The Magazine

Dutch Treats

Oh, to be in Holland, now that August’s there .  .  .

Aug 12, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 45 • By SARA LODGE
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For tulip lovers, the place of spring pilgrimage is Keukenhof Gardens, located just outside Leiden on the former estate of a 15th-century countess. After World War II, the land was transformed into a flash-popping fantasy of bulbs. With my lectures over, I duly headed south, passing signs exhorting travelers to “Focus on the Crocus,” and found myself .  .  . back in the 1970s. A mock-Victorian street organ was playing “The Age of Aquarius” in tinny strains; many people were dressed in orange (the Dutch national color); and the extraordinary geometric beds of thousands of pink, yellow, and red tulips, with a backdrop of swans on a lake, formed a Polaroid vista reminiscent of the color-heightened postcards of my childhood. The staff told me that there are 35 gardeners working 12-hour days to create this floral spectacular, which exists for only 8 weeks of the year.  

The first recorded mention of tulips in the West was made by an Austrian ambassador at the Ottoman court in 1555: He mistakenly thought that they were called “tuliban,” after their turban shape. He’d gotten the name wrong (the Turkish word for tulip is “lale”), but it stuck. Tulips quickly became a Dutch craze, such that by 1636 a single prize specimen could fetch up to 100 times the average annual income. 

It was a classic example of bloom and bust: In 1637, the bottom fell out of the market, trading ceased, and hundreds of speculators were ruined.

In the current Keukenhof bulb market, where peach and green-striped amaryllis flourish like surreal gramophone horns and frilly-fringed black and crimson tulips evoke a line of can-can dancers, traders told me that their expanding markets are in Eastern Europe and Asia. There is some irony in this, because Eastern Europe and Asia are where wild tulips originated: in Turkey, the Balkans, and the northern Himalayas. The Netherlands now exports 130 million bulbs annually to Poland.

The ancient university city of Leiden, whose former students and teachers include John Quincy Adams, Henry Fielding, and Albert Einstein, is well worth a visit of several days. Compact and charming, it is a delightful place to wander around, enjoying the elegant 17th-century canal-side brownstone merchants’ houses (so clearly an inspiration for early East Coast American architecture), stooping into antique book and map dealers’ premises, and visiting the many lively beer cellars boasting a vast range of brews, including wheat beers and fruit beers. There are also tempting pastry shops, such as Snijers, selling apple fritters and paasstol, an Easter specialty of raisin dough filled with sweet almond paste. On Fridays, a large canal-side market offers everything from bolts of cloth to bicycle locks to asparagus, chocolate, hair dye, watches, and many different locally made hard cheeses, some of which are in rounds as big as kettle drums.

One attraction, the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, is easily overlooked, but should on no account be missed. Tucked away behind an anonymous door in the oldest datable house in Leiden, it aims to tell the true story of the Pilgrim Fathers’ residence there and the intellectual and practical journey that led to the founding of Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. 

The scholar and antiques-dealer Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs created this resource as a personal project, and it is like no other museum I have ever visited: You can touch all the artifacts, and the history that the museum relates depends on you. Rather than trailing around a succession of signboards and labels, you ask Jeremy questions. Thus, you learn about the Pilgrims and their culture by exploring your own specific interests and ideas. His expertise ensures that the conversation will be both unique and illuminating.

I asked why the Pilgrim Fathers were in Leiden in the first place. Bangs replied that it was partly a matter of personal connections: William Brewster, a diplomat, had been on the Earl of Leicester’s triumphal tour as a young man and knew Leiden well. But Leiden was also more open to foreign workers than most cities: It had suffered population depletion in the 1574 siege against Spain and needed refugees to man its cloth industry. 

The future Americans stayed in Leiden for over a decade, developing their theological ideas and practical skills. And they benefited from the education on offer in a university town. Deacon Samuel Fuller got his medical training by attending dissections; the botanical gardens taught pharmaceutical skills; Miles Standish, garrisoned in the city, was able to attend engineering lectures. Bangs argues that the simplified house-frame distinctive to Plymouth Colony was learned by Standish in Leiden.

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