Thursday, 14 June 2012

Zaanse Schans (Ζάνσε Σχανς)

During our recent travels in Holland, we visited Zaanse Schans, a small village a few kilometres out of Amsterdam. A lot has been written about Zaanse Schans, and all of it good. Zaanse Schans is considered to be an open-air museum, but I also found it to be a functional permanent residential area. Given its proximity to the capital of the Netherlands, it's easy to access. Most of the jobs there are concerned with tourism, but even most of those jobs are connected with a trade that is still important today in Holland, making Zaanse Schans a sustainable tourism site. It's really easy to spend the whole day at Zaanse Schans, because there is so much to see and do, and most of it is free. You won't get tired either - Dutch countryside is, generally speaking, as flat as a pancake, so you'll forget that you have been walking all day.

If you're a foodie, Zaanse Schans has a lot of food experiences to offer. But there was also something else about Zaanse Schans that made it so endearing: Zaanse Schans is the epitome of Dutch imagery. Windmills, clogs, canals, dykes and fluffy clouds - Zaanse Schans introduces you to the best of Holland in fairy-tale style. And if you are lucky to visit Zaanse Schans on a fine sunny day (like we were), you will never forget the colours and the clarity of those images.

 Windmills, water and fluffy clouds - typical Dutch scenery under a blue sky.

A train line takes you directly to the village. On exiting the station, the first thing that strikes your senses is the aroma of chocolate wafting through the air, coming from the chocolate-processing factory built by the river. The road towards the windmills (some of which were eventually transported to the 'museum' area from other parts of Holland) is full of old workers' homes, which  have been renovated by the local residents and remain true to their original style, as they were built in the 17th-18th centuries.The brightly coloured ones in traditional green and brick orange colours made a striking contrast under the fluffy white clouds and blue sky on the day we visited.

The Albert Heijn museum in Zaanse Schans

One of the first museum houses you'll come across is directly related to food. The oldest supermarket chain in Holland (Albert Heijn) has its origins here. It started off as a typical grocery store, selling bulk goods behind a counter. Further along the river, you come across renovated barns and farm houses, which now serve as sustainable tourist enterprises. My favorite was the clog makers: a brief history of the clog is provided, together with a demonstration of how to make clogs and a range of clogs to choose from if you wish to buy some. Don't think that Dutch clogs are a thing of the past - I saw a (somewhat older) gent wearing a bright yellow pair near Alkmaar as he was riding his bicycle through the town, and I'm guessing there must be more of his type too!

The clog factory

The cheese factory wasn't giving a demonstration that day, but it was one of the most popular attractions. Dutch cheese is very famous all over the world (especially Gouda cheese). It's quite different from the sharp grainy graviera made in Crete, but we found it tasty enough to buy some and take it home with us: one round of mustard-grained cheese and a roll of smoked cheese.

 The cheese factory - these are all replicas, as far as I know...

The windmills are a spectacular sight at Zaanse Schans. Not all the windmills originated in the area; some were transported there once the area was turned into a tourist site. Each one continues to be in use today, powering or grinding various things. Since they all work on natural wind energy, you need to come to Zaanse Schans on a windy day (plenty of those in Holland). Whether you will be as lucky as we were in coming on both a sunny and a windy day with no rain is not so certain. We really were very lucky!

 The spice mill was grinding cinnamon when we visited - really strong stuff!

Holland's reputation for trading spices is accentuated by the 'De Huisman' mill, which grinds all sort of spices, and enjoys fame for the mustard it produces. The famous speculoos biscuits wouldn't be anything special if it weren't for the spices that go into the them. It is ironic when something so typically Dutch as speculoos busicuits and mustard-flavoured cheese need Asian ingredients to give them their distinct taste.

 Coloured flavoured sugar snow, called muisjes, is a specialty of Dutch cuisine. 

Feeling honored by the good weather, we took in the breathtaking scenery of Zaanse Schans, which encompassed all good things Dutch. It was easy to walk such a long time without getting tired - as I said before, Holland is as flat as a pancake...

Apart from the quaint environment, I also got a glimpse of what it means to live below sea level. It's quite obvious in the photo below that the level of the sea is above the ground, and the position I took the photo from is below sea level. The dykes where the people are standing are artificial.

... Speaking of which, there aren't many restaurants within the museum area; there are more in the general village but they aren't all open all the time, quite unlike the Greek tradition of encircling a tourist site with cafes or tavernas, which is why the food is beeter (more competition). We came across a quirky (and over-priced) pancake restaurant: after placing your order via self-service, you are then given a buzzer which will beep when your pancake order is ready.

Farmer's pancake with cheese and bacon, and kiddies' delight with chocolate and cream. The restaurant also served soup and drinks. 

After waiting patiently for what seemed like a long time and hearing no beep, we simply asked for the pancakes, which were waiting for us, getting cold - system breakdown!

Zaanse Schans is a good example for Greece to base her future tourism on: organised tourist sites that offer people a look into Greece's past could include coastal areas that have been associated some time int heir past with ancient civilisation. It pays to note that the windmills in Zaanse Schans weren't all there originally - some were moved there form other parts of Holland, which allowed the area to become an open-air museum in modern times, a kind of 'little Holland' that encompassed all the images that tourists assoicate with Holland. The biggest problem I envisage in such a project would be to change the traditional mindset of the Greek people. Maybe they all need to go to Zaanse Schans to see how it could also work for them. 

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