Just twenty minutes by train from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, Leiden is a lively and energetic city of around 120,000 souls that makes for an enjoyable day-trip or overnight stay. At its heart, the city’s antique, sometimes careworn, centre is a maze of narrow lanes that wriggle and worm their way around a complicated network of canals, one of which marks the line of the medieval walls. It’s all very appealing and unfussy, with Leiden’s multitude of bars and cafés kept afloat by the thirsty students of the city’s one great institution, its university – one of Europe’s most prestigious seats of learning. The obvious place to start an exploration of the city centre is the Beestenmarkt, a large and really rather plain open space that’s long been the town’s major meeting point. As for specific sights, top billing goes to the magnificent ancient Egyptian collection at the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (National Museum of Antiquities) and the seventeenth-century Dutch paintings of the Stedelijk Museum de Lakenhal, though, perhaps surprisingly, given that this was his home town, the museum is very short of Rembrandts. Leiden is also within easy striking distance of the Dutch bulbfields and the showpiece Keukenhof gardens as well as the pleasant North Sea resort of Katwijk-aan-Zee and its long sandy beach.
If you’re after bulbs, then make a beeline for the bulb growers’ showcase, the Keukenhof gardens, located on the edge of the little town of Lisse, beside the N208 about 15km north of Leiden. The largest flower gardens in the world, dating back to 1949, the Keukenhof was designed by a group of prominent bulb growers to convert people to the joys of growing flowers from bulbs in their own gardens. Literally the “kitchen garden”, its site is the former estate of a fifteenth-century countess, who used to grow herbs and vegetables for her dining table. Several million flowers are on show for their full flowering period, complemented, in case of especially harsh winters, by thousands of square metres of glasshouse holding indoor displays. You could easily spend a whole day here, swooning with the sheer abundance of it all, but to get the best of it you need to come early, before the tour buses descend on the place. There are several restaurants in the grounds, and a network of well-marked footpaths explores every horticultural nook and cranny.
The pancake-flat fields stretching north from Leiden towards Haarlem are the heart of the Dutch bulbfields, whose bulbs and blooms support a billion-euro industry and some ten thousand growers, as well as attracting tourists in their droves. Bulbs have flourished here since the late sixteenth century, when one Carolus Clusius, a Dutch botanist and one-time gardener to the Habsburg emperor, brought the first tulip bulb over from Vienna, where it had – in its turn – been brought from Asia Minor by an Austrian aristocrat. The tulip flourished in Holland’s sandy soil and was so highly prized that it fuelled a massive speculative bubble. At the height of the boom – in the mid-1630s – bulbs were commanding extraordinary prices: the artist Jan van Goyen paid 1900 guilders and two paintings for ten rare bulbs, while a bag of one hundred bulbs was swapped for a coach and horses. When the government finally intervened in 1636, the industry returned to reality with a bang, leaving hundreds of investors ruined – much to the satisfaction of the country’s Calvinist ministers, who had long railed against such excesses.
Other types of bulbs apart from the tulip have also been introduced, and nowadays the spring flowering season begins in mid-March with crocuses, followed by daffodils and yellow narcissi in late March, hyacinths and tulips from mid-April through to May, and irises and gladioli in August. The views of the bulbfields from any of the trains heading southwest from Schiphol airport can often be sufficient in themselves, the fields divided into stark geometric blocks of pure colour, but, with your own transport – either bicycle or car – you can take in their particular beauty by way of special routes marked by hexagonal signposts; local tourist offices sell pamphlets describing the routes in detail. You could also drop by the bulb growers’ showpiece, the Keukenhof gardens. Bear in mind also that there are any number of local flower festivals and parades in mid- to late April; every local VVV has the details of these too.