I landed at Amsterdam&rsquos Schiphol airport on a grey windy spring morning armed with a packed itinerary. I had just four days in the Netherlands and I knew it would be impossible to see each and every sight on offer. Hence with Amsterdam and The Hague as my base I was planning to make forays into nearby towns and villages. That the Netherlands is a beautiful country was evident on my bus ride from the airport. The country is a picture postcard come alive &mdash cute wood and stone cottages, lush meadows and fields as far as the eye can see, contented looking sheep and cows munching grass under the now pleasant morning sun and small canals populated with ducks and swans leading to the dykes in the far horizon.
Pretty soon I saw a sight familiar to fans of Yash Chopra movies &mdash acres of tulips in colours ranging from flaming reds to delicate peaches. The tulips bloom in the fields in the months of April and May. The weather, of course, cannot hinder the industrious Dutch, who grow tulips and other flowers throughout the year in the many glasshouses that dot the landscape. So it comes as no surprise that the Netherlands is responsible for two-thirds of the world&rsquos flower exports, much of which is routed through the Aalsmeer flower auction. The auction, my first stop, is one of the biggest in the country and is spread over 5,88,000 square metres. Roughly 20 million cut flowers and two million house and garden plants are auctioned off each day and that too by eleven in the morning. The cooling and sorting rooms are a blur of activity as hundreds of men and women rush around on mechanised trolleys, in sharp contrast to the reverential stillness of the computerised auction halls as the bidding opens for each lot of flowers.
While Aalsmeer was about business, the Keukenhof gardens showcase the beauty of the flowers. Located near Lisse, around 18km from Amsterdam, the gardens date back to the 15th century but owe their current form as an English garden to the work of the landscape artist Zocher in 1857. Keukenhof is gorgeous. Dedicated to the tulip, the 32-hectare garden has these flowers in every size, colour and shape, set in intricate designs among its trees, shrubs and lawns. Other spring flowers like hyacinths, narcissus and daffodils compete for attention. I would have loved to spend the rest of the day strolling along the streams and sitting idly on the benches, thoughtfully strewn around the park, but our busy schedule insisted I do my dawdling among the canals and coffee shops of Amsterdam instead. There are worse fates.
The next day we reached The Hague in the afternoon. News had reached us that the Crown Princess had just had her third baby girl. At the city palace the guards beamed at us and let us into the palace&rsquos main hall. After admiring the photograph of the new princess we signed the guest book and trooped out again. I was in a hurry. I was in the city for one reason, to meet someone. So I proceeded to the cosy Mauritshuis. As I walked from one grand room to another, I kept my eyes peeled. And then I saw her. The blue turbaned girl was looking straight at me over the heads of the thirty or so men and women who had crowded into the small room. Her luminous skin, softly parted lips and innocent eyes demanded complete attention. Her eyes seemed to beckon me over and I&rsquom sure that the six people standing in a semicircle in front of her were drawn by the same all-seeing eyes. In fact she has enraptured people for decades and yet no one knows her name. She is simply called the Girl With a Pearl Earring and happens to be my favourite painting. The museum also houses another Vermeer, View of Delft, and some 16 Rembrandts, apart from paintings by Rubens, Van Dijck and Jordaens. I could have admired the Girl forever, but we were hustled out again.
The third day dawned bright and sunny and I started for Delft. By now I had come to expect only picturesque towns in the country and Delft did not disappoint. There were the usual scenic canals, a colourful weekly market, beautiful houses and even a lovely old church with a leaning tower. But Delft is most famous for its white porcelain pottery, with hand-painted drawings in Delft blue ink. The Royal Delftware Factory is the only remaining 17th-century factory producing the famous pottery. The building, partly made of building ceramics, consists of a museum and a showroom along side the actual factory floor. The museum has antique Delft blue, black and polychrome vases, plates and tiles. There is also a floor-to-ceiling replica of Rembrandt&rsquos famous painting, The Night Watch.
