Sunday 13 April 2014

Zaanse Schans

"Alkmaar?! Why on earth would you go there on a Sunday? There's nothing going on then."

During the research and planning stages before our trip, M had read about the Alkmaar Cheese Market, which happens every Friday. We'd missed the market of course, but still we thought it might be interesting to visit what looked like a quaint little town (M likes quaint). When we went to get advance tickets on Saturday evening however, the gentleman at the train ticket office rather vehemently assured us that our time was better spent elsewhere. Our first option so thoroughly dismissed, it was with no small degree of trepidation that we asked about the next place on our to-visit list: What about Zaanse Schans? 

"Ah, Zaanse Schans! Yes, a far better place to visit. Much more things to see and do, and all quite fun. You can easily spend an entire day there. Here, I will get your tickets and explain how to get there."

It turned out to be fairly simple. The trains running from Amsterdam Centraal to the nearest station (Koog-Zandijk) operate frequently, and the ride itself took only 15 minutes. From there, it was simple enough to navigate our way using the many street signs. There were other cookie crumbs guiding our path, including a vending machine dispensing free maps of Zaanse Schans, so we were able to get a sense of the activities we could participate in before we even step foot in the place. 

The morning was as beautifully balmy as it had been the previous day. We made our way along the streets, silent save for the occasional ring of birdsong. Most of the shops were shuttered, but far from being creepy, it felt quite restful. Of course, much of our positive feelings that morning could possibly be attributed to the delicious smells wafting from the chocolate factory located across the river from Zaanse Schans. No activity could be discerned when we peered beyond the fence around it, but the smell lingered, with tendrils of scent following us even as we rounded the corner and moved further away. 

We were promised windmills in Zaanse Schans, . The bridge over the river  looked out to the houses and we weren't disappointed, passing one en-route. The view as we made our way across the river was spectacular, with colourful houses dotted along one bank and windmills on the other. With most of the attractions open by 9.30 am, we'd made an early start to the day. When we arrived, the entire place was still largely free of other people, and we had the run of the compound. M & D looked on indulgently while I chased a few ducks around, and as we strolled on together down the blissfully empty streets, we basked in the gentle sunshine. 

After studying the free map we'd obtained from the vending machine, we decided to make our way to the far end of the compound, and slowly work our way back. Of course, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, but we were still able to deploy our opening gambit. The buildings furthest from the river were the Zaans Museum/Verkade Pavilion, telling the history of Zaans and the biscuit and chocolate factory that had once operated on the bank of the Zaan River respectively. D began running triage on his work emails the minute he found the free WiFi signal indoors, leaving M and I to speak with the lady at the museum information desk. 

All we wanted to know was whether getting the Zaanse Schans discount card was as good a deal as the website had made it out to be, but much like the ticket officer at the train station, she was honest to the point of brutality

"It's only a good deal if you want to visit this museum" she said, gesturing about her. "But it's mostly about a biscuit and chocolate factory that a lot of people outside the Netherlands have never heard of, and I doubt you'll find it very interesting. Save the money."

Thus persuaded (Or dissuaded, as it were), we headed to the cafe for breakfast. It was too early in the day for pancakes apparently (The travesty!), so we were forced to raid the coolers where pastries had been freshly set out. 

The apple pie and chocolate puff were decent, but neither held a candle to the Hazelnoot Schuimgebak, a hazelnut meringue that was an utter revelation. Under my knife, it fell apart into large, satisfying chunks and delicious little crumbs, before disintegrating even further each time we tried to shovel it into our mouth with our forks. By the end, I was basically licking the last powdery dregs of sweet, nutty goodness off my plate. 

Sometime during our sojourn in the cafe, other tourists had arrived by coach and car. When we stepped back out into the sun, the entire place was overrun. The routes we'd taken were now clogged with human traffic, so to avoid the teeming masses, we ducked into every store we could that hadn't been likewise inundated. Of course, there was no real escape - everywhere we stepped into, the hoards would follow. 

Our first place of refuge was the Bakery Museum Shop, housed in a building that dates back to the mid-17th Century. Called In de Gecroonde Duyvekater, it has a particularly apt name, after a sweet bread local to and still produced in the Zaans region. We went all the way into the back, where much of the baking artifacts were on display. Much of the shelves were devoted to intricately carved speculaas cookie moulds, which were a sight more interesting than the mixing bowls and ordinary rolling pins I'd somehow imagined. 

The front of the building was shop space, but decorated almost entirely in 19th Century style. There was even a working oven from the 19th Century that was being used to bake bread, which enveloped the entire space in an aromatic bubble of sheer wholesomeness. 

Being newly-full from breakfast made it somewhat easier to resist the desire to snap up a freshly baked loaf or two, but the cleverly placed displays meant that we came face to face with ever more covetable items every which way we turned. I found myself desperately wanting all manner of paraphernalia, and needing to remind myself that I don't even bake in the first place. It was a tough exercise in self-control.  

We followed the sounds of a clacking vintage wind spinner to the antique store nearby, and almost immediately had to step out again because of the wave of people that washed in right after us. A long history of clumsiness has made me almost pathologically afraid of being in too-close confines with fragile things, especially if I'm shoulder-to-shoulder with the next person. 

