The third Saturday of January is celebrated as National Tulip Day in the Netherlands.
Tulips tend to be associated with springtime rather than wintry mid-January, but National Tulip Day marks the official opening of the tulip season.
“We start with National Tulip Day to celebrate the flowering,” explains Arjan Smit, the chairman of Tulpen Promotie Nederlands (TPN), the Dutch organisation established by around 500 tulip producers to promote their flowers around the world. Remarkably, 1.7 billion tulips are grown commercially in the Netherlands each year. Many of them flower on fields in North Holland and Flevoland, on land painstakingly reclaimed from the sea.
Tulips from Amsterdam
“We start the new season in the shops…it’s more than beautiful,” he explains as we chat on Dam Square a few paces from a brass band belting out well-known tunes, including a foot-stomping rendition of Tulips from Amsterdam.
We’re standing in a temporary garden consisting of 200,000 tulips. It’s set out on the cobbled square by the Royal Palace Amsterdam. The grand building opened as the city’s town hall in 1655 and became a royal palace during the Napoleonic era. It stands open for visits by members of the public for much of the year.
An electronic screen counts down the minutes until the official opening of the tulip season, at 1.00 pm. When the clock strikes one, members of the public will be allowed into the garden to pick up the tulips and take them home in plastic carrier bags. Volunteers in orange jackets stand ready to distribute the bags to the 15,000 enthusiastic onlookers currently standing behind a waist-high fence.
A modern tradition flowers
National Tulip Day was established as recently as 2012. A couple of women wear colourful hats made from tulips and topped with the number five, to mark the fifth anniversary of the event.
Jessi – a blonde woman wearing a white dress decorated with blue patterns from Delft style porcelain – poses for photographs among the tulips.
“Tulips are a sign for Amsterdam, everybody loves them. People come from across the world to see the flowers,” she says as I shoot photos.
Also posing is a woman wearing a costume to look like The Milkmaid, the 17th-century oil painting by Johannes Vermeer. The original hangs in the Rijksmuseum, less than 15 minutes by tram from Dam Square.
Presidency of the Council of the European Union
From the vantage point of a temporary bridge, I notice tulips have been arranged to read 2016, commemorating the Netherlands’ presidency of the Council of the European Union, from 1 January until 30 June 2016.
Bert Koenders, the Netherlands’ Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Kajsa Ollongren, the deputy mayor of Amsterdam, join Mr Smit to raise a toast to the newly unveiled Spinoza tulip.
I ask Ms Ollongren why the day is special for the Netherlands.
“First of all, National Tulip Day is always a special day. Secondly, we’re now president of the European Union and Amsterdam is hosting meetings of the European Union. And we have a special tulip, which we call the Spinoza Tulip. Spinoza, of course, is a famous philosopher, born in Amsterdam – an important person for democracy and for freedom. All of these things together make it a very important day for Amsterdam,” she answers.
But what if people can’t be in Amsterdam in mid-January, where can visitors see tulips?
“We have tulips all over the city and, of course, people can always go to the Keukenhof to see tulips. For many Dutch people, tulips are their favourite type of flower and this time of year is tulip time,” she adds.
With thousands clamouring to pick the flowers in the garden we’re standing in, that passion for tulips is palpable.
Getting to Amsterdam
Stuart travelled from Newcastle International Airport to Amsterdam with KLM. The Netherlands’ national airline currently operates flights to Amsterdam Schiphol from airports around the United Kingdom.
Getting around in Amsterdam
Avoid queuing for tickets for services operated by the Dutch Railways by purchasing an OV-chipkaart. The smart card can be topped with credit for use on bus, ferry rail and trams. Tap in when boarding transport and remember to tap out.
If you’re planning a weekend break you might benefit by using an Amsterdam Travel Ticket. The tickets are valid for one, two and three days and are sold at a number of places, including the airport’s railway station. They include unlimited second-class rail travel between Schiphol Amsterdam Airport and stations in Amsterdam, plus travel on most local transport.
Where to stay in Amsterdam
The smart Mövenpick Hotel Amsterdam City Centre (Piet Heinkade 11; tel: +31 (0) 20 5191200) stands by the waterfront of the River Ij, a 15-minute stroll or a brief tram ride along the river from the central railway station. Rooms on the upper floors of the hotel provide fine views over the city and across to the Eye Film Institute and A’dam Tower on the north side if the river.
The superior 4-star hotel has 408 contemporary rooms and suites. The onsite Silk Road restaurant overlooks the river and there’s a lounge for the exclusive use of executive guests. The Lifestyle Studio wellness centre holds a range of fitness equipment and has a sizable sauna area. Rooms include free wi-fi and shuttle transfers from Amsterdam Centraal Station. Reserve by visiting the Mövenpick website or calling the free (from the UK) on 0800 898317.
Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.
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