on October 7, 2012
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 visit 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.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 €17 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.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 €6.50 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. 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.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.
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