Every since I was 14 years old and went to the fabulous Skansen museum island in Stockholm I have loved places that bring together old heritage buildings and let the public wander around, peering into the past and seeing how people lived in long ago times. Consequently I only have to hear that there's such a place in an area that I'm going to visit to want to go and nose around. My visit to Zaanse Schans was therefore an unexpected surprise during a recent business tript to Holland. The company for whom I work had pulled together all the colleagues who work in my function from around the region for what was supposed to be a business meeting/team building event but turned out - for one afternoon and evening at least - to be more of a 'please don't leave us, see how nice we are' session. The company is up for sale and a morale boost was the order of the day.
~Are we there yet?~
We set off from our bizarre hotel in Zaandam with only the instruction to "dress warm and wear sensible shoes". The Portuguese and Spanish colleagues all disappeared to Primark at lunchtime and returned with Euro17 padded jackets because they're just not well equipped to deal with 'cold' and then we set off to walk through Zaandam in an unruly 'crocodile' until we came to a small alleyway which led to a boat jetty. We boarded two boats and chugged up the river Zaan until we reached Zaanse Schans about 30 minutes later.
Most visitors to Zaanse Schans will not arrive by water but the views are so spectacular that I can only suggest that they should. We were chugging along the river wondering where on earth we were headed when suddenly a host of windmills appeared in the distance. "It's a windmill zoo" I said to my colleague who was one of the few people who knew where we were going and she agreed that was pretty much what it was. But there would be more - windmills were not the only exotic creatures to be seen, there'd be many more treats in store.
We moored up in the middle of the village and the group was then split into three parts, each with a tour guide to look after them. If you want to do this yourselves, tours cost Euro6.50 per person and are for a minimum of 10 and maximum of 20 people. Personally I found it interesting to be shown around but if I were going on my own, I'd rather have a map and a list of things to see and just take it at my own pace.
~The Windmill Zoo~
Zaanse Schans was not particularly intended as a tourist attraction when it was originally set up in the 1960s and 1970s. One thing that many of you will know is that the Netherlands is a small country with a high population density and in the years after the Second World War building land was at a premium. The country had many beautiful old buildings but they needed the land for new housing and so the bulldozers started to march across the country and the builders went in to create the accommodation that the Dutch needed. To prevent all those beautiful buildings in the Zaanstreek area of North Holland being lost forever, someone had the bright idea of setting up a village where they could all be 'rehomed' and form a tribute to Holland's past. That place was Zaanse Schans. It takes its name from its place on the banks of the Zaan river and from the old Dutch word Schans which means a type of castle or fortified town.
The guide told us that he had grown up in the village and his parents had run a small museum and he'd started working there when he was a teenager. He also explained that most of the houses in the village were inhabited and that the people who lived in them rent them from the Zaanse Schans trust. It must be a bit like living in Lego land as he then told us that over a million Chinese tourists pass through every year. He also explained that in the decades that he's lived there the nationalities that visit have changed so that the western European and American visitors are now very much in a minority, that the Japanese have peaked and declined and now it's a bit hit with the Chinese. This also led to him telling us later that most days he has to pull at least one damp Chinese tourist out of the small canals that run between the houses and fields because the green weed that grows on the water confuses the visitors who don't realise that there's water underneath.
We began our tour in a small square by the water near the centre of the village where the guide showed us a map and told us a little about the history. As we stood there I noticed a distinctive smell, turned around to see where it was coming and spotted a guy sitting on a bench smoking an enormous joint. He looked at me rather sheepishly and tucked it behind him but it did rather say something about the local attitude to old and new heritage living side by side. Windmills and Cannabis - what better combination of Dutch clichés could you find?
Having a guide is a good thing if you want someone to point out the little details that you'd otherwise probably miss. We stood outside one of the riverside merchant houses and our guide explained how the crest above the door would have explained everything that a visitor or a tradesman needed to identify that they had found the right house. At the time that it was built there were no street names or numbers so the clues had to be on the house for those who knew them to identify. The family name was d'Mol and is illustrated by a picture of a mole (the burrowing type, not a large freckle) and their trade was explained by the two crossed tridents - although I'm ashamed to say I cannot remember what they signified. It's a good thing I'm not an 18th century person looking for an address. The building apparently 'rents' at 2500 euros per month but has 13 rooms and is run as a B&B. That didn't sound outrageously expensive to me for a home and a business combined.
