Click-click through the tulips

Richard Tulloch joins several thousand shutterbugs in the spring gardens of the Keukenhof.

Holland's Keukenhof is the most photographed place in the world, according to the guidebook. What - more than the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower or the Opera House? It's quite possible, if you think about it. A couple of snaps of those other attractions are usually enough but once we start taking photos of tulips, it's hard to stop.

The "world's most beautiful spring gardens" are open for only the two months in which the spring bulbs bloom, so when the gates open in late March, there's a photo frenzy. Nearly a million people a year shuffle through the turnstiles in search of the perfect snapshot.

We queue at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport for the bus to take us to Lisse, about 30 minutes' drive away. On board, it's standing room only. When we pass our first field of tulips, the bus rocks disturbingly as everyone with a camera (or a mobile phone with a hole in the back) rushes to the windows.

So many tourists can't be wrong. This is going to be good. Anticipation builds as we arrive at the Keukenhof. Music pumps out from a colourful street organ and ladies in traditional dress sell guidebooks. The site was once the kitchen garden (keukenhof) of a 15th-century castle, owned by the colourful Countess Jacoba van Beieren. She married four times, waged various wars and died young of tuberculosis. But I don't have time to read more as there are flashes of colour in the gardens ahead and I have photos that need taking.

Flowers are easy to photograph, even for us amateurs. They sit patiently while you fumble with the camera's settings and don't pull stupid faces when you point the lens. In the Keukenhof, they've been arranged for colour co-ordinated effect. Mr Jan D. Zocher, who also designed Amsterdam's lovely Vondelpark, planned these castle gardens in 1857; modern designers have built on his structure of lawns, lakes, trees and pathways.

Drifts of brilliant yellow, red and orange tulips scream out from between the blues of the grape hyacinths, under the bright green spring growth of the beech and chestnut trees. Just when we think this is getting a bit gaudy, we find an area of subdued pinks and delicate mauves, contrasting with beds of purple tulips so dark they're nearly black.

We can't get enough. Those seeking close-ups of dewdrops on a perfect bloom throw themselves on the damp ground and poke their lenses upwards. Others risk falling in the water in their efforts to frame their lake shots with overhanging branches. We throw our lunch to the swans to encourage them to glide into the ideal spot.

Poise the camera over a flower bed and you'll get a frame filled with a stunning pattern of bright "triumphs" or "double earlies". There are more than 100 varieties of tulips here. Some 30 gardeners have hand-planted 7 million bulbs. Crouch down to flower level and you'll capture the woven patchwork of "victory" and "parrot" tulips offset against tree trunks.

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There are avenues of blossom, a Japanese garden, glasshouses filled with lilies and orchids - and floral arrangement competitions. There are formal ponds lined with symmetrical topiary box hedges.

We shoot our partners posing casually next to a bed of "single lates". They shoot us posing humorously beside a statue. At 32hectares, the Keukenhof is the Netherlands' largest outdoor sculpture park, displaying the work by 50 artists. People here are patient with photographers. They step back and wait, so as not to walk between us and our subjects. Passing strangers offer to take shots of us with a bed of "orange princesses" behind us and we return the favour.

The full Dutch experience is available at the Keukenhof. People snap each other trying on giant clogs and eating raw herring. There's an old windmill to climb - another photo opportunity. International influence is on show: TV's Teletubbies are rendered in flower petals.

We grab a quick coffee and snack but there's no time to waste. We have to race home to sift through hundreds of shots and delete the rubbish. Too much contrast in this picture? Too much backlight? Great background but what a pity your eyes are shut ... Where's my perfect shot? I'll have to go back. I see that next year the Keukenhof has an American theme, featuring a "flowerised version of the Statue of Liberty". I must get a picture of that.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Singapore Airlines flies from Sydney to Amsterdam via Singapore for $2666, including taxes. The Keukenhof is at Lisse, about a 30-kilometre drive from Amsterdam. Or buy a Combi-ticket for EUR20 ($40) from Amsterdam's Schiphol airport or at the train stations in Leiden or Haarlem.

Further information

Entry to the Keukenhof costs EUR13.50, children EUR6. See www.keukenhof.nl.

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