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Thursday, 8 May 2014

Dutch Bulbfields

Day 1

What a ridiculous time of day to be getting up for work! My alarm was set for 3:15am but I was already awake. I never sleep very well before such an early start, I think because I'm worried about oversleeping! I arrived at work at 4am, drove round the yard and couldn't find my coach. I must have had my eyes shut because I drove past it twice before finding it on the third lap! All our passengers arrived in good time and after two more pick ups, we were on our way to Dover.

It was an easy journey down to kent with a flying visit in the services en route. We checked in at port in good time and sailed on our booked ferry at 1015 to Calais. We'd told the passengers that the most civilised way to travel on the ferry is to pay for the first class lounge or have a silver service breakfast in the brasserie, to find out once we had boarded ship, that we were on the only ship on the fleet to not have either and so they would have to suffer the riffraff!

It was 1pm local time when we disembarked and with a good journey, we had a 4 1/2hr drive to our hotel, just north of Amersfoort, Holland. We stopped at services for a 45min break before ploughing on again and didn't make bad time, arriving at the hotel at 1830. I was exhausted! Everyone checked in while I unloaded the luggage. Passengers disappeared off to their rooms. Then I was informed that the hotel was fully booked and they didn't have a room for me!! I wasn't impressed! After stamping my feet and making some phone calls I realised I was fighting a losing battle and had to go with it. After dinner, which was very well received, I was shipped out to a hotel a 15min drive away where I had a lovely room which I didn't appreciate because I crashed out and slept a solid 9hrs until morning!

Day 2

At 7:15am, a taxi, laid on by the hotel, picked me up to take me back for breakfast with my group and the hotel I would now be staying in for the duration. Everyone was pleased to see me and said they had felt sorry that I had that to deal with after such a long day driving, but I was feeling bright as a button now and ready for another day, but no one had best try to fight me today!

Today we are off to Keukenhof, also known as the 'Garden of Europe'. It is the worlds largest flower garden, situated near Lisse, south-west of Amsterdam. According to the official website of the park, approximately 7 million flower bulbs are planted every year, covering an area of 32 hectares.

Keukenhof is sited on 15th century hunting grounds. Jacqueline, Countess of Hainaut's Castle, (which is the source of the name 'Keukenhof'), used it as a source of herbs for the castle kitchens. Rich merchants took over the grounds after the death of the Countess. In the 19th century, the Baron and Baroness Van Pallandt assigned the landscape architect Jan David Zocher and his son Louis Paul, to design the grounds around the castle. The gardens were established in 1949 by the then-mayor of Lisse. The idea was to present a flower exhibit where growers from all over the Netherlands and Europe could show off their hybrids, and help the Dutch export industry (the Netherlands is the world's largest exporter of flowers). 

Keukenhof features a variety of different gardens and garden styles, with many displays of individual countries and doesn't contain the picture postcard views of long fields of tulips which many visitors expect.

However, there are many tulip fields in the surrounding area and if you are lucky enough to be in the area at the time of year the tulips are showing colour before harvest (about a 10 day window), then a drive around the countryside would be well worth it. Today however, we are too late in the year to see this sight as harvest has already taken place.

This afternoon there is the Parade of Flowers and it finishes at Keukenhof. From what I understand, it is similar to our harvest festival and is a celebration of a successful flower crop. I can imagine it is quite a sight. Due to the parade, there are a ridiculous number of coaches here today, I'd hate to guess how many hundreds. You can hardly move just inside the main entrance to the garden but it eases off slightly as you go further in.

I hate being in crowds of people like that, so after a hot dog swiftly followed by an ice cream, I went for a kip on the coach. It's going to be stupidly busy watching the parade as well and all the roads will be closed until it's finished so I hate to think how long it is going to take us to get out of here! I hope the passengers are enjoying today more than I am!

I was right! Still too many visitors at the parade! The Annual Flower Parade follows a 40km route from Noordwijk to Haarlem.

(Image taken from Google)

The parade is comprised of about 20 large floats and more than 30 decorated luxury cars, interspersed with marching bands.

(Image taken from Google)

It was estimated to take about 50 mins for the parade to pass Keukenhof and I was expecting a real street party atmosphere as it came by, largely due to the high volume of spectators. This was not the case. No matter how hard the street entertainers, bands and people on the floats tried to get people involved, there was no clapping, cheering or waving. People just stood almost in silence and took some photos! It was quite disappointing really, although the floats were magnificent.

