Amsterdam is certainly one of the basic and obvious points on a trip to the Netherlands. Once one of Europe’s most important cities, a port that was a gateway to a world of aromatic spices, exotic goods, and rare raw materials – today a favorite destination for tourists. Pretending to be lost, they penetrate the narrow streets of the Red Lantern Quarter, watch with curiosity the store windows of magic mushroom stores, and, however, to maintain some balance, in the museum halls with seriousness admire the portraits of the wealthy bourgeoisie by the most prominent Dutch artists. If you get lost in a less populous corner of the city, you can take a quiet look at the stately soaring townhouses with numerous ornaments, evidence of the city’s former prosperity. A trip outside Amsterdam allows you to understand the genesis of this wealth.
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How have windmills contributed to the economy?
That’s why we went to Zaanse Schans, a local open-air museum where a complex of windmills near Amsterdam has been preserved and restored. Although we usually associate windmills with rural landscapes and grain milling, Zaanse Schans, with 80 such structures (today: 12), was a kind of the nucleus of the industry to multiply the value of goods flowing into the Amsterdam port from the farthest corners of the world.
Initially used to drain waterlogged land, more uses were found over time. It was here that aromatic spices were ground, and as they became more available, they found their way into the recipes of Dutch housewives for good, such as in the form of spicy speculaas or pepernoten cookies.
Windmills were also used to press oil from exotic plants, produce snuff from imported tobacco, grind mustard to make mustard, and even minerals to make oil paints – which, inferring from Dutch art galleries, must have been in high demand at the time.
The operation of such a windmill could be cleverly controlled – the 15-ton roof with the windmill’s cross could be turned depending on the wind direction, the speed of operation could be adjusted by the span of the sails on the cross, or braked with the help of a “vang,” a special braking tape.
The heyday of the “windmill basin” came to an end during the era of industrialization when the capricious and hard-to-predict power of the wind gave way to much more efficient steam engines.
Luckily, there were enthusiasts who felt the need to save deteriorating objects, restore their intricate mechanisms and preserve the unique character of the landscape. Thanks to them, we can take a close look at the working querns, climb to the very top of the windmill and feel the wind in our hair.
What else is there to see at Zaanse Schans?
Beyond the windmills, Zaanse Schans is a concentration of everything (stereo)typically Dutch.
In the original wooden workshops, you can watch the process of clog production, as well as admire the most interesting variations of them – you could often tell by the shoes which province their owner came from, in the northern part of the country clogs were produced with “crampons” for better grip in the snow, and elsewhere there was the custom of hand-decorated wedding clogs for the chosen of the heart, on which the bride-to-be laboriously carved out fine ornaments.
In addition, the cheese workshop, where you can understand the process of cheese making and the differences between “young” and “old” gouda, encourages you to visit. In the store, on the other hand, we cheekily snacked on various types of cheese with delicious mustard. Of other attractions, we find a chocolate store, a 19th-century grocery store, and a Dutch tile workshop – although these, we admit, interested us less.
Although Zaanse Schans is relatively small and a visit shouldn’t take more than two hours, it’s worth strolling around surrounded by pretty wooden houses, drinking coffee inside the windmill, or browsing in the antique stores. It’s a nice escape from Amsterdam, though be warned that it gets crowded rather quickly and a bit touristy at times.