The windmill is one of the best known icon of the Netherlands and is often the first thing that people recall about the country.
In this low-lying country, where the wind always blows, the windmills used to be an important machinery for milling, sawing and pressing. In addition, they were used to pump water out of lakes and to keep the reclaimed land dry. At the peak of the windmill era, there were more than 10,000 windmills in use in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, with the industrial revolution, the importance of wind as a primary source of industrial energy declined and the windmills fell out of favour.
To get an impression of the Dutch way of life in the 17th and 18th centuries, I headed to Zaanse Schans, an open-air conservation area and museum located just a few kilometres north of Amsterdam. Besides genuine working windmills, Zaanse Schans houses a number of well-preserved traditional Dutch houses, a cheese and dairy farm, a wooden clogs workshop and an age-old grocery store. I think you can’t get more Dutch than at Zaanse Schans!
There are six working industrial windmills in Zaanse Schans and my personal favourite windmill is ‘De Zoeker’, an oil mill built in 1672 in the Westzijderveld in Zaandijk. Having stood for more than three centuries, ‘De Zoeker’ is still grinding and pounding nuts and seeds to produce oil today. It is also the only one of its kind still producing oil using traditional methods daily. The sight of the large milling stone in constant motion, the aroma of the roasted nuts and seeds, and the loud, reverberating sound from the constant pounding makes the visit to ‘De Zoeker’ a very interesting experience.
In contrast to ‘De Zoeker’, the top-turning sawmill ‘Het Jonge Schaap’ is the latest addition to Zaanse Schans. Building of ‘Het Jonge Schaap’ started in 2006 based on the measurements and drawings of the original top-turning sawmill which was dismantled in 1942. The sawmill was finally completed in September 2007 and ready for work six days a week (closes on Sunday).
There is more to Zaanse Schans than just windmills. It has a number of fascinating museums and traditional Dutch workshops such as the wooden clogs workshop, a pewter foundry and a cheese farm. I also enjoyed strolling on the path along the Zaan and taking in the magnificent view of the surrounding landscape. I would strongly recommend Zaanse Schans to anyone seeking a retreat from the ever crowded Amsterdam. It is, without doubt, a wonderful destination to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace.
Zaanse Schans is open daily throughout the year. There is no entrance fee although some of the attractions, including the windmills, charge an admission fee.
For more information on opening hours, admission fees and how to get there, please see the Zaanse Schans Museum website.