What to do with the rest of the day when you have stumbled off the plane to Amsterdam at 7 a.m, found the hotel, dozed off in the lobby for a few minutes and then must wait until your room is ready? The answer: visit the Hortus Botanicus, one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world. But, how to get there? Should I walk? Grab a cab? I stared groggily at the map, with its great circles of canals. "Take street car #9" said the kindly concierge. "You can see it from here. It's just across the square." In fact, it was a snap. The sleek blue and white car glided in and swept me away to the Hortus Botanicus where I spent a happy, if drowsy afternoon, finding old friends and meeting new ones.
After an epidemic of the plague, in 1638, the Amsterdam City Council founded a medicinal herb garden where doctors and pharmacists could gather herbs and study for their prescriptions. The Dutch East India Company supplied herbs, spices and exotic plants from around the world.
The Hortus has been at its present site since 1682. Although small, only 1.2 hectares, it offers more than 6000 plants, and seven greenhouses, each with a different climate. It also acts as a kind of floral Noah's ark, preserving threatened species and exchanging seeds with other botanical gardens. There are many old and rare trees, a 300-year-old giant cycad from South Africa, the spectacular water lily Victoria amazonica and descendants of the first coffee plants brought to Europe.
Although it was late September, there was still plenty to see: immaculate box gardens, a nervous-looking Mexican Agave - I hoped they were going to move it into the Palm House soon for the winter. There was a "Dune bed" filled with plants to endure the Netherlands' "dynamic environment" of sea, wind and rain.
I wandered further to the Desert Greenhouse, with plants from Mexico and California. The public is not allowed into the Propagation Greenhouse - in case we'd embarrass the cuttings? It was hard to tell the butterflies from the flowers in the Butterfly house. I tried to take a picture, but the gorgeous flitting creatures wouldn't stay still, and my camera lens objected to the sudden steam bath.
There was a rock garden stuffed with plants, mistletoe lurking at the bottom of a tree, ready to destroy it, the versatile Chinese Scholar Tree (Japonica). Its wood is used for furniture, its bark for yellow paint, the leaves and pods make a poisonous compound that prepares opium. I edged past a bed of carnivorous plants: Active - Venus Fly Trap, sundew and butterwort, like fly paper - Passive - pitcher plants which act like a lobster trap. A gang of nature's villains, quietly sitting there. Waiting.
It's foolish, I know, but I always feel nervous in tropical greenhouses in case a snake slithers out from the domestic jungle of lianas and orchids. Coiled black hoses didn't help this paranoia. It was time to visit the Coffee Box in the Orangery (1875) for a soothing pastry, and naturally, a cup of coffee.
Another day another Hortus. Exhausted after a 3 hour walking tour "In the Steps of young Rembrandt," (he was born and grew up here before departing for Amsterdam at twenty-six) I tottered along the street to Leiden's botanical garden, part of the University, located behind a former cloister of White Nuns.
The Laburnum (Golden Chain) at the entrance dates from 1601. Nice to think that it might possibly have been planted by Carolus Clusius, the eminent botanist, brought to Leiden in the 1590s to set up a Hortus medicus, but he surprised everyone by starting a Hortus botanicus instead.
I crossed the bridge leading to the gardens and began to explore. Leiden also has an Orangerie (1740-44) where shivering subtropical plants survive the winter. There are more than 250 tub plants, many historic.
I came to a tropical greenhouse but was told I couldn't take pictures, because a photo shoot was in progress. I went behind the scene at the back and saw the model, a dazzling blue and yellow bird. "What is it?" I asked. "An Ara from Brazil. It's a big brother of the parrot." The photographs were to be part of a pamphlet about research at the University of Leiden, the first university founded in the Netherlands in 1575. Descartes attended school here, as did John Adams. Boswell was supposed to, but it wasn't lively enough for him, so he headed for Utrecht instead. Further along there is the Von Siebold Memorial Japanese Zen garden, with a tea-house and ferns everywhere.
Next to the Hortus, along the street, and down an alleyway is Clusius' garden. A step back in time, it constitutes a shrine for tulip-lovers, because he was among the first to cultivate them in Europe. It was reconstructed in 1990, following the original plan: four squares, rectangular flower beds, 1,000 plants. Astonishingly, after several centuries, they brought back the pavilion, the fence around the bulbs and the pyramid-shaped climbing frames, "It was much more difficult to find the exact original plants."
The mini-town of Schiphol is an experience in itself. People from Amsterdam take their children out for the day to watch the planes landing and departing, play in the imaginative children's playrooms, shop and eat in restaurants both up and downscale and admire more than 80 pieces of modern art sprinkled throughout the Schiphol Plaza.
One benefit of checking in to the airport far in advance is that it leaves time to have a "Back to Life" Chair Massage, gamble in the Casino, doze in the thousands of "snooze chairs" or pick up those last minute diamonds, Delft porcelain, Gouda cheese and genever in the See Buy Fly section. You can even treat yourself to a shower at the Mercure Terminal Hotel.
WCs are usually a necessity rather than a tourist attraction, but at Schiphol they are a destination in themselves. One features a beach scene with the soothing sound of waves and sea gulls; another's theme simulates an Amsterdam canal house. Best of all, visit the free mini-Riksmuseum up above the Gift shop, with a wall of changing exhibitions and masterpieces by Rembrandt, Steen and de Hooch.
Mary Alice Downie writes for Kingston Life Magazine and contributes to Fifty-five Plus, Good Times, Forever Young and many other magazines as well as a food blog, 'Edible Souvenirs' on the website
kingstonlife.ca. She is the author of 28 books for children and adults.
Mary Alice Downie
Courtesy, Netherlands Board of Tourism
If you go
KLM flies to Amsterdam from Toronto and Montreal: http://www.klm.com/travel/klm_splash/splashpage.html
Amsterdam, Netherlands Board of Tourism: http://www.holland.com/amsterdam/
Amsterdam Tourism: www.amsterdamtourist.nl/en/home/Amsterdam+Hidden+Treasures.aspx
Schiphol Airport: http://www.schiphol.nl/Homepage/Homepage.htm
Hortus Botanicus: www.dehortus.nl
Hortus Botanicus: www.hortusleiden.nl
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