In Zaanse Schans: An efficient introduction to the Netherlands

Foreign visitors to the Netherlands like to remain in Amsterdam. Of course: there’s plenty to do in the city, such an unfamiliar train system with strange tickets and no line numbers is only difficult, most visitors only have a few days. Yet they make an exception for the Zaanse Schans, the residential neighbourhood with old wooden houses and traditional Dutch windmills. They are especially pleasantly surprised when they learn how close the Zaanse Schans is to Amsterdam: 12 minutes by train from Amsterdam’s Sloterdijk station.

After those 12 minutes – the Netherlands is such a small country – the train arrives at Zaandijk Zaanse Schans station. But on this measly day we – older couples with dangling photo cameras, families (I heard Spanish and Italian) and a few young folks – did not get out beside the visual spectacle that we had come for.

The station is on the outskirts of old Zaandijk; the Zaanse Schans is a short ten minute walk away. Previously the station was called Koog-Zaandijk, but the municipality of Zaanstad wanted to replace it to provide clarity: three consecutive stations with ‘Zaan’ in the name only worked confusingly. Sounds logical, but the municipality still had to wait 16 years before the Dutch Railways responded to its wish – changing a station name after 150 years (minus one month) involves a lot of paperwork.

Most looked around, searching. Not that it was difficult to find the exit: that was only possible through the tunnel. And then, already, it became obvious: at the bottom of the stairs everyone turned left. Some tourists soon found the (excellent) signposting, which led them around the village. But most followed the directions of Google Maps through a street with a cocoa factory on the left and residential houses on the right. The signage was of course designed to rid this street of crowds of tourists – the Zaanse Schans receives 2.2 million visitors annually (2017) – but it seemed that idealism had been overtaken by technological progress: which smartphone user was still looking at signs? Doesn’t Google know it all?

The somewhat oppressive smell of the cocoa factory floated above the street. At the end I turned left into an old village street, running adjacent to the river Zaan. Near the Juliana Bridge, which connected the village with the Zaanse Schans, the first companies that responded to mass tourism were already popping up: souvenir shops (chocolate!) and Ristorante Il Mulino, for those who’d like to enjoy an Italian meal with a Dutch view – the dark river, the meandering row of mills, the flat lands behind it.

I crossed the Juliana Bridge, passing photographing tourists, and walked down a slope, into the Zaanse Schans. This was the ‘unofficial’ entrance to the area – the real was on the other side at the parking lot.

Despite the drizzle and the fact that this was the off-season, quite a few tourists were about. The first thing that struck me as a Dutchman was that the tourists weren’t walking on a footpath, but on a cycle path. It was used by school kids, who repeatedly had to slow down and ring their bell and go around the pedestrians. Just like in Amsterdam’s Red Light District, where tourists have appropriated the roadway and cyclists ride into them like a kind of kamikaze pilot, the foreign visitors did not see the difference.

To Dutch people, the Zaanse Schans is what the Eiffel Tower is to Parisians: taken for granted. To foreigners, however, it’s a very efficient introduction to the exotic elements of a culture that evolved from a tamed landscape – the mills, the cheese factory, the clog maker, all the Delft Blue inside the souvenir shops, the winding river, the flat country full of green. And it is (quite out of Dutch character) accessible for free: it is emphatically not an open-air museum, it is a residential neighbourhood. Or rather: a reserve of relocated monuments.

All buildings come from the Zaan region. A large building such as restaurant ‘De Hoop op d’Swarte Walvis,’ a former orphanage, was taken down and rebuilt brick by brick. Smaller houses and mill bodies have been, sometimes complete, brought to this location by boat or truck from 1959. It was architect Jaap Schipper’s response to the slow disappearance of historical heritage from the Zaan region, where the village streets, in fact, still display many typical wooden houses with green-painted facades.

A neighbourhood was created that exudes the atmosphere of 1850 and where there’s a lot of creativity – the mills spin and make their products, cheese is being made, people live here, clogs are being cut. That way, the preservation of cultural heritage is professionally exploited with the tourists as a very lucrative market. But it must be terrible to live there – how often, one wonders, would a resident find himself in an intimate pose with his wife just as a curious visitor presses his nose against the window of the house? You might as well move into a fishbowl.

Fortunately, the more discreet visitor will find a cheap alternative to view a Zaans house from within. Right by the Juliana Bridge is, in one of the first houses, the Museum of the Dutch Clock. In addition to an impressive collection of clocks, the authentic wooden interior of the cottage is worth a look.

But the mills are the real attraction. There are eight, scattered on top of the Kalverringdijk along the meandering Zaan. The view alone is beautiful, but most mills are of course also open to the public. Some charge an entrance fee of a few euros, others cover their expenses with the sale of products.

I entered the Huisman spice mill (yep, because this one was free). My eyes caught the simple but ingenious interior – the grinding edge runners – and my nostrils filled with the penetrating scent of cinnamon and mustard. An employee was explaining things to visitors and in the store I discovered that the prices were also well seasoned. But it was obviously supply and demand, and in this case it served a worthy cause. Through the wooden muntins I saw an older couple posing on the Kalverringdijk with the mills in the background – the ultimate souvenir to take home from the Netherlands.

Outside, a school class passed by under the supervision of a guide with a red umbrella – folded, because it was no longer drizzling. I walked into cheese farm the Catharina Hoeve, but it seemed to be the wrong door: through the store, instead of the cheese factory, and one was not allowed to walk into the cheese factory from the store. Oh well. In the shop, I was amazed by the amounts of tourists that gazed at the cheese products and other Dutch products – the syrup waffles were flying off the shelves.

Not much further was the real – official – entrance to the Zaanse Schans, on the side of the parking lot. Visitors who came by car or bus – often on a tour that combines the ‘Schans’ with a visit to Volendam or the flower fields – walked here across a bridge on which stood a photographer who took their photo. On departure, they could find the printed photo on a wooden wall underneath a shelter. I stood on the square that was wedged between the bridge and three souvenir shops. This was where most visitors obtained their first impression of the Zaanse Schans – and if the ‘Schans’ is indeed a residential neighbourhood, then this was the neighbourhood square, but one where the resident had little to come for; it was rather like the entrance to an amusement park.

I entered all three stores. In the largest, the emphasis was on clothes, in the Saense Lelie the Delft Blue on offer (which was also produced here) seemed to come in higher quantities and in the small souvenir shop, next to the toilets, the many postcards in particular caught the eye – not that you couldn’t get syrup waffles or Delft Blue here, of course.

I walked past a restaurant where the Dutch pancake was being recommended and finished my circuit. I found my way back to the Juliana Bridge along a shell path between small meadows, flanked by small Zaan houses with gardens, and along a cooperage – where the barrels lay along the length of the tarred, wooden building. Other tourists were taking pictures of the windmills along the Zaan. And at the Zaandijk Zaanse Schans station new hordes of visitors alighted, staring with inquisitive glances at the map on their smartphones, before descending into the tunnel and turning left.

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