Find your slice of quintessential Holland
Dreaming Dutch? Enterprising merchants, labouring engineers, seafaring sailors and slogging farmers in wooden clogs? Fine ships sailing the high seas? Black-and-white bovines grazing on lush grasses in a windmill-studded countryside? Make the dream a reality, just 20 minutes away from bustling, cosmopolitan Amsterdam. Impressionist master Claude Monet’s Blue House masterpiece derived inspiration right here. Dare you to miss the opportunity!
Windmills and cheese at Zaanse Schans
Even as you disembark at the bus parking of Zaanse Schans (ZAHN-ze skhahns), you know why the whimsical, quaint town attracts over a million visitors every year. Old-style barns, tradesmen’s workshops and intriguing little crafts shops line the tree-shaded cobbled streets. Picturesque hump-backed bridges adorn tiny canals outside charming gardens where fat chickens cluck. Enchanting Dutch wood houses in green/blue paint sport spotless white window frames and bright terracotta roofs. And a bunch of historic windmills flank the river. Its all real in this working village…yes, actual families live behind those dainty lace-curtain windows!
There’s every element that a village would need…pewter foundry set in a charming 18th century tea house, a clock museum, a grocer’s shop and a wealthy merchant’s house selling traditional costumes. Also, a cheese farm and a wooden shoe shop as bonus. An authentic open-air museum of traditional Dutch life, you would contemplate. Yet nothing seems the least contrived.
Of the 600 active windmills in the entire Zaan region, 10 working windmills are located here, including a sawmill, a paint mill, an oil mill a and mustard mill. Study the mighty wooden spokes and the rotund bell structure, before heading inside, up a smallish ladder, past huge creaking wooden cogs to the roof. Photo-opp aside, its an occasion to ponder about Holland’s 10,000 windmills that flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries…powering industries, pumping water, grinding grain or draining fields, even constructing fleets, making it an important player in the world trade. Powerhouses of the past…tourist-tickers today.
Later, partake in a 2000-year old Dutch cheese-making demonstration at the nearby Catherina Hoeve cheese factory. Imbibe the pearls of information, if you can control your growling stomach and distract yourself from the amazing aromas. Cheese ageing varies from 4 weeks for mild taste to over a year for extra aged…the younger the cheese, the creamier the texture; as it gets older, it becomes hard, crumblier and sharper in taste. Holland produces 30 million pounds of cheese per week, including the popular Gouda (mild, almost sweet), Edam, Leidse kanas (dotted with cumin seeds) and Maasdamer (full of holes). What’s your poison?
If time permits, visit the town of Gouda, where cheese makers and farmers still bring cheese for weighing and selling in the city’s square on Thursday mornings in summer. Otherwise, fulfil your heart’s desire by strolling through the cheese farm counters filled with cheese wheels and overwhelming variants from plain to flavoured with various herbs and spices such as cumin, pepper, fenugreek or chilli pepper. And say cheese!
Village with a view: Volendam
Close by lies Volendam, take the opportunity to explore another delightful little village. Does anyone live here at all, you ask yourself, or is it just all part of a lifelike exhibit? Pretty winding backstreets, weeping willow tree curtains, neatly laid foliage…its a stunning setting! Narrow canals crossed by cantilever bridges lead to rows of coquettish wooden houses with sloped red brick roofs. Each of them equally spaced, as if planned and built the very same day.
Take a leisurely walk through the village, admiring the lovely country homes. Feel the local atmosphere. A window with soft white lace curtains. Adorable curios and collectibles displayed on sills. A cozy armchair with a half-read book. Coffee mugs left on the dining table. A wheelbarrow lying lazily in the backyard. A pair of orange wooden shoes hanging on house entrance wall like a planter with white flowers spilling out. Bikes casually leaning out front. A tiny wooden balcony with a single rattan chair. Unreal, everyday beauty that inspired artists like Renoir and Picasso.
A sudden left turn brings you to the harbour-fronted High Street, all abuzz with bars, cafes, restaurants, cheese factories, souvenir shops, fish stalls selling herring and smoked eel. This village was created out of a ‘filled dam’ (Dutch for Volendam)…and the top is of the protecting dyke is where you are now. This is where all the action is! Drop your guard, get touristy. Stop at a traditional costume shop, pay to dress up and take photos. Or have a meal at one of the cafes dripping with ambience.
Old fishermen’s boats pose for effect, eye-catching sailboats bob playfully and a few cruise ships dock lazily. People dot the benches, immersed in the sights of the wave-ridden waters and the unceasing sounds of the cawing seagulls. Bulky-built bronzed fishermen in baggy rough breeches converse in unfamiliar language about the catch of the day. Women in vermilion, yellow and green Dutch costumes sporting high, pointed black bonnets sell pickled herrings from baskets.
You are submerged in the characteristic beauty of Holland. Its still-fresh appearance belies its 14th-century roots. A lively canvas is spread out before you. And you are a tiny figure immersed inside this gorgeous painting. Blend in. Fade out. Its inevitable.
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