Holland’s Keukenhof is the most photographed place in the world, according to the hyperbolic guidebook. What – more than the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower or the Sydney Opera House? It’s quite possible, if you think about it. A couple of snaps of those other attractions are usually enough, but once we start taking photos of tulips, it’s hard to stop.
The ‘world’s most beautiful spring gardens’ are only open for the two months that the spring bulbs bloom, so when the gates open in late March there’s a feeding frenzy. Nearly a million visitors a year shuffle through the turnstiles in search of the perfect floral snapshot.
We queue at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport for the bus to take us to the town of Lisse, just over half an hour away. On board it’s standing room only. When we pass our first field of tulips, the bus rocks disturbingly as everybody with a camera (or a mobile phone with a hole in the back) rushes to the windows.
So many tourists can’t be wrong. This is going to be good. Anticipation builds as we arrive at the Keukenhof. Music pumps out from a colourful street organ and ladies in traditional dress sell guidebooks, telling the history of the place.
The site was once the kitchen garden (‘keukenhof’) of a 15th century castle, owned by the colourful Countess Jacoba van Beieren. She married four times, waged lots of wars, died young of TB. I don’t have time to read any more about her. There are flashes of colour in the gardens ahead, and I have photos that need taking.
Flowers are dead easy to photograph, even for us amateurs. They’re beautiful, they sit patiently while you fumble with the camera settings, and they don’t pull stupid faces when you point a lens at them.
Moreover, in the Keukenhof they’ve been arranged for maximum colour co-ordinated effect. Mr Jan D. Zocher, who also designed Amsterdam’s lovely Vondelpark, planned these castle gardens in 1857, and modern designers have built on his structure of lawns, lakes, trees and pathways.
Drifts of brilliant yellow, red and orange tulips scream out from between the blues of the grape hyacinths, under the bright green spring growth of the beech and chestnut trees. Just when we’re thinking this is perhaps getting a bit gaudy, around the corner we find a quiet area of subdued pinks and delicate mauves, contrasting with beds of purple tulips so dark they’re nearly black.
We photographers can’t get enough of it. ‘Please keep off the grass’ warn the signs in Dutch and English, but rather vainly. The grass around the beds is well trodden and worn patches have already been replaced along the fringe of the paths.
Those after extreme close-ups of dewdrops on a perfect bloom prostrate themselves on the damp ground and poke the lens upward. Others risk falling in the water in their efforts to frame their lake shot with overhanging tree limbs. We throw our lunch to the swans to encourage them to glide into the ideal spot and try to catch the cute ducklings paddling round their mother.
Poise the camera over any flowerbed and you’ll get a frame filled with a stunning pattern of bright ‘triumphs’ or ‘double earlies’. There are over a hundred different varieties of tulips here. Some thirty gardeners have hand planted some seven million bulbs. Crouch down to flower level and you’ll capture the woven patchwork of ‘victory’ and ‘parrot’ tulips offset against the upright tree trunks. Stand up again and massage your knees; there’s more walking to do – several kilometres of paths.
There are avenues of blossom, a Japanese garden, glasshouses filled with lilies and orchids and floral arrangement competitions. There are formal ponds lined by perfectly symmetrical topiary box hedges. If you can’t make a decent photo here it can only be because your battery has run out.
We shoot our partners posing casually next to a bed of ‘single lates’. They shoot us posing humorously beside a statue. At 32 hectares, the Keukenhof is the Netherlands largest outdoor sculpture park, displaying work from fifty artists. A hilarious shot of me draped around the naked lady sculpture will be sure to get a big laugh when I email it to my friends.
People here are patient with photographers. They step back and wait, so as not to walk between us and our subjects. Passing strangers offer to take shots of us with a bed of ‘orange princesses’ behind us and we do the same for them.
The full Dutch experience is available at the Keukenhof. People snap each other trying on giant clogs and eating raw herrings. There’s an old windmill too. You can climb around inside it and emerge on the balcony, waving to your family below – another perfect photo opportunity!
Wow, look – there are the Teletubbies rendered in flower petals! Quick, get a shot of the kids with Tinky-winky and Dipsy. And there behind the gardens are the tulip fields with rows of blooms stretching all the way to the power-lines beyond.
We grab a quick coffee and snack, but there’s no time to waste. We have to race home to sift through hundreds of shots and delete the rubbish. No, too much contrast, too much backlight, thumb over the lens, a wind gust must have moved that flower at the wrong moment, nice background there but what a pity your eyes are shut…
Oh no! Where’s my perfect shot? I’ll have to go back and take some more. I see this year they have an American theme, featuring a ‘flowerized’ version of the Statue of Liberty. Must get a picture of that!
Entry to the Keukenhof costs EUR13.50, children EUR6. Combi-ticket for return bus from Amsterdam Schiphol airport to Lisse, including garden entry costs EUR20.
For further information on the Keukenhof gardens: http://www.keukenhof.nl
First published, Sun-Herald, Sydney