Tulip river cruise reveals Holland's beauty

Written by Doug Oster on .

Blog Monday Day 1aThe faces of Amsterdam. Can you find Mick Jagger? Photos by Doug Oster

Cold wind and blowing rain greeted a small group of travelers who broke away with me for quick side of Amsterdam. We had just landed with a total of 26 people joined me on a Tulip River Cruise of the Netherlands last week, I blogged every day about our adventures and wanted to wrap up with some stories from a great trip.

We were on our way to the Floating Flower Market, a place filled with just about everything you could imagine for the garden. Amsterdam is a beautiful city, charming row houses look out over canals. In Europe there are always surprises for Americans walking the streets. Bike lanes and roads are hard to figure out and we spend lots of time alerting our friends to fast moving bicycles, cars and trolleys headed in their direction. While walking down the street past coffee shops reeking of marijuana, we're greeted by a strange window filled with faces. I have no idea what this business was, but it was one of those things you see in Europe that makes you wonder and laugh at the same time.

Blog Monday Day 1d roof top daffsEver seen daffodils planted on top of a roof before?

We were there to see how the locals garden and see how they use plants. In one town we saw daffodils planted on the roof of a Dutch home. It was just one of the cool ways they plant.

Blog Monday Day 1e cemeterySomeone left flowers at the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery.

But there's a rich and painful history here too. I did a story a Emmy Busmen, who's mother endured living under Nazi occupation for most of her teen years and I visited the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery, filled with 1749 soldiers, most killed in WWII's Battle of Arnhem. Many of the grave stones included personal messages from family. J.W. Hope was killed on September 20th, 1944. This was written on the bottom of his grave; "I miss your smile. With you I spent the happiest days." Standing among all those white grave markers and reading the personal messages on each puts life in perspective.

Blog Monday Day 1g windmillOne of the windmills at Kinderdijk.

No trip to Holland would be compete without seeing windmills. One of the best places to do that is Kinderdijk. It's a place to see lots of them together and climb a working mill to see how the miller lived there with his family.

But the highlight of the trip was a visit to Keukenhof Gardens. Only open for eight weeks, this bulb display is one of the most magnificent gardening displays I've ever seen. It's something I wish every gardener could see. Of all the gardens I've seen over the years, Keukenhof stands shoulder to shoulder with the best.

I think the one thing that made our trip to the Netherlands so wonderful, were the Dutch people. They are resilient, funny and love to garden. What else could you ask for?

blog long hyacynth bedThe fragrance of these hyacinths at Keukenhof Gardens was heavenly.

blog fringe tulipsBeautiful fringe tulips at Keukenhof Gardens in Holland.


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Beyond belief -- The colors, scale and blooming tapestry of the Keukenhof Gardens

Written by Doug Oster on .

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After close to an hour on the road, our tour bus filled with myself and 26 other travelers arrived and the legendary Keukenhof Gardens. It was a good sign when our guide suggested to the bus driver to take a little spin around the bulb fields. As the intoxicating aroma of hyacinths filled the cabin we were awed by the rainbow of colors which stretched for miles. There were millions of bulbs covering flat fields, it was a unique and stunning sight.

We had a feeling the bulb display here in Holland was going to be spectacular, but never could have imagined the grandeur we were about to see.

blog purple tulips

Once inside, the gardens were beyond belief. I’ve been lucky enough to see some the greatest landscapes in the world, and Keukenhof is second to none.

Working my way along the edge of a small stream on the outskirts of the display trying to get just the right angle on those amazing bulb fields, I ran into Michelle Nawaz of New York City. She was working on taking the perfect selfie, using a tapestry of bulbs as her background. She hadn’t seen much of the garden yet, but when she turned to look at the huge display behind her she said, “it’s beautiful, the colors are breathtaking.”

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Turning back to Kuekenhof, the afternoon light danced around the flowers, sometimes filtered through the blooms of spring blooming trees, other times forming long shadows which changed as the the clouds drifted through, pushed along by a soft breeze.

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The garden is overwhelming as each bed offers another magical combination. Deep orange fringe tulips are set off by dark blue grape hyacinths and tiny white flowers make the perfect background for small purple fritillaria blooms.

blog holding hands

While standing on a little bridge, a French couple walked hand in hand examining bright yellow daffodils. As they walked up to me, I showed them the photo I’d just made of them. For a second there was an uncomfortable moment, not knowing why I handed them the camera, thinking I wanted them to take a picture of me. “It’s you,” I said, and when they looked at the screen, both smiled, then laughed and said, “merci.”

blog long bed

There were unimaginably long beds, hundreds of yards long with repeating patterns of three of four different bulbs in full bloom and other beds containing varieties which waited patiently to become the stars of the garden.

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One small, brilliant yellow daffodil bravely stood among a huge bed of blue hyacinths. I wondered if it was a survivor from last year’s show. Keukenhof is only open for eight short weeks, opening in March and closing in May. The rest of the time is spent preparing the nearly 80 acres for the next show.

