Have you ever been to a place that has made you feel so totally and utterly alive? A place that grounds you so wholly into the present moment that all thoughts of the outside world are temporarily suspended? One that makes you feel like your ambitions and dreams for the future are only just out of reach? And that stays with you so vividly and viscerally you are able to accurately recount your experience like it was yesterday although much time has passed?
Forget the clichés
You might be expecting me to make reference to one of the seven wonders of the world, say Machu Picchu. Or perhaps you are expecting me to cite something a little more alternative but equally captivating such as the monumental peaks of the Torres del Paine or the otherworldly landscapes of the Atacama desert. Whilst I’m not undermining the spectacular wonderment of any of these places, it is expected that you are befuddled by the beauty of the Taj Mahal, or stirred by the Niagara Falls. What I want to talk about today is a little less obvious. It is those places to which you feel an intense connection, one you weren’t necessarily expecting. The connections that perplex and stupefy, that catch you off guard.
Today I want to talk about somewhere a little closer to home but nonetheless sublime. A train can take me there and I can get there in about the same time as it would take me to get to Newcastle.
For me this place is Vondelpark Amsterdam.
A balmy summer day
Since my first visit I have returned no less than three times and I would have been back more had the pandemic not happened. It is a place I can return to again and again and it always brings me back to the first experience on that balmy summer’s day. It is a place that allows me the closest palpable connection to nature. A place that affords me the very deepest of contemplations. A place that for me is quite simply, healing.
Vondelpark – a unique beauty
There are so many unique features about this special park that make it like none I have ever seen. Even making reference to this place as a ‘park’ feels undermining since it is nothing short of pure magic. Take the countless weeping willows that whimsically decorate the perimeter of each and every lake. Half sunken into pine-colored ponds, rich in reflections of an assortment of shades that feels like covers the entire spectrum from chartreuse yellow to juniper green. So artfully draped over the edges you get the sense it was purposely created this way. Nature is the best designer.
Mother nature loves you
It sits next to a lake surrounded by thick, healthy shrubbery. Vondelpark is untamed and has been left to grow wild, very unlike the pruned lawns and rose gardens I am accustomed to seeing in London. The soft grass cushions my hefty weight, feeling every individual blade brush my fingertips as I look up towards the sky. A grandiose poplar tree towers above me, obscuring the sun and encasing me in a canopy of leaves. I drift off to sleep to the gentle whisperings: “Mother nature loves you and is always here for you” as I continue to caress the ground below, “All you have to do is feel the earth beneath you”. The tears start to form. I can’t remember a time I was so completely awestruck by nature.
An escape to wonderland
After waking from my slumber I go for a mosey through the an almost hidden, overgrown path, fighting to find the way through. The leaves are a vivid green and appear gigantic next to my guiding hands. I find myself at the Norbert Eliasbrug bridge which I have renamed “Alice’s bridge”. I know I do like to make frequent references to Alice in Wonderland which may sound a bit cliched but this feels truly fitting. It reminds me of the Lewis Carol poem “All in the golden afternoon”
One must stop to admire the fountains that so proudly put on their display sending joyful spouts of water high into the air in a higgledy-piggledy fashion. Their gushing sounds are the only interlude in an otherwise moment of quiet.
Through the groves we go following the ever-increasing buzzing of human activity and the path opens into a large pasture beyond. Dutch families are gathering for picnics, clinking bottles of ale and petting playful pups. Some are helping their toddlers to walk holding them upright whilst they take their first steps. A group of friends celebrating a birthday have innovatively popped-up a gazebo, tables and chairs decorated with bunting and balloons. Others are playing an assortment of lawn games which look to me like Dutch versions of cornhole, croquet and kubb. Barefoot and towering dutchmen are artfully aiming primary-coloured bean bags at holes in a decorative wooden plaque. Half-dressed teanagers in floral-clad bikinis bake themselves in the falling sun. Omafiets, the typical dutch style upright bikes are strewn across the ground covering almost every inch of spare grass. A little further on towards the entrance and a group of vagrants with flower-decorated bikes are dancing around a stereo playing techno, swaying to the beat that never stops. A hodgepodge of characters brought together by this park that seems to unite all walks of life.
Through the other side and we are back along a path, another turn and a blue heron flies above and causes me to duck, so close its ginormous wings beat down on me, looking disproportionately large. Another poses for me by the lakeside.
Time to rest
I decide I want to take another rest and take my pick of half sunken willow trunks inviting me for my second afternoon catnap. Draping myself over the thick trunk I let a hand fall down to the water and let my fingers gentle ripple the surface, spoiling the almost mirror-perfect reflection beyond.
Green and Clean
Greens so vivid they pop even against the rapidly draining sky. I don’t know if it is the glamour of those wistful willows, or the unusually hot summer’s sun, the abundance of wildlife or the sheer Alice in Wonderland style playfulness of this place but it mesmerises and tranquilizes me. This place is absolutely heaving, like someone has dialed up the ‘life’ dial it is breathing an almost visceral type of energy. An afternoon spent in Vondelpark and I feel like i’ve had a mental and physical clean out. I’m suddenly drained of bitterness and emboldened with brightness. The bickerings of earlier times have disappeared, faults from bygone times are forgiven. For the first time in quite a long time, I feel truly, utterly alive.
The main entrance to Vondelpark is located just outside the central canals in Amsterdam behind the Rijksmuseum and opposite Sushi Samba. The Van Gogh Museum is close by.
Marqt has the most wonderful selection of picnic grub everything from delicious Dutch gouda, a fine selection of salamis and even bottles of Kombucha.
We always stay at the Conscious Hotel Vondelpark in Amsterdam. The rooms are simple but chic and surprisingly reasonable for such an expensive city. I love their ethos with a focus on sustainability. It’s possible to rent bikes here from only 10 Euro a day but there are only a small amount and they go fast so get up early. A COVID-modified breakfast is of the typical European continental kind.