Monday, 14 May 2018

Dutch tourist magnets

Cycling day 2 took us to one of the many epicentres of Dutch tourism: Zaanse Schans (which I assure you that, unless you're Dutch, you're not pronouncing correctly). This is a village made up of traditional (some historical) Dutch houses that were moved here, and a handful of genuine working windmills doing what windmills did when literally thousands of windmills dotted the landscape in the area more than a hundred years ago.
A few of the windmills
Want to visit here? I saw ads for a €55 day trip by bus. You can take an 18 min train from Amsterdam for about €3.20. We rode our bikes. We started from home, and like yesterday, the farther away we got from Amsterdam Centraal, the easier the biking got. The route (45 km in total) was easy to ride (not so much to navigate) and pretty, despite starting straight though a huge industrial area.
Northeast then north
Step 1 was to get across the IJ River, for which, conveniently, there is a free ferry a short 20 minute bike ride from city centre. We just missed one on our arrival, so we waited for the next beside a mega statue of the famous kissing Dutch kids.
Sell portrait 
I swear Karen is trying to look up her dress
It was here that I realized I forgot my camera, so all the good pics today are from Karen.

The ferry carries cars, but this Saturday, 90% of the traffic was bikes and scooters.
It arrives. A 5 minute crossing. 
Heading across
Once on the north side, we followed a fietsknoop route I created to connect with one from Once again, we got off route several times due to poor or unclear signage, so once again, the Fietsknoop app was invaluable. The route took us through the pretty (if a bit uninspired) town of Zaandam, with it's main claims to fame being:

  • It was home to the first McDonalds in Europe, which opened in 1971;
  • It's home to Albert Heijn, the biggest grocery store in the country;
  • It features "fusion" architecture, where traditional dutch style house design is incorporated into modern buildings (we didn't get pictures but saw some some while lost off-route in town).
About 90 minutes after leaving our apartment, we arrived in the "tourist central" part of Zaanse Schans.
Looking across the river 
The "main drag". Calgarians, think Heritage Park 
Quiet canals
We found a pretty little green space, sat down on a bench, and picnicked. And probably ended up in the photos of 200 tourists.
Our lunch view, the crowds carefully cropped out.
All the buildings here are real, and people really live here, but they're also mostly businesses allegedly showing traditional Dutch things like cheese- or clog-making.
A farm, sorta
It's tour bus central. There are even photographers to take your picture as you come into the village from the museum/bus park area, so you can buy them when you leave.
The quiet sidewalks
We thought about going into the clog makers or the cheese place, but the line-ups (on this quiet day) were silly. So many people were taking pictures you could not help but get in their shots, and taking any picture without someone standing in front of you was a challenge. But... part of the reason for that is that it's photogenic.
The town 
Lunch garden 
Windmills between houses 
Windmills over houses 
Canals separate pastures 
Crowds by the windmills
Clearly the highlight of the place for us was the windmills. There are a few kinds of windmills; the traditional mills that pump water away to keep the land dry are called "polder mills"; they're mostly gone (don't want to trust the wind to save houses). The ones in Zaanse Schans are mostly the other kind: traditional oil, dye, spice, grain or saw mills. At least 4-5 are open to be visited each day.

Since my cousin Duncan asked; the ones here really are working windmills, doing traditional stuff. Some are a bit "for show", but the one pictured below (which is not open to the public and not on the "tourist trap grounds" and is not for show at all) is real for sure:
Working for that factory in the background
Zaanse Schans is/was a centre of the cocoa bean industry. There are a bunch of chocolate factories here; the smell of chocolate permeates the air in lots of places between Zaandam and Zaanse Schans (with the PepsiCo and Cargill and other big name players owning them). The mill in the picture above actually grinds cocoa beans for the big factory in the background, and is never open to visitors.

We toured a sawmill and a spice mill. The sawmill was fascinating, though you couldn't actually see the gearing of how the circular motion of turning of the blades became the reciprocal action of the cutting of the saw (too dangerous). But you could see the guts of the sawing operation, and talk to the mill workers about the process. Here's how it works:
  • Wood (they like larch and oak, pine is OK, but they hate elm because it stinks) arrives from places like Norway and Germany, though historically it came from much farther away.
  • It sits in water for a while; for larch, "a while" is 4-6 months, for oak, "a while" is 4 YEARS. The water bath makes the wood easier to cut without warping, kills the bad bugs and fungus in the wood, makes it easier to remove the bark, and cures it.
  • When they're ready to cut it, they dry it for a day, strip the bark (powered by the wind) then load it to a pulley (powered by the wind) that gets it to the cutting floor.
  • It's loaded into a come-along (powered by the wind), creeps into the stationary blades of the saw (powered by the wind), and is cut.
  • After cutting, they have to hold the boards 3-4 months to dry before it can be delivered to the customer.
They can set the blade widths in 150 different thicknesses (though none too thin) by putting different sized blocks between the blades.
The saw doing its thing 
The log in the come-along 
Slow and steady win the race 
The gearing that pulls the come along forward 0.3" per saw stroke 
The next larch waiting to be cut 
Larch logs waiting to be cut
The sawmill uses everything. The bark goes to garden centres, the sawdust to farms for bedding. The boards themselves? Primarily used for things like... repairing historic buildings or windmills. They're just too thick and too rough cut to be used for modern construction. But they've pre-sold all of the wood cut by this mill for the next 4 years already. There's a demand.

Oh, and I asked: with the weak 5 km wind we had that day, the log pictured will take 6-8 hrs to cut. Give them a 20 km/hr wind and they have to reef the sails in to control the pace of cutting.

Our spice mill tour was much shorter, and darker, and harder to photograph.
The wheels go round 
Mustard, pepper, ginger, cinnamon etc
The scooper-thing pushes the stuff under the wheels
This mill basically ground every spice I have ever used in my kitchen, using these giant (and small; there were 6 mills inside, all powered by the one set of sails) wood or stone or concrete wheels. The place smelled great.

Spice mills were a biggie in times gone by. The Dutch kinda perfected the spice trade, so at one time, if you bought pepper anywhere in the world, there is no doubt it passed through the Zaandam area before you got it.

Alas, after spending 3 hrs exploring, it was time to head back. We actually rode north a bit to cross the river, then back through the (much quieter) Zaandijk on the other side of the river.
Along the way
We basically retraced our steps, and in an easy 90 min, were home-ish. We got close to our house and into the maelstrom of traffic on the streets and bike paths of Amsterdam near the station, and suddenly were back into craziness.
Dude, with La-Z-Boy, on electrical box, on phone watching canal traffic
The canal traffic he was watching
Zaanse Schans is absolutely worth the visit, but...
  • There will be bus hoards;
  • Forget about going inside most things;
  • The best reason to go is to check out the living history of the windmills;
  • There will be crowds;
  • Go early to avoid those crowds;
  • Ride your bike to get there. It's an easy ride and better than the busses.
  • Lean how to say "excuse me" in at least 19 languages.

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