A much needed escape: exploring Keukenhof Gardens during the COVID-19 pilot
Updated: Sep 3, 2021
On Friday April 16th, my Dad and I set out from home on a 20 kilometre (12.4 mile) cycle ride to Keukenhof. As we cycled towards Lisse (into the wind...classic Holland), we were excited about the prospect of visiting the world famous Dutch gardens without the normal crush of tourists. We knew it wouldn't be as crowded as normal, but we never could have imagined having whole sections of the park to ourselves...
The last time I visited Keukenhof, I was 8 years old, so I couldn't really remember anything about the gardens I was about to visit. Keukenhof opened to the public for the first time in 1950 and quickly became a world famous attraction. In Spring 2019, the park welcomed an incredible 1.5 million visitors, with an average of 26,000 visitors per day. 80% of the visitors that year were from abroad, highlighting the importance of this venue for Dutch tourism. Due to the pandemic, the 2020 season was the first time in 71 years that the gardens were not open to the public.
This year, despite implementing safety measures, Keukenhof was again forced to keep its doors shut as the Netherlands remained in lockdown. That is, until the Dutch government announced its plans to open museums, zoos and other outdoor attractions to experiment with ways to safely reopen society. As part of the pilot, Keukenhof was allowed to open for two weekends, with a maximum capacity of 5,000 visitors each day (roughly equal to 20% of its 2019 capacity). As part of the pilot, all visitors had to test negative for coronavirus within 40 hours of entering the park. Luckily a rapid COVID test was included in the ticket price.
For a country so built around bikes, it was a remarkably bike-unfriendly experience getting to and from the pop-up coronavirus testing site situated next to Keukenhof, but we still arrived right on time. After waiting just a few minutes, we walked into separate booths to get our tests – my dad's first ever COVID test and my fourth.
We stopped for a picnic lunch outside the gardens as we waited for our test results to come back. Although the sun peeked out from behind the clouds, the wind was cold and after sitting for a few minutes, I was anxious to get moving again. Less than half an hour after we had been tested, we were emailed our test results – both negative (yay!) – meaning we could make our way into the park.
Keukenhof is only open for eight weeks every year, when seven million spring-flowering bulbs are on display for visitors to see. We were amazed at the range of colours and delighted by the smell of hyacinths that filled the air. Inside the park, it was easy to forget about the pandemic, but it was reassuring to know that everybody there had recently tested negative for coronavirus. The gardens are huge, spanning 32 hectares and filled with 15 kilometres (9.3 miles) of footpaths, some of which we explored throughout the day. We were in the park for over five hours, but I know there are whole areas we didn't manage to get to.
I had brought along my twin lens reflex (TLR) film camera, and was desperate to finish the black and white roll I still had loaded so that I could start shooting colour on Portra 400. I loved photographing the vibrant colours of the park and can't wait to see how they turn out when the film is developed!
We were excited to see that the Willem-Alexander pavilion was open. Masks back on, we wandered the greenhouse, marvelling at all of the different types of tulips on display. The variety of colours, shapes and textures was amazing! We had fun chatting with a photographer who takes incredible macro photos of tulips, all at Keukenhof. My photos aren't quite as dramatic as hers, but I still enjoyed capturing the beauty of the flowers.
After stopping for some (much needed) fries, I remembered that in addition to three cameras, I had brought a small mirror with me. I love shooting with mirrors, and had recently bought a small one that is light enough to bring along on day trips. We had fun trying to find different ways of using the mirror to create unique photos.
I especially love these portraits my dad shot!
By 17:00, the park was emptying out and I was able to capture photos of the iconic Keukenhof windmill with no one in the frame – something that would be impossible on a normal day in Keukenhof.
I loved the colours of these tulip and hyacinth mixes.
As we realised the park was emptying out, we circled back around to one of our favourite spots that we had walked through after arriving in the afternoon. I took another self portrait on film and my Dad shot the photos below. Only three other people walked through this area in the half hour we were shooting there. When we arrived, we knew Keukenhof would not be as crowded as it is in a normal year, but as it got closer to closing time, we were amazed at how much of the park we had seemingly to ourselves.
After a rough couple of weeks, it was a joy to explore somewhere new, surrounded by "nature" and to be shooting photos again. Despite the cold, we still enjoyed the sunshine and marvelled at the soft lighting that fell across the flowerbeds in the evening. On our cycle ride home, as we rode past the tulip fields, we agreed that we should bring my mum and sister back to Keukenhof when they return to the Netherlands. I hope that this pilot has proved to the Dutch government that Keukenhof can safely reopen, so that other people here in the Netherlands will be able to experience its magic in these difficult times.