Venlo is the second largest continuous horticultural area in Western Europe. And this year it’s also home to the latest reincarnation of Floriade – a pop up World Horticultural Expo that appears once a decade. If you don’t know what that means, think the biggest garden party in the world. The theme for the 2012 Floriade is ‘Theatre of Nature’ – where flowers and plants are the stars. And what’s more, it’s a short drive from our Center Parcs lodge down the road in Het Heijderbos …or so we thought…
Theatre of Nature: At the Floriade 2012, Venlo
Our Google Map showing directions to Venlo and the Floriade 2012 showground dumps us on a housing estate in Horst. While it seems a perfectly good place to live; it seems an unlikely location for the largest garden festival in the world . So how do you spot a Floriade when it only springs up once every ten years in a different part of the Netherlands? Well you could try looking out for the unlikely sight of cable cars in a pan flat landscape, or 66 hectares of green space laid out to celebrate nature in all its forms. Or you could keep an eye out for exotic plants, futuristic domes, world gardens and trees that stop to chat. Yes, the trees really are alive at Floriade 2012.
Quietly listening to the forest
When I was a child I was bewitched by the world of Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree. I was particularly captivated by the woman who constantly did the laundry; perhaps even then I recognised a kindred spirit. But what really stole my imagination was the enchanted wood, with trees that whispered and confided in each other. You could hear their chatter by putting your ear to their trunk, and as a child I would try it for real on the trees in my street. But instead of nature’s secrets all I got was bark in my ear and dog pee on my hands.
Still hoping to discover the secrets of the trees
Today I’m standing in an enchanted wood and I don’t need to put my ear against a tree to hear them. All around me they whisper and whistle and croak and shout and sing. Yet still they withhold their secrets; this is Holland, so they’re gossiping in Dutch. At least the information board is in English. It tells me the gentle soundscape is ‘forest poetry;’ -“where the trees whisper and their roots seek deep into mother earth so that they might, at intervals, translate her power into sound.” It is powerful stuff, and not just because it takes me straight back into my childhood dreams. It’s spooky and dark and intriguing; like any magic forest should be.
Going shopping for flowers
In Villa Flora, the largest indoor flower exhibition hall in Europe, it’s all a lot brighter, and the trees here speak through art. What do they say? That they’ve been shopping for flowers.
Or that they can light up the dinner table with their natural florescence.
The Floriade as a school of nature
I’m learning a lot about the secret life of trees today. But then that’s what the designers intended. As well as being a celebration of nature, Floriade has already been an educational experience for more than 3,000 classes of schoolchildren and countless families. It’s estimated 2 million people will drop by over the 186 days it runs for.
“The biggest compliment is that we’ve got these children saying they value this more than a huge entertainment park,” says Robert Bouten, Floriade’s Manager of Communications.
Floriade definitely feels more educational than a traditional theme park. The world pavilions, designed by dozens of international participants taking part in the festival, give children and adults insight into the customs, heritage and food of other cultures.
And as an environmental education
The many tributes to sustainability and environmental practice and the particular emphasis on cradle to cradle make you reconsider your recycling habits and in particular what you do with your old bits and pieces…
The futuristic domes highlight the environmental costs of our food and water …
….and our fondness for moving the outdoors indoors…
All in glorious colour…
The gardens suggest how we might be more green..
Or less green and more golden.
Or just a blushing wonder of nature.
A celebration of nature, art and quality of life
The art installations and live theatre point up our connection to the earth, soil and sun in unexpected ways.
Robert Bouten takes a stroll with me through the gardens to explain the philosophy of what is the 6th Floriade. “It’s a celebration of nature and quality of life,” he tells me. As we walk along the paths and trails we dodge out of the way of the hop on, hop off electric buses. The drivers slow as they see Robert coming. It’s clear the security guards on Segways aren’t the only speed police on site.
“The hop on, hop off buses are an enormous success, but the problem is that people hop on and don’t hop off. They make a tour around the whole park,” says Robert, shaking his head at what they might miss while they are on board. Another favourite of the visitors, that vary in number from 7000 to 25,000 a day depending on the weather, is the cable car. At 1.1 km it is the largest of its kind in the Netherlands. But it doesn’t really belong here. It was built by Austrians and will return there after The Floriade; together we chuckle at the idea Holland will ever need it for winter sports.
A celebration of world cultures too
We follow a path down by the lake and past the World Theatre, a showcases for diverse acts from across the globe. “Do you smell another culture here?” asks Robert as we stroll amongst the world pavilions where countries as diverse as Turkey, China, Afghanistan, Spain, Tunisia and South Korea have built their own shows. I take a sniff at the air and something prompts me to say Thailand. “It’s all these different sights and smells that make Floriade so different,” says Robert as we walk on to Indonesia; one of the most photographed exhibits of the festival.
In fact, Floriade is different every time it pops up in Holland. Although ‘pop-up’ is a bit of an understatement for a site that took years to build and will leave a legacy of green space and a sustainable business park for future generations.
Five interconnected themed areas
The 2012 Floriade has five themed areas, each set in their own clearing, yet connected together by paths through woodlands. Exploring the themed areas: Relax and Heal, Green Engine, Education and Innovation, Environment and the World Show Stage, is probably several days work.
By the time I get to the health and well being section I need some relaxation and healing. I put a coin in a slot and a dragon breathes fire at me. Apparently this will “burn up the garbage we store in our deeper self.” I stand and wait for its breath to convert my tired negative energy into healthy healing.
Feeling lighter I make my way to the exit past a living sculpture by Sjer Jacobs. Three grassy nostrilled faces sculpted from soil stare me out. No friendly Dutch tree chatter here. Nature is still withholding her secrets. At least from me.
This post is part of our 2012 Adventure Islands Season. We spent summer 2012 exploring Iceland and The Faroes, researching what’s on offer for adventure seeking families. We’re grateful to Smyril Line for help with transport, to Berghaus and Thule who helped equip us for the journey. All experiences, views and opinions are however, as ever, our own.
You can see a map of our journey on The Family Adventure Project Punkt! and view some exclusive behind the scenes photos and video of what we got up to.