The guide explained that the further we got from the river, the more humble the houses would be and it was clear that this was so. The riverfront properties were those of wealthy merchants, and the tiny houses furthest away were homes to farming families. Some were so tiny that the organisation that runs the village had been worried that they couldn't rent out such small properties. I wasn't paying full attention - I wandered off to talk to some ducks - but I think the guide said they just built an enormous shed on the side of the house to give the tenants a bit more space thus characterising a local philosophy of 'small house big shed'. We also had various features pointed out to us as we went around - such as hooks for putting your clogs on (probably to stop the spiders getting in) and shown how to date the age of a house by the size of its window panes.
Almost all the houses are painted in shades of dark green and he explained that the owners would buy the pigment and the linseed oil separately and mix their own paint. Only those with plenty of money could afford a lot of pigment so the darkest houses were those of the wealthiest people. He also told us that in earlier times all the houses were black because they were decorated with tar. Those interested in Dutch retail history (and I know it sounds odd but that was most of our group) will gasp with delight at the reconstructed first ever Albert Heijn supermarket. To the Dutch this is as famous as the original Marks and Spencer's market stall. Zaandam is the home of Albert Heijn's head-quarters and they are major sponsors of the Zaanse Schans village.
~Climbing the Cat~
Our tour included entrance to one of the windmills - the one called 'The Cat' windmill which grinds chalk and pigments. An old man with an accordion was playing and singing outside and promising (or possibly threatening) to teach us a song when we came out but fortunately he'd gone when we emerged. I'm pretty good at guessing Dutch and I worked out the chorus was something about 'hoisting the sales' and assumed it was a sea-faring song. It was only when we'd climbed up all the ladders and gone onto the outdoor platform to watch the sails of the windmill going around that something glaringly obvious fell into place - that the Dutch were both a great sea-going nation and a nation famous for windmills and both relied upon sail-power. That's the kind of thing that makes you stop and wonder how you've never put two and two together before. Similarly when the guide mentioned that the English word for a factory is often a 'mill', the penny dropped and I realised that it all came from the windmill as the original source of controllable power. The windmills at Zaanse Schans have many different uses, for example the chalk and pigment mill at The Cat, several mills for sawing wood, and at least two oil mills. I guess I've always associated windmills with pumping water or grinding crops and I'd never really given much thought to the many other possible uses. The guide also explained that some of the mills had tops which were turned into the wind, whilst for others almost the whole building could be turned and he showed us how to tell which type was which.
We also stepped into the bakery museum where the owner was busy serving customers in the front of the shop and didn't have time to show us around. We said that was fine as we probably knew as much about the exhibits as she did. There was a large, fat cat in the back room which was quite ironic as one of the exhibits was a 'cat loaf' that was traditionally baked to placate the devil. We finished our tour with a stop at the dairy where they make and sell very expensive traditionally made cheeses.
Entrance into the village is free of charge but several of the mills and museums come with entrance fees. The mills are mostly Euro3 each to enter and the bakery charges Euro1 per person. The village's main museum is Euro9 for adults and there is also a clock museum at Euro8 a head. Boat trips are available on the Zaan in the warmer months for Euro6 per adult but I do think that you could have a very pleasant day out in the village without really having to go into any of the fee charging buildings. If you want to save money and see lots of things, there are two different type of card which can be bought which offer free entrance to several of the museums and discounts with other attractions. You can find full details of these on the Zaanse Schans website at http://www.zaanseschans.nl/
Different buildings have different opening times so it's important to plan your visit carefully if you want to see a lot. Again, all the details are on the website. I would recommend not to visit on a Monday as a lot of places are closed although if you just want to wander round and soak up the atmosphere you might find it's much quieter and easier to visit on that day. Dining options include a full service restaurant - de Hoop op d'Swarte Walvis - a pancake house and the museum cafe.
Assuming that most people would probably be staying in Amsterdam, there's a regular train service from Amsterdam Central which takes 20 minutes to get to Koog-Zaandijk. From the station it should take 10 minutes to walk to the village and the way is well sign-posted. Bus 391 also runs from Central station and stops beside the village at St Michael's College. Alternatively from Amsterdam Schiphol airport you can take a train to Zaandam (Euro4 approx. - trains every half hour at 15 and 45 mins from platform 3) and then take a bus towards Wormerveer and get off at Koog aan de Zaan. Again the instructions are on the website.
In comparison with similar places that I've visited, the access to the actual houses at Zaanse Schans is very limited and I found this a bit disappointing. I like to go inside, look at the furniture and try to imagine what it would be like to live in these places and that's just not really possible. However, an enormous plus point is the access to the windmills which are both fascinating and impressive. I would strongly recommend a visit to anyone who is interested in industrial history and fascinated by how machines work, as well as to anyone seeking to escape the city and get out into the countryside and see somewhere very different from Amsterdam.