrel?” asks my Dutch friend Roelien, referring to the drink enjoyed with friends at the end of the day. We settle ourselves at a table outside De Pieper, established in 1665 and one of Amsterdam’s oldest ‘brown’ cafés to sip a glass of jenever, juniper-flavoured Dutch gin.

It’s an idyllic spot to enjoy the sunset, listening to the mellow whir of passing bicycles and watching glittering sunspots bounce off the canal water as the sunlight dips towards evening.

“Proost! Good health,” we say, clinking glasses; never meaning it more.


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