Sunday, 23 July 2017

Appreciating a glimpse of Dutch countryside in Zaanse Schans

I love cities, but when I travel I also like to see something different. Big cities are not usually very representative of a country, so it's a good idea to venture outside and see how the rest of the country looks like. That's what I did when I was in Amsterdam last March.

The village of Zaanse Schans is located only a few minutes away from central Amsterdam. I took a local train leaving from the Central Station that in just 17 minutes and 7,20€ (return ticket) took me to another world. In Zaanse Schans there are working windmills, the air is fresh and you get to see a glimpse of Dutch countryside. Compared to Amsterdam Zaanse Schans is relaxed and quiet.

Zaanse Schans village

I think it was the turning point in my trip to Amsterdam. Somehow I couldn't connect to the city and the country, so I spent three days sightseeing without getting particularly excited at anything. While the city was certainly interesting and full of inspiration, certainly different from most European cities I had visited before, Zaanse Schans offered a different point of view and an interesting insight on the country. It made me get away from the hype about coffeeshops and red-light districts and see that there is a lot more to the Dutch identity than that.

Lanscape around Zaanse Schans

There used to be a chocolate factory in the area, so as soon as you get off the train you will smell roasted cocoa beans. A few panels explain the importance of this area for both the industrial and cultural heritage of the Netherlands.

The first windmill that you see, even before getting to the village on the banks of the river Zaan, is maybe the most picturesque. It is called De Bleeke Dood (which means "the Pale Death"!) and it was built in 1656. It was restored a couple of times and is still used to make flour.
"De Bleeke Dood" windmill on the way to Zaanse Schans

Wooden clogs, windmills and tulips are all part of the world you enter in Zaanse Schans. Several mills were moved to this area in the 1960s to preserve them for future generations. They are surrounded by extensive meadows, and just to see the sails slowly turning from a distance make you feel like you went back a few centuries, when life was simpler and things like oil or flour or were produced locally.

Windmills along the river

Zaanse Schans is certainly touristic: there were plenty of tourists, especially Asians, with big cameras and selfie sticks, and the windmills now work almost exclusively for them. In spite of that, it is interesting to learn about their several uses: to mill and saw wood for sure, but also to make the pigments used by Dutch painters. For a few euros you can enter them and get to see how they work, then climb the stairs and have a look at the landscape from the top.

One of the mills along the river
There is an abundance of museums in Zaanse Schans, so if you feel like exploring traditional crafts, you could spend there the whole day. There is even a small museum that relates the history and the craftsmanship behind wooden clogs. Moreover, there are demonstrations of traditional crafts, hot chocolate for cold rainy days and a few restaurants.

The best thing about a visit to Zaanse Schans, however, was simply taking the leisurely walk from the train station to the village and then stroll on the water's edge, admiring these huge wooden creatures dating from another time. I spent there a couple of pleasant hours, thanks to the perfect weather. I had to plan really well when to go, looking at the weather forecast a lot, because not all the days I had there were as sunny with clear blue skies. 

Wooden clogs

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