Leaving Vianen and the aftermath of the King’s Day celebrations behind, we drove a smooth motorway route east and north. Like the houses and towns, the countryside was so organised, neat and ordered. Rural Netherlands was like a super-tidied version of Norfolk; flat and straight lines, with no sign of litter, broken fences or overgrown grass anywhere. Farms and workshops had tidy, clean yards and spotless tractors cruising around in orderly fields. It was almost a little too neat, like a Stepford version of how flat, rural landscapes should be.
We arrived at our chosen aire, Camperplaats Emmeloord, where we parked up and soon met the charismatic owner, Joop, who happily welcomed us to his smallholding and answered our questions about the area. We had a look around the cute little shed acting as a well-stocked honesty shop, the quirky outside shower and the tiny long-haired horses, feeling comfortably at home in our new, interesting surroundings.
After settling in, we readied our bikes and tootled off into the nearby town of Emmeloord, around 6km away, to pick up some fresh provisions. There were flat, easy cycle paths the entire way, set adjacent to the road, all with their own traffic lights and fully integrated into the normal traffic flow. Where the cycle lanes necessarily crossed a road, the bicycles had right of way and cars stopped, which was proving hard to get used to, and we had a few awkward stand-offs with cars before learning to just get on with it and accept our superiority on the road. The local Lidl was awash with cyclists, all filling paniers with their shopping, or using their bikes as transport trollies for heavier items.
Later we walked out to the nearby golf course, to check out a strange steel sculpture on the edge of the greens and to watch the sun set over where we were parked. We found a local map in the honesty shop showing a 106km long ‘Tulip Route’ set out for drivers to follow to maximise their exposure to the locally grown tulip fields. We decided to cycle the noted route, or at least a good portion of it, the following morning. The weather forecast told us it would be sunny with light cloud all the following day, with no chance at all of any rain; perfect.
We woke up, inevitably, to the sound of pattering rain, out-performing the loud cacophony of bird calls overhead and the excited roosters nearby. Optimistically, we took this as a good sign, assuming the forecast was wrong simply due to the wind dropping significantly and not clearing the clouds. We waited a few hours before heading out and were soon rewarded for our patience with patches of breaking sun and light cross winds, making the kilometres melt away easily as we explored the flatlands. We passed huge clusters of fields planted up with tulips in myriad of colours, stopping frequently to look and photograph, keeping pace with several cars following the same route.
We followed the Tulpen Route for 35km, before we cycled off-piste, to first visit the town of Urk and then to find ourselves a sea view for our lunch stop. We crossed over to the western edge, overlooking the Ijsselmeer, where we sat on the rocks in the shadow of the hundreds of wind turbines, both on land and in the sea, that lined the coast to eat our lunch. The grassy banks of the polder’s edge would have made a more comfortable and raised viewpoint, but they were besieged with annoying, persistent flies that the salty breeze at the water’s edge kept at bay. We headed north along the coastline, the elegant, white wind turbines offering an entirely different vista that the neat, flat fields of vibrantly coloured tulips inland.
The tulip first appeared in the Netherlands from Turkey in the sixteenth century. Through its immediate and immense popularity, the commercial growing of tulips in the region exploded. The north east polder area, where we were exploring, was declared dry in September 1942 and turned into viable agricultural land soon after. Tulips were first planted in the 1960s, with over 1900 hectares now given over to bulbs and one billion flowers grown for market each year. Specialist growers, called ‘forcers’, also chill or freeze bulbs throughout the summer, to later transfer them to a warm greenhouse and artificially trick them into growing on demand, providing a means of supplying marketable tulips all year around.
We returned to the officially designated route and continued to pass many more fields of orange, white, yellow, purple and red tulips. There was a nagging feeling we were perhaps just a week or two late to the party, as many fields were now ploughed and reset, and the spaces between colourful patches of flowering tulips became greater. We saw a few tractors that we thought were cutting tulips for market but were actually simply beheading them, whether dead-heading to encourage future growth or undertaking to collect petals for some other purpose, we weren’t sure.
On our return back to base we both enjoyed a refreshing, lukewarm blast in the camp’s al fresco shower, our modesty maintained only by a shoulder height double boarded timber fence. It was an exhilarating change to be able to shower and enjoy the fresh air and rural views simultaneously. With over 85km of cycling completed and with us fully invigorated and clean, we settled in for the night and carbed up with a huge pasta dish and a few glasses of red. In all, we had a wonderful day exploring in the fresh air and flat, colourful fields of this very pretty corner of the Netherlands.