Everything's coming up tulips at a spectacular Dutch garden

According to the Eastman Kodak Co., the flowers at Keukenhof, here in the Netherlands, make it the second- most photographed place in the world, after the Taj Mahal in Aga, India. And Keukenhof's history is almost as colorful as its famous gardens.

When the fair Jacoba van Beieren (1401-1436) wasn't in the throes of planning her next wedding, the thrice-married countess spent much of her time riding through the estate's 70 acres in pursuit of deer and other royal game. Much of the grounds were also devoted to raising vegetables and herbs to feed the Countess van Beieren's large and hungry court. (The name Keukenhof means"kitchen garden" in Dutch.)

Little now remains of herpalace but a few brick walls. And the countess would be hard-pressed to find a sprig of sage to flavor her venison stew in the garden that exists heretoday.

Tulips have replaced turnips, and herbs have given way to hyacinths, much to the delight of the million or so tourists who flock here each spring to what has become the world's largest flower garden.

Since 1949, Dutch bulb growers have used this park to show off the splendor of Holland's bulb industry. Each autumn, a staggering 7 million bulbs are planted by some 30 gardeners to guarantee a breathtaking spring show. Each year the old bulbs are dug up and tossed away.

To ensure constant color in the same beds, bulbs are planted in layers: Late-blooming tulips are planted deepest, above them midseason tulips, then hyacinths, and finally the earliest blooms, such as crocuses.

Waves of brilliant, tall cottage tulips and fragrant Dutch hyacinths spill down gentle slopes toward a lake where white swans glide across still water. Fountains and small brooks break the silence with refreshing splashes of water. One visitor observed: "If heaven doesn't look just like this place, I'm moving."

In another area, formal rectangular beds of tulips and daffodils grace the shade-dappled walkways under a stand of towering 150-year-old beech trees.

There are also theme gardens, including Japanese, music, historical, and meadow gardens. Some 30 sculptures and objets d'art grace the lawns. And what would a tourist attraction in Holland be without the signature windmill? There's even a maze where you can lose the kids for a few days – er, minutes.

Keukenhof also boasts several informal restaurants and indoor exhibits, including an orchid pavilion. Peacocks stroll the grounds, while some 30 species of wild birds nest among the thousands of trees and shrubs.

While visiting Keukenhof last month – it's 11 milessouthwest of Amsterdam – I stopped to rest on a bench in the historic garden. An artist from Canada was busy sketching some of the antique tulips. It was her first visit, and she was clearly overcome by the beauty of the place. "It almost makes me dizzy," she swooned. "It's the most beautiful place I've ever seen. It's too much for the eye to take in."

If she were still around, the Countess van Beieren might not be able to feed her court from the kitchen garden at Keukenhof, but she certainly could dazzleguests with magnificent floral arrangements.

• Next year Keukenhof's spring show runs from March 21 to May 18. Further information is available at www.keukenhof.com.

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