Friday, February 22, 2013

Floriade and European Gardens Delight Traveler

Willow and flowering crab trees draped over the canals in Amsterdam. Photo by Jan Carey.
Willow and flowering crab trees draped over the canals in Amsterdam. Photo by Jan Carey.
This frigid weather is giving pause to remember warmer places. Thus, I give you - the Netherlands, Belgium & Paris.

In late April 2012, I was fortunate to become a tour leader for Collette Vacations. My past experience, as Hibbing Community College Study Abroad coordinator, reached the regional rep and he suggested I join the company and create a tour. Of course, I had something in mind. The Chisholm Hibbing Garden Club was investigating a tour to the “Floriade”. The Floriade is a world horticultural expo that occurs once every ten years at a pre-determined location. 

I decided it was the perfect opportunity to use the Collette tour itinerary and whet club members’ gardening appetites. The tour was born. We would experience the Floriade and other gardens along a route through the Netherlands, Belgium and France.

Arrival was Amsterdam. Amsterdam is an amazingly colorful city, in more ways than one. Even though it was late April, the city landscape was lush and green. The willow and flowering crab trees draped over the canals and were magnified in the water’s reflection.

The canals’ floating gardens were already sprouting vegetable plantings. And the city’s floating garden market was boasting amaryllis with 12 inch wide blossoms. They were extraordinary.

Three days in Amsterdam provided a day trip to the Floriade, which was located in Venlo, a small city on the border of Germany. The day at the Floriade was windy, but enjoyable. The exhibits were equal to any World’s Fair Expo experience. The site, which encompasses over 60 acres, is divided into areas representing the hemispheres. Over 300 cultural and green-tech presentations and living cultural exhibitions representing more than 30 countries were on the grounds of the Floriade. Many exhibits and buildings were erected for education and awareness. Alternative energy resources and ideas were very prevalent.

I discovered my favorite exhibit in the woods. It was the “Willow Man.” Will Beckers is an Art-in-Nature artist and sculptor, who specializes in creating “green,” living sculptures, and installations, using living organic material. I felt like I was walking through a primeval forest. It was awe-inspiring and creative while peaceful and surreal.

The group left the Floriade, amazed by the expo and progressive environmental views and actions of Europeans.

But it was onward to another day trip. This one was to the Keukenhof gardens. Every photo you may have seen of the tulips and windmills of the Netherlands is in full display at the Keukenhof gardens. One of the hundreds of photos I took actually won a first place ribbon at the St. Louis County Fair.

Our day was hampered by afternoon rain. However, when surrounded by color, fragrance and perfect garden design and landscape, the weather couldn’t dampen our spirits. Keukenhof should be on everyone’s bucket list.

Driving through the countryside of Belgium was much like driving through Minnesota. Belgium’s farm land and rolling hills were dotted with many wind-turbine farms. (A gentle reminder of what we learned at the Floriade.) The next three days were spent in Brussels.
Brussels, a metropolitan city instilled in history, showcases buildings of grandeur and opulence. It has set aside land for the most beautiful city gardens. Our hotel was perfectly centered near the city’s most historical sections.

While in Brussels our excursions included the Royal Gardens, the Atomium, and the Grand Palace. One day trip included a drive through the Wallonia valley with stops at the Abbey of Maredsous and the village of Namur.

Day trip number two was to Bruges. The city of Bruges, a World Heritage site, was like a step back into medieval times. It is one of Europe’s most perfectly preserved medieval cities. Its canals, foot bridges, buildings, gardens were magical.

We departed Belgium and pleaded for perfect weather as we approached the “City of Lights.”
Paris gave us our final three days. Our free-time provided the usual tourist stops – Notre Dame, the Louvre, Musee D’Orsay, Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Elysees, etc. But our planned day trips were to the Palace of Versailles and Giverny.

This was my fourth trip to Paris and I had not visited Versailles or Giverny. I was very anxious to experience both. Versailles did not fail my anticipation to see its gardens and structures. The Palace of Versailles was the most indulgent, grand, majestic, luxurious building I’d ever seen. However, it was quite difficult to see through the crowds. Perhaps there is no ‘off-season’ for a visit to Versailles, as the entrance wait was long and the number of visitors large, to say the least. We had a scheduled time at group entrance and we still waited nearly two hours. Once we finally entered, we were herded through the palace with thousands of others.
The gardens were not in full array. The spring flowers of tulips, narcissus, and daffodils were waning. But the grounds were immaculate and sculpted to perfection. We left Versailles somewhat dismayed, but knew we would be well-compensated by our next day trip.
Some readers know I am an amateur painter. Thus, you can imagine my fervor to visit Giverny – the home of impressionist French painter, Claude Monet. As the bus drove through quaint villages lining the rivers Epte and Seine, I grew very angst.

We couldn’t get there fast enough. As we crossed the bridge at Vernon and viewed the sailboats at the river’s edge, I realized Monet’s inspirations.

We arrived to perfect blue sky weather. The visitors were plenty. The lines were somewhat long. But any inconvenience was outweighed by the splendor and sites of Giverny. The Japanese bridge, the water garden, Monet’s house and its interior filled with reproductions of his most famous paintings and his collection of Japanese wood-block prints, transformed my creative, artist soul. I was transcendent. I was in another world. Nothing could surpass this. Correct? The same is probably said by anyone who describes personal travel experiences. But this was true for me.

To quote Ray Bradbury, “Half the fun of the travel is the esthetic of lostness.” Netherlands, Belgium and Paris … nothing like it! That is until the next tour.

Jan Carey is a free-lance writer, a traveler, a retired academic librarian and educator. She enjoys scouring antiques stores and estate sales, collecting books, choral singing, playing the piano and painting. She resides in Hibbing, MN, but says her real home is somewhere in the Umbrian hills of Italy.