(Image taken from Google)

The parade was nearing the end when everything came to a stand still while sirens went through the parade. There had been some sort of accident which had brought everything to a stop while it was dealt with. It was about 20mins before things were resumed and the last of the floats passed us by.

We found out there had been 60,000 visitors to Keukenhof today and the section of parking I was in had 1,000 coaches! Needless to say, we weren't quick in leaving! It took half an hour before I could even move my coach out of the bay into the queue because there was a delay in opening the roads. 

(Image taken from Google)

Once I was in the queue for the exit it took another half an hour to get onto the road! Once we were out, we had an easy journey back to the hotel, although we had to push our dinner time back by half an hour because we were so late.

I was relieved to be handed a room key when we arrived at the hotel along with a plate of Belgian chocolate truffles and chocolate coffee beans. I did think that they would have put my case in my room though but no, fetch your own Neen! We had a nice, although quite basic meal and I had complimentary wine from the manager as way of apology for not having a room for me the previous night. I think I should be having complimentary wine all week! Our hotel is in a lovely position, next to a marina on a lake. It was lovely to watch the sunset from the restaurant.

After taking a photo I went straight to my room after another very long, yet successful day.

Day 3

This morning, I have let everyone have a lie in, because I want one! I got up at 8am and went for breakfast half an hour later, where I was greeted by one of our group having a tantrum because someone was sat in 'his' seat and what was I going to do about it? Nothing! I was going to do nothing! There were plenty of other seats available either with or without company and I really couldn't see what all the fuss was about!

We left the hotel at 10am, today's destination, Amsterdam. We had arranged for the group to go on a boat trip if they wanted to. I dropped them off at the end of the Daamrak and walked the 'boaters' over to the pier. The boat trips around the canals of Amsterdam is one of the best ways to see the city and the commentary is always very informative and the guides, usually, in good humour. They paid their money, got on the boat and I waved them off. Then I had to take the coach out of town to park and catch the tram back in.

Although I have been to Amsterdam before I have never been here for long enough to be able to go for a look around and neither had my courier. First we found a little street/canal side cafe where we had coffee. My courier couldn't understand the menu and I had to explain it was the cannabis and magic mushroom menu! She was horrified! That amused me! 

Coffeeshops AmsterdamCoffeeshops in Holland are allowed to sell small amounts of cannabis and are strictly regulated and taxed. Furthermore, coffeeshops must not sell to anyone under 18 and they must not sell more than 5g to any customer. Hard drugs are strictly prohibited.

We walked on and came across the red light district. My courier was wearing stupidly high heeled shoes and was struggling to walk on the cobbles and so was looking at the ground. When I told her to look left and she saw girls in underwear in the windows of individual rooms, set out like shops, beckoning men inside and touting for business, she was dumbstruck! Her reaction was hilarious! Considering she is well travelled and supposedly quite worldly, I was surprised at how prudish she was being.

Amsterdam is one of the greatest small cities in the world. From its canals to world-famous museums and historical sights, Amsterdam is one of the most romantic and beautiful cities in Europe.

Amsterdam is also a city of tolerance and diversity. It has all the advantages of a big city: culture, nightlife, international restaurants, good transport - but is quiet, and largely thanks to its extensive canals, has little road traffic. In Amsterdam your destination is never far away, but get a bike for an authentic local experience.

We had another coffee before catching the tram back to the coach and going to collect the group. We were due to be picking up at 4pm. All the pick up bays are marshalled because it gets so busy and at 3:58pm, with me missing 2 people, the Marshall told me to leave, I had been there long enough! So the courier was thrown off the coach and left to wait for our remaining passengers on the side of the street. Little did I know, the two lovely ladies I was waiting for were on a city sightseeing bus over the road but the doors had jammed and they couldn't get off! So when they saw me drive away they had several moments of panic! I drove round the block and came back to pick them up. They were so apologetic but it wasn't their fault and I had been moved on early. Some of the passengers had made them feel quite uncomfortable for being late and my lovely ladies were still fretting about it at dinner, wanting to buy me a drink for the inconvenience and worrying what others had been saying. I managed to put their mind at rest without taking a drink from them. There was no need when the hotel was still giving me free wine to try to compensate for not having a room for me!

