Springtime in Holland is the ideal season for cycling, food tasting and tulips. Nick Elvin visits The Hague and the nearby Keukenhof
In the Netherlands, the bike is king of the road, and in the royal city of The Hague, the orange cycle belonging to René Bom undoubtedly wears the crown.
But while our local tour guide's thick-framed lowrider sets him apart from other cyclists, our own bicycles are less rock 'n' roll - the traditional Dutch models, with baskets at the front. They're charming contraptions, but the extra forward weight means they are difficult to control and take some getting used to. Thankfully, much of the centre of The Hague consists of pedestrianised streets and cycle lanes, so keep your wits about you, especially when turning a corner and you'll be all right.
It seems everyone in this cosmopolitan city knows René - the ice cream sellers, the teenagers sitting on walls, the policemen - and as we ride through the home of international peace and justice on this sunny afternoon, he constantly exchanges banter with passers by in a language I still can't fathom, despite numerous trips to Holland.
It's little surprise René is well known. Not only is he a tour guide, but he is also an MC at a number of music festivals in The Hague. He sports dark glasses, handfuls of rings and black attire, has earned the nickname of 'The Night Mayor of The Hague', and knows his way around (he should do - he provides one of the voices for sat nav systems in this part of the world).
René is a personal friend of the Dutch prime minister - he gestures towards his office as we pass it. We cross the cobbled inner courtyard of the parliament buildings (just try getting this close on a Boris Bike in London), and René points out a government minister walking past.
Although there's plenty in the way of anecdotes and architecture, this is in fact a food tasting tour organised by Totzo!, which offers several different excursions through The Hague guided by locals.
We stop at a stall for some fresh, cured, filleted herrings, which we eat in the traditional way (hold it by the tail, tilt your head back, open wide). There's nothing quite like it for a bit of omega-3.
We then head to a shop called De Notenkoning (The Nut King), its counters filled with a dazzling variety of nuts, coated in many different flavours. The store even makes its own peanut butter - that'll go nicely with the bread we pick up at a bakery in a side street.
Next we ride over to the Van Kleef distillery, bar and museum, where bottles containing an array of coloured liquids fill the shelves behind the counter - these turn out to be the various liqueurs, jenevers and whiskies made on site.
Van Kleef has an interesting history. Open since 1842, its past customers include Vincent Van Gogh, who lived nearby in the 1870s. In the early days of the telephone it had the city's easiest-to-remember phone number: 1.
I'd like to try all the flavours on offer, from mandarin to walnut to apple tart; purely for editorial reasons. But, conscious that I'll be riding a heavy bike, on the wrong side of the road, in a city I don't know very well, I keep samples to a minimum.
Later on we stop for a cone at the famous Florencia ice cream parlour, before the tour ends in the Royal Palace Gardens. Despite all the tastings, and the fact we've only done a few kilometres in a flat country, we've all worked up an appetite.
Dinner is a tram ride away in the seaside resort of Scheveningen, where the well-regarded fish restaurant, The Harbour Club overlooks a windswept fishing port. We dine in the softly lit, welcoming interior, where the wood beams give a feeling of being below deck in some old schooner.
As a lover of seafood I'm in paradise. From a list of starters that includes lobster, sushi and gravad lax, I opt for Dutch oysters - which turn out to be some of the best I've tasted. Main course is a difficult choice with the likes of turbot, crayfish and king crab competing for my attention, but the sea bass wins out, served on a bed of crisp potatoes and chorizo. I'm well pleased with it.
The Hague and Scheveningen have a surprising amount to offer, including the Mauritshuis art gallery, home of Vermeer's Girl With The Pearl Earring, as well as Panorama Mesdag, Holland in Miniature at Madurodam, and an annual herring festival (click HERE to read more in an earlier article).
The following day we take the train out to Leiden, then a bus to the Keukenhof, the famous flower garden near Lisse. As we arrive the sheer number of coaches parked outside demonstrates its popularity. I wonder what it might be like at the height of summer. The answer, I'm surprised to learn, is empty. Keukenhof only opens between mid-March and mid-May. Efforts here are focused on spring flowers, as such gardens are relatively rare. In fact it's the largest spring bulb garden in the world. Forty people work here year-round, while 800 are employed during the spring.
Its name meaning "kitchen garden", the Keukenhof started life as the herb garden of the Countess of Holland, Jacoba van Bayeren in the 15th Century. It was redesigned in the 19th Century as a landscape garden for the nearby castle, and was opened in its current form in 1949, after bulb growers had the idea of developing a show garden to exhibit their products to the public and trade. It was a huge success, with 2,500 people visiting in that first year.
Today it welcomes 800,000 visitors each spring. However, that figure is eclipsed by the number of bulbs that are planted across the 32 hectares: seven million. Each autumn it's the job of 30 gardeners to plant these by hand. It's not all about tulips - although there are 4.5 million of these in 1,000 varieties here. Other flowers include crocuses, snowdrops, daffodils and hyacinths.
Each year the garden has a theme. This year it's Germany: Land of Poets and Philosophers, and there are a number of references to Holland's neighbour, including a large floral mosaic in the shape of the Brandenburg Gate, featuring more than 100,000 bulbs. The theme for 2012 is a secret, only to be revealed at the end of the season - which incidentally is May 20, so get here soon!
Unsurprisingly, given the importance of flower exports to the Dutch economy, Keukenhof is surrounded by commercial bulb fields. You can hire bicycles to explore them (cycling is not allowed in the gardens), although another way to see the fields is to go out on the canals that cut through them, aboard so-called ‘whisper boats’. These are driven by electric engines, and are almost silent. They were once used by local gardeners, growers and farmers.
I'm impressed by the work that goes into the garden throughout the year for such a brief period of bloom. Any doubts I had about just how stunning a flower garden could be have vanished among the beds of multicoloured tulips whose hues remind me of strawberries and cream, raspberry ripple, rhubarb and custard, and other delights.
There's nothing like flowers, trees and sunshine for the spirit.
Netherlands Tourist Board: Tel 020 7539 7950, www.holland.com/uk
The Hague Tourist Information: Tel +31 (0)70 361 8802, www.denhaag.com
Where to stay: Paleishotel, Molenstraat 26 (next to the Royal Palace), The Hague, tel +31 (0)70 362 4621, www.paleishotel.nl