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Tulip’s the season to pedal the Netherlands

By Julie Hatfield and Timothy Leland
Globe Correspondents / October 3, 2010

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HAARLEM, Netherlands — You see them from the air as you fly into Amsterdam. Multicolored bar codes, brilliantly striped.

You see them in bicycle baskets, carried home on some of the 600,000 bikes in Amsterdam.

You see them draped like necklaces over the front grills of buses and baby carriages.

You see them piled on the tops of family cars, a celebratory ornament, not at all funereal.

And, if you happen to be in Haarlem on the night of the spring festival parade, you will see hundreds of thousands of them in every possible color, meticulously attached to huge motorized floats moving through the streets behind blaring bands.

Tulips. They’re synonymous with the Netherlands, so important that when a new variety is developed, one that shows a distinct trait, the growers hold a ceremony to make the name official.

There is a tulip named for a beer — the “Coors’’ tulip, exalting the US brewing family whose corporate colors happen to be red and white. (“Having a tulip named for our family is quite an honor,’’ said Holly Coors, who sprinkled the namesake blossom with champagne in the traditional “christening’’ ceremony.) There is the “Rembrandt’’ in the rich colors used by the famous artist; the “Audrey Hepburn,’’ the “Hillary Clinton,’’ and thousands of others of this botanical gem that arrived here from Turkey in the 16th century.

Legend has it that the first Dutchman who saw a tulip bulb mistook it for an onion and ate it, tossing the rest into his tiny vegetable garden. (Under Nazi occupation at the end of World War II, the Dutch ate many tulip bulbs in order to survive the “hunger winter.’’) Today, 40,000 acres — the equivalent of nearly 1,700 Boston Public Gardens — are devoted to growing tulips in this country.

For anyone biking here in spring, they are a stunning sight: rows and rows of brilliant reds, pinks, purples, and yellows crossing the countryside in military precision.

And there is another thing that hits you as you pedal through the countryside: the fragrance. In addition to tulips, the Dutch grow fields and fields of hyacinths, one of the most sweetly scented flowers in the world. You smell them well before you see them, an overpowering perfume that has an almost palpable presence.

The Netherlands presents Europe’s most spectacular landscape for visitors at tulip time, but — for travelers on two wheels — there is something else especially appealing about the country: Its bike paths are among the flattest in the world.

If you think you are too old, too weak, or too stiff to bicycle in Europe, you haven’t experienced biking in the Netherlands. It’s as flat as a Dutch pancake. You almost feel like you’re biking downhill, especially if you’re pedaling a $2,000 Cannondale with 27 gears provided by Austin-Lehman Adventures.

Like most touring companies, Austin-Lehman takes your luggage and leaves you to bike the countryside unencumbered. (Accommodations range from small harborside inns to elegant, historic chateaus.)

Because nearly everyone in the Netherlands owns a bike, the country is crisscrossed by thousands of miles of bike trails — and they’re almost all paved, smooth, and scenic. We have biked in France, Italy, Spain, and Austria, and these are the best trails we’ve ever ridden.

On this trip they took us through gentle coastal sand dunes, through dark hardwood forests, along the tops of the ever-present canal dikes, and into charming little villages, where we frequently stopped for a lunch of freshly baked bread and an assortment of famous Dutch cheeses. (Some of the gourmands in our group ordered the equally famous smoked eel sandwiches, a Dutch specialty requiring a more adventurous stomach.) Midafternoon brought a coffee break with another Dutch treat: warm, puffy “poffertiejs’’ — silver-dollar-sized pancakes buried in powdered sugar.

The best time to see tulips in bloom here is the last week in April. That’s also the best time to see the large variety of migrating birds that are attracted to the country’s wetlands. The canals are full of green-headed mallards, hooded mergansers, black scaup with the characteristic white headbands, and pink-billed greylag geese. Black-headed laughing gulls and squabbling terns feed in the waters of the bays.

We biked past lush green fields full of nesting swans, stretching their long white necks to pull out clumps of tasty grass like grazing cows. Magpies flashed back and forth, their black and white plumage resembling flying whoopie pies.

But the best bird-watching of all took place in the stork refuge located on the premises of the luxurious Chateau de Havixhorst where we stayed on the fifth night of our trip. A pair of the delightful ungainly birds had built their nest of twigs on top of the chateau’s chimney, where the characteristic click-clack of their red bills woke us in the morning sounding like Spanish castanets.

In all, we biked 172 miles through four provinces. We visited the storybook village of Giethoorn, known as the “Venice of Holland,’’ where the vehicles are boats and the streets are canals. Pretty thatch-roofed houses looked out on humpback bridges that were a challenge to cross on bikes.

We biked by “hunebedden’’ — megalithic tombs from the 3d century BC — and underground forest hiding places used by Jews during the occupation.

We inspected the inside of a working windmill, climbing the narrow stairs to the top floor, where the gears creaked and squealed as the blades turned in the wind. We spent an afternoon at the Franz Hals Museum, repository of some of the world’s finest art.

In the end, at least for us, everything came back to the tulips. And the world center of tulips is Keukenhof Gardens, on the outskirts of Haarlem.

Picture 4.5 million tulips in 100 varieties, and many other spring flowers among them, scattered over beautifully planted asymmetrical beds amid tall trees and stunning sculptures.

Keukenhof boasts that it is “the most beautiful spring garden in the world,’’ and we certainly would never dispute it. Everyone from the babies in strollers to the disabled in wheelchairs enjoys the sights and smells of this special place, which is why the guides had trouble getting us back on our bikes for the ride to our hotel. Those of us who purchased bulbs in the store at the gate will be able to relive the sight of these gorgeous flowers when they burst into bloom in our home gardens next spring.

Julie Hatfield and Timothy Leland can be reached at tim@thelelands.net.

If You Go

Austin-Lehman Adventures
(Based in the United States)
800-575-1540 406-655-4591
www.austinlehman.com
Eight days, 7 nights, $2,998 per person.
Tulip Cycling Co.
(Based in the Netherlands)
011-31-33-2460040
011-31-6-51303909
www.tulipcycling.com
Prices vary according to needs in self-guided tours.