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Cruising once-in-a-decade flower show the Floriade - what to expect

Author: Anna Selby

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We cruised to the Low Countries with Viking to visit the world-famous international horticulture exhibition the Floride in the Netherlands.

It’s Spring. It’s Amsterdam. It must be tulips, right? Of course, the cruises to see the tulips fields are some of the most popular river cruises available but this year, there’s rather more to see.

There’s the Floriade. This once-in-a-decade event is a bit like the Chelsea Flower Show – but on steroids.

In fact, it’s so much more than just a flower show. There are outdoor concerts, a restaurant with a Michelin-starred chef, children’s events, an arboretum, lakes with floating artwork, street food from around the world. So, it’s not really a flower show at all, it’s an EXPO. And it’s an EXPO with a theme – how to make our cities greener.

However, if the Floriade was the high spot of this cruise onboard Viking’s Kvasir, it was also the grand finale and there were lots of other fascinating highlights along the way.

Kvasir (in case you’re wondering) may not have been one of the most famous of the Norse gods but he was the “Keeper of Knowledge” – appropriately enough on a trip like this where you learn a lot!

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The ship was to make its way around the Low Countries, to give them their historical name. We would be taking in Belgium, Holland and a little bit of North Germany, the area where the River Rhine becomes the Rhine Delta and spills into the sea. We went from tributary to canal to vast lakes (enclosed by dams) and, of course, the Rhine itself.

There were numerous rather magnificent locks but the biggest feat of engineering was, of course, the Dutch system of polders, dams, windmills and land reclamation – this is a country which has 60 percent of its area below sea level, sometimes by up to 6 metres!

- READ MORE: Where to visit on a Rhine cruise -

We began, though, in Antwerp. Flanders is a county, a region and a language of northern Belgium whose official capital (and the country’s) is Brussels. Its unofficial capital, however, is Antwerp, the heart and soul of Flemish culture.

It’s still the world’s diamond centre and already had 40 percent of the trade by the start of the 16th century (they cut their first diamond here in 1476). It was a major port by the 13th century dealing in wool, sugar and banking and with prosperity came the rise of the arts (think Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Duke), printing, architecture and religion.

There’s a stunning Gothic cathedral, a cobbled market square with narrow winding streets and lots and lots of chocolate shops (they produce 172,000 tons of the guilty pleasure annually).

Antwerp is the heart and soul of Flemish culture. Credit: Viking

Flemish is very similar to Dutch and it was Holland we were heading to next, specifically to the pretty town of Maastricht in the south of the country. This is the first of several Dutch towns, all with medieval (or far earlier) origins that escaped damage in the war.

As a result, they are picture perfect with vast squares (drinking coffee or beer and people watching are the favourite Dutch pastimes), beautiful architecture, cobbled streets, canals and boats everywhere.

Our cruise took in several of these picturesque towns. Nijmegen, for instance, is the oldest city in the Netherlands, established in the first century BC by the Romans. It has Roman and medieval museums and, appropriately enough for this country, the Velorama, a museum devoted to bicycles. And those bicycles are everywhere – only the foolhardy step onto the street without checking bikes approaching usually at the speed of the Tour de France!

- READ MORE: Best river cruises for families in 2022 -

Dordrecht – another picturesque Dutch town – is surrounded by water and linked by bridges, a mini-Amsterdam with tall gabled houses (many leaning perilously), quirky corners with alms houses and museums. Today, as on most days, some passengers opt for going much further afield.

There is an all-day trip to Delft to see the fine porcelain, visits to the cheesemakers of Gouda or the greenhouses where the famous tulip bulbs are grown. There is something for everyone: long-disused coal mines; Van Gogh’s life and work in his homeland; the many sites associated with World War II; the world-famous Keukenhof Gardens; and how to enjoy Dutch beer.

You could enjoy some in the cafés of Hoorn, yet another Dutch delight, with a harbour guarded by a fort. It became immensely wealthy as one of the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company. It gave its name to Cape Horn and its symbol (both a hunting horn or the horn of a unicorn) can be seen all over the town.

Nijmegen, for instance, is the oldest city in the Netherlands, and boasts plenty of cheese shops! Credit: Viking

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We crisscrossed the border with Germany a couple of times to cities like Aachen – most definitely not like those pretty Dutch towns – having been flattened by bombing during the war.

Aachen does, though, have one building that really is a must-see. Charlemagne’s cathedral is one of Europe’s oldest and the burial place of the Emperor who died here in 814. At least the rather magnificent golden catafalque contains some of the emperor’s remains as others (including his head!) were taken elsewhere to be used as holy relics.

They’ve never tested the remains for DNA but have examined them and they certainly match Charlemagne’s dates and what was known of him. For his time, he was both extremely tall and lived to an unusually old age.

- READ MORE: Best river cruise excursions for adventure & sightseeing -

The glittering mosaics and lofty Gothic choir with its immense stained glass windows certainly make for a suitably imperial resting place.

Back in the Netherlands and our penultimate day was spent in Kinderdijk, one of those places that seem like the end of the world. And in a way it is. The River Rhine splits into many parts here and drains through its delta surrounded by reclaimed land and, of course, windmills. The Dutch are the nation that surely knows most about water management.

The first windmills were built here in 1738 and, though now replaced by gigantic Archimedes screws to do the draining (they can in one minute remove the amount of water you’d find in an Olympic swimming pool), still turn for the delight of visitors.

They will also delight in the tranquillity of the area, flat as an ironing board, all vast skies, tall reeds and water everywhere. It’s a haven for migrating birds and all kinds of wildlife. The Dutch (surprise, surprise) like to get on their bikes and Viking offers tours on two wheels, on an old barge or simply by foot.

The first windmills in Kinderdijk were built here in 1738. Credit: Viking

And then finally we were at the Floriade for our last day. It’s a vast site – some 66 hectares with five separate zones. When it closes in October, it’s due to be reused in its entirety as part of the new city of Almere.

Mostly, you explore on foot but you can get a rather breath-taking bird’s eye view of it all from the (sustainably powered) cable car that floats 35m above it all. And prepare for your eyes to be opened in other ways too.

- READ MORE: What to pack for your next river cruise -

There are new solutions for food and farming to explore and a remarkable exhibit from the UAE (over 40 countries have stands here) that showcases a plant that grows in saltwater and desert conditions and may be able to fuel a plane.

Not just tulips from Amsterdam then.

Get on board

As part of Viking’s Holland & Belgium itinerary, you can join an excursion to Floriade from when you are docked in Amsterdam on day two of the itinerary.

It’s a 10-day cruise with eight guided tours included, return flights from selected UK airports, all onboard meals including wine, beer and soft drinks, Wi-Fi, gratuities, evening entertainment and enrichment talks. From £3,495 per person. Call 0800 319 66 60 or visit www.viking.com

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