You can find all my Europe Trip posts here.
On Friday, we got up at 5:30 (what vacation?) to make sure we were on the road by 6:15 for our drive to Aalsmeer, where we had plans to visit Royal FloraHolland and see its famous flower auction. Visitors can arrive to the auction as early as 7 a.m., and I had heard the early you get there, the better, so 7 a.m. it was! (Or rather, it was intended to be. It was closer to 7:15 by the time we actually got there.)
If you’ve never heard of Royal FloraHolland, you aren’t alone! I hadn’t either, prior to planning this trip. If you’ve ever bought cut flowers, though, there’s a decent chance your flowers passed through Royal FloraHolland. It’s the world’s largest flower auction, and literal millions of flowers are sold at the auction every single day. Suppliers bring their flowers to the auction, and wholesalers bid on the flowers by price/stem. Once they purchase the flowers, employees on the warehouse floor fulfill their order, bring the flowers to the wholesaler’s truck bays, and off they go. The whole process, from purchasing to the time the flowers leave the warehouse, usually takes less than 90 minutes. And, if you figure in the time zone differences–the auction starts at 11 p.m. Chicago time–and the auction’s proximity to Schiphol Airport, it’s totally reasonable that the flowers purchased in Aalsmeer could be to your local florist by the time you’re on your way home from work that night.
The auction, it’s worth noting, works different than “normal” auctions. The price per stem starts at a fixed value (like 50 cents) and then goes down rather than up. The price ticks down on a clock that moves very quickly rather than being called out by an auctioneer, so a wholesaler’s bidder has to be ready to claim the price they want as soon as it shows up–and hope there isn’t another wholesaler willing to spend more. Once someone claims the price they want, that’s it: there’s no going once, going twice, etc.
Watching the auction was really interesting, but watching the action on the floor was far more interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that fast-paced and organized. The employees zipped around the floor on Segway-type vehicles, picking up carts filled with flowers they’d tow behind them. It was really something!
We spent about an hour at the auction, and then headed off to the whole reason we had come to the Netherlands when we did: Keukenhof.
Keukenhof is an 80 acre (!) flower garden made up almost exclusively of bulb flowers – daffodils, tulips, that sort of thing. Those flowers only grow in the spring, and consequently, the garden is only open from mid-March to mid-May (it closed for the season yesterday, so, uh, sorry if this makes you want to go visit. There’s always 2020!). While the goal is to go at the height of the blooming, that varies from year to year, so if you live outside of Europe (*raises hand*), you have to pick a time to go and hope for the best. Mid-April is generally considered a safe time to go, hence why we went when we did. But, Keukenhof plants their flowers “lasagna style” (bulbs on top of bulbs), so if they’re open, you’ll definitely see flowers. The surrounding fields may have been deadheaded, but the garden itself will be fine.
Keukenhof was everything I hoped it’d be. Pictures could never do it justice. There are literal millions of tulips to see, in every shade and size and variety you can imagine. I took around 100 pictures/day on the trip, except the day we went to Keukenhof: I took over 400.
Being at Keukenhof felt like being at the United Nations (or what I assume being at the United Nations would feel like, as I’ve never been.) There were people from all over the world speaking all sorts of languages all around the garden. It was really cool!
Seeing Keukenhof was easily one of the top items on my travel bucket list, so I’m really, really glad I was able to go and see it in all its glory.
Since we got to Keukenhof pretty early, we had seen our fill of flowers by about 1 p.m., which gave us plenty of time for the last (tentative) item on the agenda for Friday: visiting Leiden.
Leiden actually has a bit of a connection to U.S. history, as it was the town where the Puritans who became the Pilgrims ultimately settled in the Netherlands after they left England.
To that end, our first stop in Leiden was the American Pilgrim Museum, which came highly recommended by Rick Steves, and thank goodness it did. I don’t think there’s any chance we would have accidentally stumbled into the museum. Its location is easy to find, but the museum itself isn’t labeled at all, and it certainly wasn’t obvious that it was open. We actually got in because we peeked in the windows, and the girl manning the museum that afternoon saw us and let us in.
Anyway, once we got in, the museum was really cool! It’s in the oldest building in Leiden and gives you a good idea what living conditions were like in the 1600s (“cramped” would be the word I’d use). The house–which is a generous way of putting it, since it was really just one room–was about the size of a modest bedroom. An entire family would fit in that space! The museum was filled with items from the 1600s: books, tools, etc. It was fascinating!
Next door to the sample Pilgrim house (though still part of the museum) was an example of living quarters for a priest. It was bigger than the Pilgrim house and only had to hold one person, which would’ve been a lot more comfortable by today’s square footage standards. It, too, was filled with old items, including a chair from the 1100s that you were allowed to sit in! I thought that was pretty cool – and a pretty nice testament to the construction quality, since it’s held up all this time.
The Rick Steves walking tour for Leiden included the American Pilgrim Museum, so we picked the tour up there, finished it, then returned to the start to catch everything we missed (as the museum is close to the end of the tour). We saw the (outside of the) Hooglandse Kerk and walked around it before heading over to a canal. I was in A Mood by that point for a couple of reasons (getting up so early, worrying that we weren’t allowed to park the car where we parked it and that it’d get towed [that didn’t happen, for the record]), so we stopped for ice cream at IJscafe Danice in an attempt to bring my blood sugar and attitude up. It was a fairly successful endeavor 😛
After refueling, we continued on the walking tour. We saw yet another former waag that had also been converted into a restaurant and then walked farther west to get to the Galgewater, a street named after the gallows that used to be there. We crossed the water on the cutest bridge, the Rembrandtbrug, to get to Rembrandtplein, the area where Rembrandt was raised.
His childhood home isn’t there anymore, but there’s a nice statue to him in the plaza next to the former site of the windmill his father operated.
Leiden has dozens of hofjes. They’re courtyards that are technically public property, so you’re free to visit them, but it does feel a bit like walking into someone’s enclosed backyard. They were (to my understanding) generally built for the poor and elderly, though the one Rick Steves had us pop into now mostly houses students from Leiden University.
Speaking of Leiden University, that was our next stop on the walking tour. The university doesn’t have a central campus, so there isn’t a quad to stroll through or anything like that, but we saw several university buildings. We saw Pieterskerk, the square of which was where I saw my one and only Eurasian Jay – though the church itself is also nice to look at 😛
We saw the Gravensteen and passed through a hofje to see Jan Steen’s house–something that I would have appreciated much more had I seen it later in the trip, as, after two trips to art museums in the coming days, I decided Jan Steen is my favorite Dutch Golden Age painter. We finished the walking tour at the Burcht, a shell keep on top of a hill that provides really great views of the city, got dinner, and headed back to Rotterdam for the night.
- A cafe in the main building of Keukenhof, 4/5
- IJscafe Danice (Hoogstraat 6, Leiden), 5/5
- Scarlatti (Stille Mare 4, Leiden), 5/5