At Hollandâ€™s Aalsmeer Flower Auction flowers are the language of everything: color, space, money and, of course, love. When I think how close I came to missing this unique experience, I cringe.
Aalsmeer, a small town located just south of Amsterdamâ€™s Schiphol Airport, is often called the flower capital of the world. It is the home of the aforementioned Aalsmeer Flower Auction, which is, according to the Guiness Book of World Records, the largest commercial building in the world. Twenty million flowers pass through here every day â€“ no wonder the building is so big.
I knew none of this and had never even heard of Aalsmeer until several nights prior to my arrival in Amsterdam. I was dining with a fellow passenger on a riverboat, cruising the Rhine River. He said, â€œYou have to visit the Aalsmeer Flower Auction. You wonâ€™t believe it.â€
I have learned, over my many years of travel, to listen when a fellow tourist raves about a particular attraction. With few exceptions, I have been directed to dozens of out-of-the-way gems. So on to Aalsmeer.
At 7:00 am, I boarded a tour bus for the 45-minute drive to Aalsmeer (There is also a public bus that leaves from the Central Station.). The auction house opens at 6:30; spectators admitted at 7:30. The nice folks at the visitorsâ€™ center gave me an information booklet, in English, which pointed me toward the catwalk and explained that listening stations, English available, were located at various viewing spots along the way.
I was immediately mesmerized by the sheer size of the building before me â€“ over 10.6 million square feet, the equivalent of more than 135 football fields. Even more amazing was the view of the warehouse floor, twenty feet below the visitorsâ€™ catwalk. I could see only a tiny fraction of that dayâ€™s twenty million flowers, but what I did see, as my dinner companion had promised, was unbelievable. Every color imaginable, every size, packed in large wire crates, pulled behind small tractors at what seemed like warp speed across the warehouse floor. Each tractor lugged dozens of crates behind it as it snaked among other flower trains as well as bicycles and the occasional walker. I wondered how often there was a collision.
At the first information station, I found myself looking through a large window at tiers of computer-punching, suit wearing, flower brokers. It was the floristâ€™s equivalent of the New York Stock Exchange. A conveyor belt transported the crates with their multi-colored cargo across the front stage of the auction room. I learned about the Dutch Auction, the term invented here to describe a bidding process where the price starts high and goes lower as the clock winds down. A buyer must decide what price he needs to pay in order to keep someone else from beating him to the purchase. Of course, he wants to pay the least amount possible, all while keeping an eye on the ticking clock.
I watched as the cart left the auction bay via the conveyor belt, its contents sold. The crate was tagged, reconnected to a tractor and whisked toward the holding area for that buyer. Later in the day, the entire dayâ€™s sale of flowers would be transported to Schiphol Airport and flown to its destination, somewhere in the world.
The entire process is fascinating. It was an assault on the senses: color, smell, sound, and a trip is worth the early morning wake-up call. I have to echo the advice I was given: â€œVisit the Aalsmeer Flower Auction. It is unbelievable.â€
Susan Tornga has undergraduate and graduate degrees in Business Administration, but prefers travel to tax forms, and finds the world a much better teacher than any classroom. Her fiction and non-fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including the Chicken Soup and Patchwork Path anthologies.