The last day of the trip was the most hectic. So starting early, we went to the open-air museum-village of Zaanse Schans. While the recreated 17th-18th century Dutch village &mdash with its windmills, charming wooden houses, cheese and wooden shoe factories and old-world storehouses &mdash is very beautiful, it feels more like a theme park than a real living village. The steam train that we took from Hoorn, our next stop, was also a commercial venture but was very exciting. The train ponderously passed by tulip fields and secluded villages and we received a constant supply of fresh raisin bread with cheese and the country&rsquos famous poffertjes from the pantry. And when they let me travel in the steam engine I was in rail-enthusiast heaven. The train dropped us off at Medemblik, yet another pretty town.
As we made our way to De Blije Blick for lunch, we passed some stylish middle-class houses. As in other towns, the windows were un-curtained but each house had unique window decorations some were adorned with pieces of art, others with vases of flowers. De Blije Blick was a small one-chef establishment right alongside a canal. The food was simple and excellent, like most of the meals we had eaten in the Netherlands. Our meal comprised of a lightly cooked white fish in mushroom sauce with a helping of salad and a plate of spongy poffertjes with ice cream. During the course of my trip I had eaten a lot of salmon and tuna, all extremely fresh and perfectly cooked. The portions had been large and the food unpretentious but tasty. After lunch we made our way to Volendam, a harbour town. Here my travel companions did their souvenir shopping while I admired the many sailboats moored at the harbour.
Then it was back to Amsterdam. It was Friday, so the crowds were out. I went to Stadhouderskade 25 opposite the city&rsquos Hard Rock Café, to board a glass-domed wooden boat for my canal cruise. As the captain steered us through some of the 167 canals of the city, we were served salmon with chicken liver påté, grilled turkey in mushroom sauce and ice cream. From the boat&rsquos windows I saw Amsterdam from a different, more intimate, perspective. We could look right into the houseboats, some of them furnished with floor to ceiling bookshelves. We witnessed parties unfolding in the numerous canal houses diners at a restaurant greeted us as we passed by. We sailed under numerous lighted bridges and passed many candle-lit smaller boats that silently made way for our bigger vessel. After a hectic four days of travelling it was perfect to end the trip on a slow cruise boat, laughing and sharing stories with fellow-travellers, joining in on the various parties if only for a moment as we passed by windows and raising our own glasses of wine to toast the happy people of Amsterdam.
Getting there KLM Royal Dutch Airways connects New Delhi and Amsterdam daily. Economy fares start at Rs 37,000 including taxes.
Where to stay
In Amsterdam The NH Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky (from 229 euros 31-20-5549111,www.nh-hotels.com) is a heritage hotel located in the historic Dam Square. The Crown Plaza Schiphol (from 140 euros 23-5650000,www.ichotelsgroup.com) is closer to the airport.
In The Hague The Grand Winston (from 80 euros 70-4141500,www.grandwinston.nl) is a classy business hotel.
What to do & see
The tariff for a two-hour dinner cruise, in a glass domed motor launch, on Amsterdam&rsquos canals is around 70 euros, which includes a four-course dinner and wine. There are a number of operators, including Grayline Amsterdam Tours (20-6239886, www.grayline.com) and Blue Boat Company (6791370). It&rsquos best to reach the Aalsmeer auction (02-97393939, www.aalsmeer.com) around 7am. The fee is 5 euro per adult a guided tour will cost 75 euros. The Keukenhof gardens (13 euro per head 25-2465555, www.keukenhof.nl) are open between end-March and mid-May. The Mauritshuis Museum (9.50 euros 70-3653819, www.mauritshuis.nl) in The Hague has a rich collection of paintings. The entrance fee for the Royal Delftware Factory (15-2512030, www.royaldelft.com) is 4.50 euros. Guided packages cost euro s12-18. A tour of Zaanse Schans (6.50 euros 75-6162862, www.zaanseschans.nl). The Hoorn to Medemblik steam train (18 euros 229-214862, www.museumstoomtram.nl), dates from 1926. You can link this trip with a boat ride between Medemblik and Enkhuizen.