After windmills come tulips and the cheeses of Edam and Gouda, as standard-bearers of Dutch national pride. The places to see tulips in their full glory are in the extensive bulb fields of the Bollenstreek and at Keukenhof, where vast numbers of tulips and other flowers create a dazzling tapestry of color. (Keukenhof is actually just across the province line in neighboring Zuid-Holland.) Edam and Gouda have more than cheese making to occupy their time, but the town of Alkmaar is a pretty good stand-in, for its weekly cheese market's sheer and unabashed hokum.
The heaviest concentration of bulb fields is in the Bollenstreek (Bulb District), a strip of land 16km (10 miles) long and 6km (4 miles) wide, between Haarlem and Leiden. In the spring, it's a kind of a Dutch rite of passage to take a traipse through this colorful district and view the massed, varicolored regiments of tulips on parade. Each year from around the end of January to late May, the fields are covered at various times with tulips, crocuses, daffodils, narcissi, hyacinths, lilies, and more.
Viewing the flowers is easy. Just follow the signposted Bollenstreek Route (60km/37 miles) by car or bike. Stalls along the roads sell flower garlands -- do as the natives do and buy one for yourself and another for the car. VVV tourist information offices in the area can provide detailed information about the route. To get to the bulb fields from Amsterdam, drive to Haarlem; then south on N206 through De Zilk and Noordwijkerhout, or on N208 through Hillegom, Lisse, and Sassenheim. Alternatively, go south from Amsterdam on A4/E19, past Schiphol Airport, to exit 4 (Nieuw-Vennep), and then northwest on N207 for 8km (5 miles) until you hit N208.
Other bulb-growing centers are scattered around Noord-Holland, with an important concentration in the Hoorn-Medemblik area. If you are interested in the original plants, Hortus Bulborum, Zuidkerkenlaan 23A, Limmen (tel. 0251/231-286; www.hortus-bulborum.nl), a specialized tulip garden 30km (18 miles) northwest of Amsterdam, has recreated some of the older varieties. Here you can see the flowers that are so prominent in the floral still-lifes painted by 17th-century artists, fancifully shaded in flaming patterns and with names like Semper Augustus and Bruin Anvers. The garden is open April 6 to May 16 Monday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm and Sunday from noon to 5pm. Admission is 3.50€ ($5.60) for adults, 2.50€ ($4) for seniors, and free for children 11 and under.
A Flower Auction -- Selling flowers and plants nets 1.5 billion euros ($2.4 billion) a year at the Bloemenveiling (Flower Auction), Legmeerdijk 313 (tel. 0297/393-939; www.floraholland.com), in the lakeside community of Aalsmeer, 18km (11 miles) southwest of Amsterdam, close to Schiphol Airport. Every day, the auction sells 19 million cut flowers and two million plants, in 12,000 varieties, from 7,000 nurseries, representing 30% of the trade worldwide. So vast is the auction "house" that 120 soccer fields would fit inside.
Get here early to see the biggest array of flowers in the distribution rooms and to have as much time as possible to watch the computerized auctioning process. The bidding on flowers goes from high to low. Mammoth bidding clocks are numbered from 100 to 1. As many as 1,500 buyers sit in rows in the five auditorium-style auction halls; they have microphones to ask questions and buttons to push to register their bids in the computer. As bunches of tulips, daffodils, whatever, go by on carts, they are auctioned in a matter of seconds. The first bid, which is the first one to stop the clock as it works down from 100 to 1, is the only bid.
The auction is open Monday to Friday from 7 to 11am. Admission is 5€ ($8) for adults, 3€ ($4.80) for children ages 6 to 11, and free for children 5 and under. Connexxion bus no. 172 goes there from outside Amsterdam Centraal Station. By car, take A4/E19 south to the Hoofddorp junction, and then go southeast on N201.
30km (19 miles) N of Amsterdam
Every Friday morning during the long Dutch summer season, a steady parade of tourists arrives to visit the famous cheese market in this handsome, canal-lined town (pop. 94,000), founded in the 10th century. It's quite a show they're on their way to see.
Getting There -- Trains depart at least every hour from Amsterdam Centraal Station to Alkmaar; the ride takes around 35 minutes by fast train, and a round-trip ticket is 12€ ($19). By car from Amsterdam, take A8, N246, N203, and A9 north.
Visitor Information -- VVV Alkmaar is at Waagplein 2, 1811 JP Alkmaar (tel. 072/511-4284; fax 072/511-7513; www.vvvalkmaar.nl), in the center city. The office is open Monday to Friday from 10am to 5:30pm (Apr-Sept Fri from 9am), and Saturday from 9:30am to 5pm.
What to See & Do -- At the Friday morning Kaasmarkt (Cheese Market) in Waagplein, yellow-skinned Edam, Gouda, and Leidse (Leiden) cheeses are piled high on the cobblestone square. The carillon in the 16th-century Waaggebouw (Weigh House) tower showers the streets each hour with tinkling Dutch folk music, accompanying a jousting performance of attached mechanical knights. The square is filled with sightseers, barrel organs, souvenir stalls, and a tangible excitement. White-clad kaasdragers (cheese porters) dart around, wearing colored lacquered straw hats in red, blue, yellow, or green as a sign of which of four sections of their more than 400-year-old guild they belong to. Porters, who are not permitted to smoke, drink, or curse while on duty, are so proud of their standards that every week they post on a "shame board" the name of any carrier who has indulged in profanity or has been late arriving at the auction.
The bidding process is carried on in the traditional Dutch manner of hand clapping to bid the price up or down, and a good solid hand clap to seal the deal. Then, once a buyer has accumulated his lot of cheeses, teams of porters move in with their shiny, shallow barrows and, using slings that hang from their shoulders, carry the golden wheels and balls of cheese to the scales in the Weigh House for the final tally of the bill. The market is held from the first Friday of April to the first Friday of September, from 10am to 12:30pm; art and craft markets piggyback on the cheese market but run longer.
The history of Dutch cheese and how the various cheeses are produced is the theme of the Hollands Kaasmuseum, in the Waaggebouw, Waagplein 2 (tel. 072/511-4284; www.kaasmuseum.nl). It's open mid-March to October Monday to Thursday and Saturday from 10am to 4pm, and Friday from 9am to 4pm; Christmas and New Year holidays from 10am to 4pm; and Easter, Pentecost, and Ascension Day holidays from 10:30am to 1:30pm. Admission is 3€ ($4.80) for adults, 1.50€ ($2.40) for children ages 4 to 12, and free for children 3 and under.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.