Inside a building draped with white cloth are a multitude of bulbs and plants in full bloom. New introductions of tulips and just about anything else you can imagine are showcased. The colors are spellbinding and the fragrances of lilacs and others are sweet relief from a long winter.

blog selfe garden

There’s a cool place called the selfie garden. All you have to do is take a picture in one of the many oblong mirrors. Old people (like me) are confused and forced to ask the young exactly how to take the right photo. The youngsters were struggling themselves, but figured it out quicker than the oldsters and were more than happy to fill them in for the proper technique.

blog framed tulips

As the sun slowly slipped lower, the flower combinations became even more beautiful. Walking back to the bus, I turned back to see three or four drifts of tulips backlit and framed with a flowering crabapple.

After taking the photo, I put the camera down. Standing there looking at the scene all I could do was smile. It was one of those moments when you want to pinch yourself, “is this really happening,” I though to myself.

I can check Keukenhof off the garden bucket list, but hope to return again to spend a couple days exploring this special place instead of a couple hours.

The bus ride back to the cruise ship was spent in the afterglow of an experience I’ll never forget.

(Top image: The Keukenhof Gardens. Doug Oster photos)


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Of mothers, tomatoes, and gardens rich with cherished memories

Written by Doug Oster on .

blog tomato mother

Time on a cruise ship allows for plenty of time to talk gardening. I met two gardeners separated by and ocean who both share a connection to the their mothers through tomatoes and time together digging in the dirt.

Katarina Lutz Donatova is a tour director on this trip. She grew up under communist rule in Czechoslovakia, which is now Slovakia and no longer a communist country. She is sitting on the curb in the town square of Brussels, Netherlands eating an amazing waffle covered in Nutella and whipped cream as she recounts her life in the garden with her mother.

“I was a little child, five or six years old, she says, my mom forced me to weed the garden and I hated it. My fingers were all filled with mud,” On the other hand, she said with a smile, “I absolutely loved the fresh tomatoes.”

Her mother, Libusa Donatova, calls her favorite ‘Giant,’ and for a good reason. Libusa’s personal record is 900 grams which is nearly two pounds. Besides being huge, it has other qualities too. “It’s almost seedless, Katarina said, and it’s like cutting through a meat.” The family loves too eat them fresh out of the garden, with only a pinch of salt.

Everyone lived very modestly under communism, she says, almost everyone had their own garden. “They had to grow their own veggies," she said, "the good part is that we’ve been eating very well, all organic food.” Her mother has two gardens, each is 500 square yards.

She built forts in the garden with her sister and loved playing in there, as children Katarina said laughing. “Now the garden is for pleasure and food, she says. They know the difference there is in taste.”

Besides those fresh tomatoes, Katarina has one more thing she can’t live without which her mother makes, “ketchup from those homemade tomatoes,” she say laughing.

When asked what else I needed to know about the garden, Katarina volunteered this, “in summertime, in all of Eastern Europe, you don’t see the people because they are in their gardens all day long. They even skip their vacation so they can take care of their gardens.”

Diana Bozick from Oakdale sits in the shadow of the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, Netherlands remembering her late mother and their shared love of gardening. I first heard of the tomato her mother, Carmella DeVandry, bred over a dinner conversation on our cruise ship several days ago. That’s when Diana told me, “gardening isn’t a hobby for for me, it’s a way of life.”

Carmella created this slightly flattened, sweet pink tomato by crossing a gnarly German variety and an Italian tomato to make something she called ‘Russian Giant.’ It’s a late tomato the size of a softball which is meaty with few seeds. The low acid tomato can cover a piece of bread with just one slice.

It’s a true family heirloom as Diana saves the seeds each year to keep the variety going. She details exactly why the tomato is grown in her garden every season. “It’s our family tomato, she says of ‘Russian Giant,’ and yes, it’s my mom’s, but also because we like it.”

She remembers her mother growing tomatoes in hot beds and urgently heading out to the garden to lift the glass when it was hot and then covering it when frost loomed. As the youngest child in the family by a decade, Diana was the one to work with her mother in the garden, pulling weeds and mulching. “I remember planting tomatoes by moonlight because we had to get them in before it rained, she said with a laugh. Diana added, “we used to take a salt shaker in the garden with us.”

Just like her mother, she grows spring greens like chicory, which she’s already enjoyed out of the garden.

Diana has been growing ‘Russian Giant’ for 30 years now, and remembers the special times she had in the garden with her mother.

“I think about my mom all the time, she said with a smile. I give her heck for not having enough rain or when I’m picking dandelions. When I’m picking chicory, I tell her how nice it is and wouldn’t she like to be helping me pick them or helping me eat them?” After pausing for a second, she repeated, “I think about her all the time.”

Two different gardeners, for two markedly different places, linked by the garden, tomatoes and their mothers. Gardening truly does transcend many boundaries.

