The sweet scent of a myriad of spring bulbs fills the air, with an aroma that takes your breath away.
Stepping into the Villa Flora is like entering another world – one filled with thousands of plants encased in a huge glass building. An enchanting, giant greenhouse.
It forms part of Floriade 2012, the World Horticultural Expo, so vast and special that it only takes place once every 10 years.
No wonder it’s one of Holland’s top events that people flock from all over the world to attend.
Two million are expected to visit this year’s event, which started on April 5 and runs until October 7. It’s taking place near the city of Venlo in northern Limburg, close to the German border.
The region has good transport links, both by rail and road, and though the Floriade itself is reason enough to visit, this southernmost province of the Netherlands is largely unspoilt and relatively undiscovered by tourists.
Before arriving, I learn that the theme for Floriade 2012 is: ‘Be part of the theatre of nature!’
And it is a theatrical experience, not just for the eyes but for all the senses, from the gorgeous aromas, to the endless seas of colour, and the variety of textures I am greeted with.
Be sure to take some spare euros with you, as there’s an array of things to buy, from exquisite pieces of furniture and embroidered cushions to fabulous and affordable jewellery.
Of course, the plants are the star attraction.
The shopping list for planting out the site included 1.8 million bulbs, 18,000 shrubs, 190,000 perennials, 15,000 hedge plants, 5,000 rose bushes and 3,000 trees – and the results are spectacular.
The hard work won’t go to waste. After Floriade 2012 is over the site will be used as a business park.
The Innovatoren – a new 70ft-high building – will be used as a base for research into food production methods, reflecting the importance of horticulture in the region.
Everywhere you look, there are signs advertising ‘asperges’ – asparagus – which thrives in Limburg’s dry, sandy soil.
Known as ‘white gold’, the harvest runs from mid April until June 24 (St John’s day) with most restaurants serving it in that period.
Delicious asparagus can be sampled at De Beejekurf, a chic restaurant in Venray, where hosts Paul and Ilse Franssen have built up a formidable reputation for fine dining.
Asparagus is also on the menu at Clevers in the charming village of Grubbenvorst. But Clevers isn’t a restaurant – it’s an award-winning ice-cream parlour. Asparagus is just one of the 50 flavours on offer.
There are more than 80 cycle routes in northern Limburg that lead through pretty villages, along the banks of the River Meuse and through the De Groote Peel National Park.
The countryside is also a haven for walkers with more than 100 marked routes, including some designed for families and children.
Historical town and city walks are a good way to explore.
Our guide was Venlo-born Riet, who led us through the vibrant city. Venlo witnessed intense Allied bombing towards the end of the Second World War to secure the Dutch their liberation.
During the tour, we also stop at the Museum van Bommel van Dam, which is running a Japanese photography exhibition until August 19 to complement the flower festival.