Sometimes you travel to a place expecting one thing, and you find another. It doesn’t have to be a disappointment – actually, it might happen that this unexpected place does surprise you. This is what happened when I was in the Netherlands and I wasn’t sure whether I should go to Zaanse Schans, the village of windmills. I had read some articles about it – they said it was picturesque for sure, but also touristy. So I was expecting a small village with nice little houses and a huge crowd of people from all over the world. A long line just to get into a “traditional” shop. Souvenirs and postcards, bad food and too many people taking pictures. Not exactly the perfect destination for a quiet, relaxing day, right? But I am a curious person, so I decided to go anyways. And I am so glad I did.
IN THE LAND OF WINDMILLS
I was staying in Amsterdam, at my sister’s house, and every morning I scanned the sky trying to figure out if it was going to be a sunny or a rainy day. It’s hard to tell, when you are in the North. The weather is unpredictable. The clouds travel so fast, that one moment you’re walking in the shining sun, the next you are running for shelter under a pouring rain. You cannot plan anything. That’s perfect for me, since I seem to be unable to decide what to do in advance. And in fact, it was cloudy when I woke up and decided to go see the windmills. And these photos reflect the changing colours and atmosphere of the day, depending on the weather.
Zananse Schans is just twenty minutes or so by train from Amsterdam Central Station. It’s a small village that dates back to the time when windmills had a crucial role in the country’s economy. In the 18th and 19th century, the Zaan region was dotted with windmills. They were used to produce mustard, paper, linseed oil, and to grind spices which came from the East.
In the village
The ten minute walk from the train station to the village is characterized by a distinctive smell of chocolate. Chocolate?! I hear you say. Yes, because there’s a large chocolate factory in Zaanse Schans. And the smell is so intense and persistent that it won’t go away until you get on the train back to Amsterdam. A marketing trick to make people want to buy chocolate in the little shops? Anyways, it’s delicious.
A bridge leads to the proper village, which is actually an open air museum like Skansen in Stockholm. The fully-operating windmills stand by the water. They can be visited, but admission is not free. Still, you can see how a windmill works when you enter the spice shop. Cinnamon and cloves are ground and sold along with butter and caramel cookies (waffles).
Cheese and Clogs
I was lucky when I went to Zaanse Schans. It was Thursday and there weren’t too many tourists. Children were cycling back from school. Some old couples were sitting on the benches by the canal. The village was peaceful, almost idyllic. Only two places were crowded, and I wasn’t surprised. One was the wooden shoe workshop. Clogs makers show their audience how to make the wooden shoes, which are also sold in all shapes and colours. The other one was the Catharina Hoeve, a 17th century cheese farm where visitors can attend a cheese making demonstration. But people flock to it to taste (and buy) cheese and caramel or honey waffles – can we blame them?
All in all, the village is a very peaceful place. After visiting every house and running inside a farm to shelter from the rain – yes, it rained for a while after all – I sat on a bench and relaxed. Sheep were grazing in front of me, ducks were swimming in the canal. The sun was back and it was warm, pleasantly warm. For a moment, I felt as if a huge weigh had been lifted from my shoulders. This is the hidden magic of Zaanse Schans. It’s far from the maddening crowd, far from the hustle and bustle of the city, far from everything. Forget the cellphone and you’ll understand what it means to take a break. A real break.
Albert Heijn and coffee
Before leaving I went for a coffee in the very first Albert Heijn grocery store in the Netherlands. It’s a tiny shop and museum with the original furniture from 1887. I’d seen many food stores in Amsterdam called “Albert Heijn”, but I didn’t know where it came from. Since they used to import coffee beans from the colonies, visitors are invited to taste their blend while watching old scales, boxes, photos from another era. Touristy or not, this place is charming. I am reminded of the children’s novels I used to read as a little girl, the ones that made me dream of living in a green house with a pointed roof and skating on the frozen river. Like Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates by Mary Mapes Dodge.
At the end of the day, Zaanse Schans is worth a visit. Especially in the spring, when it’s neither too cold nor too humid. Like I said, my day started under a cloudy sky…
…and then came the sun.