Still, we'd managed to have a bit of a look around. The dolls were fairly creepy, to be sure, but like all stores selling knick-knacks and other odds and ends, it threw up a few gems. Like this completely random felt and plastic chicken - entirely appropriate for the season, but I wasn't sure what it was doing sitting in that container. It wasn't even an egg cup!

Speaking of the odd, outside the Zaans Gedaan Cocoa Lab for instance, stood the dodgiest jar of lemonade I'd ever come across, baking in the sun. I wasn't foolhardy enough to try it, though I must say I was sorely tempted. 

Inside the Cocoa Labs, you could make your own hot chocolate within the walls of an authentic barn. Nothing instant of course - you'd need to employ traditional methods from the 17th and 18th Centuries. It was a warm enough day that we wound up getting a piece of chocolate-coated marshmallow instead, one of the may treats that had been made on-site it seems. We couldn't be sure if they'd used marshmallow coating techniques from hundreds of years ago, or something more contemporary. I had a few nibbles trying to taste for hints of tradition, but the marshmallow remained stubbornly enigmatic and timeless. 

Most of Zaanse Schans' appeal lies in its cluster of windmills. The Zaan region was Western Europe's oldest industrial area, with over 600 windmills operating at its peak in the 18th Century. The boom had been precipitated by new trade links forged during the Dutch golden age in the previous century, driving demand for shipbuilding and other products. The beautiful houses we'd seen on the other river bank were some of the by-products of this era of prosperity, as rich merchants tried to one-up each other by building the most beautiful house along what was once a busy thoroughfare. Today, the river is calm, and only ten windmills remain.

Rather than sitting as silent, obsolete artifacts from a now-dead era, the windmills in Zaanse Schans continue to operate, producing the same products that they did so long ago and actively preserving their heritage. The receptionist at the museum was full of praise for the pigment mill De Kat (The Cat) especially. If we were to visit just one windmill, it ought to be this one, she declared. The mill itself has a dramatic backstory that includes fires, extensive rebuilding, getting pieced together with parts of other mills Frankenstein-style and forced moves. Running smoothly as it was, it was hard for us to notice all the parts that didn't originally belong. 

After getting our tickets and brochures at the counter, we followed the arrows up the narrow step-ladder to the second floor, where barrels and barrels of pigments were the first things to greet us. They added a tang to the smell of sawdust and metal in the mill. 

The brilliant hues of the Zaan region made our visit to this mill a rather apt one, as historically the houses have been awash with colour, further set off by the natural shades of field and sky. The gears continued to turn throughout our visit, grinding to a fine powder the natural mineral pigments that once formed the basis of paint. A small shop in the mill sells bags and bottles of these pigments for artists and collectors, and is worth a browse. 

Going further up and out, we were able to step onto the platform where the miller was deftly adjusting the sails of the mill to suit his purposes. Hauling a set of ropes this way and that, he folded up a set of opposing sails and altered the direction they were facing. It was fascinating stuff. 

Zaanse Schans feels like an open-air experiential museum, where the theme is all things stereotypically Dutch. You're not going to get a nuanced look at Dutch history and culture, but it's a good smorgasbord of immersive experience for visitors who want to get a multi-sensory feel for the basics. It's really about as touristy as you can get while remaining a fun place to visit.

We had reserved places for a cheese tasting session back in Amsterdam later in the day, so we didn't linger over-long in the cheese store. While waiting for M to choose a souvenir though, we had time to peruse the map, and realize we'd missed the clog workshop. 

Before the clog workshop and store proper is a small clog museum, filled with the most intricately carved clogs. Traditionally, a man would personally carve clogs for his sweetheart as a proposal or a wedding gift, and while that part of Dutch heritage has mostly been lost, some of the clogs still remain. They did have an update for our times as well: The Diamond Clog. Every inch of the clog was studded with diamonds, and the whole thing sat on a revolving platform under bright lights like an aggressively sparkly and over-the-top disco ball. The museum also included painted clogs, clogs for work, clogs for ice-skating and even clogs for horses. 

The clog-making workshop was terrific. The craftsman kept up a running commentary in five different languages, including passable Mandarin, while showing a range of clog-making techniques. First he ran through the labour-intensive hand-carving method, before showing us how the machinery worked to create a clog in under three minutes. It was action-packed from start to finish. You need supple young wood in clog-making for ease of carving, but I don't think anyone expected quite so much water to gush out of the freshly done clog when he blew on it at the end of the demonstration. 

D and I went for pre-lunch aperitifs at the tasting room of liqueur distillery De Tweekoppige Phoenix (The Two-Headed Phoenix). The alcohol is prepared the way it was in the second half of the 19th Century using steam distillation. Their copper pot still is powered by a steam boiler kept in the attic, to ensure the flames go nowhere near the alcohol, making the process a safer one. The liqueur was rougher than what we'd tried at Wynand Fockink, but the gaggle of Russian girls who were in the tasting room with us seemed to enjoy it well enough, downing shot after shot. It was a sight to behold. 

We had lunch at the pub next door, where I feasted on Dutch sausage, olives, and beer. The hint of bitterness in the sausage was effectively neutralized by the olives, and the beer went well with everything. 

M and I wanted to have a post-lunch amble, so we parked D at the museum so he could use the free WiFi as he pleased, and made our way to the viewing platform at the edge of the compound. 

The wind whipped our hair wildly about as we ascended, but when we made it to the very top of the structure the view was entirely worth the climb. Canals and fields as far as the eye can see. 

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