Everyone thoroughly enjoyed their day, once again, and we had another nice meal. I disappeared straight after dinner and slept like a log.

Day 4

Another lie in this morning and no dramas at breakfast! I drank too much coffee and was having a severe caffeine rush. Luckily it cleared before we went out at 10am for today's excursion to Volendam.

I told the group that I had arranged a visit for them this morning on the way into Volendam and that it was a surprise! I had booked them in at cheese and clogs. We arrived at the cheese farm, which is very well set up for coach groups, where we received a very warm welcome from the owner. Everyone was ushered into a room where they had a short cheese making demonstration before going through to the shop for tasting and buying!

There were more than 20 different kinds of cow, goat and sheep cheese to try. A lot of my group were buying cheese and soon, the coach locker was half full of the stuff!

From there, everyone moved on into another little room for a short explanation on clog making and the opportunity to buy clogs. Some of my passengers bought clogs, I think with the intention of using them for plant pots! Everyone got back on the coach while I was taken back into the shop and given some free cheese. Very nice cow cheese with herbs, yummy!

We then moved on to the pretty little fishing village of Volendam. The sun was shining, it was a beautiful day and we were going to the right place to have a long leisurely lunch by the harbour and to sit and watch the world go by. Only problem was, the rest of holland had the same idea making it quite a challenge to drive round the harbour to the coach park, avoiding shop canopies and street side displays as well as tourists in the middle of the road who can't hear my coach 2 inches behind them!

Volendam, the old fishing village at the IJsselmeer, offers costumes, music, and of course fish. The village is characterized by countless little houses around the small fishing port.

The first thing you should do on your trip to Volendam is to wander through the streets and enjoy the town’s lively atmosphere. Walk along the dike, churches and old center. After that, maybe have your picture taken in Dutch traditional costume. The traditional costumes are sill worn on folkloric events. Thirdly, you should ask for the Volendam ‘Palingsound' (‘eel sound’) Some of the most famous Dutch singers and musicians were born and bred in this small fishing village.

Everybody had said what a beautiful little place this was and how they had enjoyed a relaxing day. On the journey home I took them for a bit of a scenic drive before arriving back at the hotel shortly after 5pm. There was a little fuel station next door to the hotel so I went to see if I could fit under the canopy and ask the owner if he minded me filling the coach. He was chuffed to bits and probably put more fuel in my tank than he had sold all week! He gave me a coffee while I was waiting and some chocolates then asked if my water tanks needed filling and gave me another coffee while I waited for him to do that. I made his day! The coach was now ready for tomorrow's journey home.

Dinner this evening was the best meal of the week, although I've enjoyed every meal which has been served. Once again I disappeared after dinner and went to bed. There is no chance of a lie in tomorrow!

Day 5

We left the hotel at 8:30 this morning, homeward bound. We don't have enough time today to visit anywhere because once again, we are chasing a ferry. We had a quick stop at motorway services then for our second comfort break we called in at P&J's Chocolate Factory which is just outside of Oostende. The passengers seemed to prefer stopping here rather than another motorway service area. There is a little coffee shop and lots of Belgian chocolates were bought. I was given a free box of chocolates for taking my people in.

Our next stop was Calais Port. We were the only coach at passport control so we sailed through that very quickly and checked in on time for our booked sailing at 1520hrs. We were driving past the French customs area where you don't usually see a soul, and a man jumped out in front of me and told me to park at the side. Then he saw my passengers in the front few rows and said, "you have all old people?" To which the answer was yes, although I prefer to say 'further progressed in years' than old! The French official quickly changed his mind and sent us on our way, we weren't going to be searched after all!

We had a smooth sailing on the most modern ship on the fleet, 'Spirit of France' and arrived back in the UK. We had a relatively easy journey back to the midlands and arrived half an hour before schedule at 2030hrs.

I have thoroughly enjoyed this tour, as well as all the group. My passengers have been lovely and I have enjoyed working with this particular courier again. I can't pick out one day as being any better than the others, it has been brilliant from start to finish, although a bit hectic and tiring at times. In my opinion, this tour has been a complete success and I have brought home some very happy people.