on October 7, 2012
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. 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 €3 each to enter and the bakery charges €1 per person. The village’s main museum is €9 for adults and there is also a clock museum at €8 a head. Boat trips are available on the Zaan in the warmer months for €6 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. 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. 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 (€4 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.
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