Keukenhof Gardens offer travellers a kaleidoscope of colour. Credit: Viking.

Expect tulips, culture and cuisine on a Viking cruise to Amsterdam and the Low Countries

Author: Anna Selby

Published on:

A memorable Viking cruise to Amsterdam and
the Low Countries uncovers history, culture – and
tulips in every shade under the sun

Holland in the spring. It’s going to be all about the tulips, right?

Well, yes, green-fingered cruisers certainly won’t be disappointed. But there’s so much more to this Viking voyage through the Low Countries from Antwerp to Amsterdam. There is history, from the Romans to the Second World War.

There is culture and cuisine. And there is beer – definitely plenty of beer.

But let’s start with those blooms. The Keukenhof Gardens are open to the public for no more than a few weeks each year, from late March to mid-May, but during that time they erupt into the largest and most spectacular flower display on earth.

Guests aboard Longships such as Viking Kvasir can enjoy dining alfresco on the Aquavit Terrace. Credit: Viking.

Keukenhof ’s Tulip Festival, featuring more than 800 varieties in every imaginable hue, has its roots in ‘tulipmania’, the extraordinary obsession that gripped Dutch society in the 17th century.

In a classic speculation bubble, the price of a single rare bulb reached six times the average annual salary, equalling the cost of a mansion on the Amsterdam Grand Canal. When the bubble burst, in 1637, many families faced ruin, but judging by the splendour of the Keukenhof Gardens, that hasn’t put the Dutch off their tulips.

For those keen to learn everything there is to know about the country’s most famous flower, this cruise offers an excursion from Hoorn to a working farm where the greenhouses are packed with dazzling blooms.

But that still lies ahead as I board Viking Kvasir in Antwerp, where she’s moored for two days of sightseeing.

Go for a stroll in Antwerp and see sights such as the historic Market Square. Credit: Viking.

Though Brussels is its official capital, Antwerp is the heart and soul of Flanders, Belgium’s northern region.

For centuries the global centre of the diamond trade – they cut their first stone here in 1476 – the city has been a major port for even longer, steadily accumulating wealth from wool, sugar and banking.

Art and architecture flourished meanwhile, and the 17th-century Flemish masters Rubens and Van Dyck both had their studios here.

Today’s legacies of that long golden age include a spectacular gothic cathedral, a cobbled market square surrounded by narrow winding streets and, best of all, some of the world’s finest chocolate shops.

Antwerp is the gateway to the open skies and flatlands of Flanders. Credit: Viking

Casting off from Antwerp, Kvasir then makes her way round the Low Countries, the River Rhine and the Rhine Delta. This is a world of big skies, where birds fly low over flat terrain and the sound of water ripples softly in the wind.

We make our way from tributary to canal to vast lakes enclosed by dams, traversing magnificent locks and admiring the famed Dutch expertise in polders, dams, windmills and land reclamation (60 per cent of The Netherlands is below sea level, sometimes by up to 6 metres, so it’s hardly surprising that the Dutch are world leaders in the technology of keeping water out).

Our first stop is Maastricht, a name familiar to many Brits only because it’s where national leaders met in 1992 for the treaty that turned the European Economic Community into the EU.

Kvasir's staterooms are a relaxing haven of tasteful neutrals. Credit: Viking.

The town turns out to be a delight, one of the oldest in the Netherlands and perfect for a walking tour.

The Market Square is filled with pavement cafes, there’s a Roman basilica, lots of medieval streets, and a bookshop that’s been voted among the top three in the world (housed in a church, it’s a delightful place to while away a morning with gentle browsing).

Maastricht is followed by more Dutch delights – small medieval towns, laced with canals like mini-Amsterdams and surprisingly undamaged by war or development.

Dordrecht, Hoorn and Nijmegen – the oldest city in The Netherlands – are filled with ancient almshouses, museums and convents, with cobbled streets that open into wide squares where everyone can enjoy their coffee and cake in the sunshine.

Vincent van Gogh lived and worked in Neunen in the mid-1880s, and signs of his legacy can be found across the town. Credit: Shutterstock.

You could spend many a happy hour doing exactly that in these charming towns but, of course, there is so much else to see, and many passengers opt for going further afield.

There is a trip to Delft to see (and buy) the fine porcelain that made the city’s name, there are visits to cheesemakers in Gouda, preserved historic coalmines, the enticingly named Heaven’s Brewery (Brouwerij de Hemel) and the town of Nuenen, where you can follow in the footsteps of Vincent Van Gogh.

This is also a region that saw heavy fighting during both world wars, and there are a number of trips that bring that history vividly to life.

Amsterdam is a city of unparalleled cultural treasures. Credit: Shutterstock

One particularly moving excursion takes visitors on ‘Europe’s Journey to Liberation’, telling the story of Operation Market Garden, the 1944 attack that the Allies hoped would shorten the war by capturing key river crossings at Nijmegen, Eindhoven and Arnhem – the latter infamously proving ‘a bridge too far’.

Arriving at Amsterdam, our journey’s end, we find more reminders of that conflict.

There is the Anne Frank Museum, of course, but many other relics of a Jewish population that, before the Holocaust, comprised 10 per cent of a city with a proud tradition of religious tolerance.

Amsterdam is full of treasures, with museums almost too many to count.

If you visit just one, make it the Rijksmuseum with its unparalleled collection of Rembrandts. But the old city centre is a work of art in itself, and an absolute joy to view from the water on a canal cruise.

The windmills of Kinderdijk display a simple yet profound sort of beauty. Credit: Viking.

Canals seem to criss-cross the very soul of The Netherlands, and nowhere more so than at the village of Kinderdijk.

My personal highlight of the voyage, this UNESCO World Heritage Site features no fewer than 19 windmills, all built in the mid-18th century and still standing sentinel over a windswept landscape, flat as an ironing board but a haven for migrating birds and all kinds of wildlife.

You can explore on a bike, as the locals do, or get aboard an old barge, or simply take a stroll. Here, windmill sails beat the air, flocks of geese skim overhead and the river Rhine splinters into its delta, draining Europe’s waters eternally into the North Sea.

We’re only an hour’s flight from London but, with its haunting beauty, this feels like the end of the earth.

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