(Top image: Katrina (left) and Diana. Doug Oster photo)



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Ghent and Bruges: Artistic treasures enshrined in vibrant cities of canals, daffodils and celebrations

Written by Doug Oster on .

blog madonna 1

Today we saw two of the most beautiful cities in the Netherlands and in each we saw art treasures stolen by the Nazis and eventually recovered by a team of art scholars known as the Monuments Men.

Ghent and Bruges are both stunning and were highlighted in the movie of the same title starring George Clooney and an all-star cast.

blog impression

Like most cities in the region they are crisscrossed by canals which offer beautiful reflections of tourists and locals exploring the city, especially early or late in the day.

blog harp

The soothing music of a harp echoed in the halls of Sant Bavo Cathedral as we walked over the marble floors. Marc F.M. Hebnelinck played beautifully as we were taken to see the Ghent Altarpiece, one of the two pieces of art from the movie. This amazing work by Jan van Eyck is thought to be painted sometime between 1430 and 1432.

blog ghent altar piece

As both a history and movie buff, seeing the huge panels in person was a real treat.

blog bride

While headed back to the bus, we stumbled on to a bride and groom who were just married and probably headed to their reception. We joined locals in congratulating them and they were thrilled to be photographed by so many people.

bog daffs wide

Bruges is an ancient city and we were finally treated to something we longed for since landing in the Netherlands, a large stand of daffodils which illuminated the center of town.

blog daffs one

The courtyard of Monasterium "De Wijngaard" was filled with white and yellow blooms welcoming spring. A day of sunshine and temperatures reaching the 70's is a treat this time of the year here as everyone under 40 had on as few clothes as possible to soak up the sun.

Although I was captivated by the city, there was only one goal in mind, to see the famous Madonna and Child by Michelangelo. It’s located in the Church of our Lady and cost three Euros to see. This piece was the hinge pin of the movie, a historic treasure and is one of the artist's few works to leave Italy.

My enthusiasm was infectious. While walking and talking with a leader from another tour group who also knew the amazing history of the Madonna and Child, she was persuaded to leave her travelers with a colleague and join me to see the artwork


blog kneel

While we stood in front of the statue in awe, a woman walked up to the altar, knelt down and bowed her head.

It was fitting tribute to all those who lost their lives all those years ago, returning this masterpiece to its rightful place.

(Top image: Michelangelo's Madonna and Child. Doug Oster photos)

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From Arnhem to Veerse, with blooms and surprises all along the way

Written by Doug Oster on .

blog rosies

For yesterday's blog I found a wireless connection at what must be the coolest place on the Rhine. Rose's Lounge in Arnhem is a stone's throw from the scene of one of the most famous bridge battles to take place during WWII. The Arnhem road bridge was immortalized in the movie 'A Bridge Too Far.'

I was served garnalenkroketjes by my friendly waiter Thomas. They are a deep fried croquettes filled with shrimp and cheese and they were to die for. As I sat near the fire to write about beautiful Dutch window decorations I washed down my meal with a tasty Brouwerij'tij beer brewed in Amsterdam.

Rose's is decorated like the inside of a royal castle and weirdly wonderful music fills the air making it the perfect place to write. There's just a good vibe at the place. When I got back on the ship, I sent many of my fellow travelers there for a quick bite and drink before we sailed again.

The morning found me on the top of the Amadeus Princess with the city of Middelburg in the distance. Like everywhere else in the Netherlands, a strong wind almost stole my hat.

Blog sheep canal

One great thing about river cruising is seeing the countryside on the way to the cities. In the farm fields, kites tied to posts kept the birds at bay and sheep lined the canal, occasionally going to the edge for a drink.

blog espalier

The Dutch love espalier, it's a way to grow trees on some type of frame. It's typically used for fruit trees. On our way to Veerse, there was a square in Middelburg with huge linden trees on rounded frames. I'd never seen anything like it and can't imagine what it must look like then the trees leaf out and then bloom.

blog pink flowers

The quaint town of Veerse has opened its doors to the tourists. It's a tiny sailing port filled with small homes and shops. I was confounded by beautiful pink flowers blooming in consort with a forsythia. When I can't identify a plant (which happens often), I just think; do I really need to know its name if I think it's pretty?

blog tulips netherlands

As a walked down down a cobblestone street, there was a preview of what's to come. A small stand of tulips back lit by the afternoon sun. In a few days we'll be seeing millions, I can't wait to photograph the flowers and show them to you.

blog succulents and pansy

These little towns are filled with character and surprises. Pansies pop up out of a sidewalk under a container of succulents placed on a chair on a front stoop.

blog sitting on the walls

Faux children sit atop a flower lined wall ...

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... and the real thing giggles while hiding away in a rope net of a old sailing ship.

blog peace doves

On my final walk around town there are two pure white doves taking ownership of a ledge along a wall. If that isn't a good sign, I don't know what is. Tomorrow we're headed for Belgium and the ancient city of Ghent.

Can't wait to show it to you.

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