There are two famous spots in the Netherlands where most photos of windmills are taken. You could argue which one is the nicer one but for the untrained tourist they are equally as nice.
The first one is at ‘Kinderdijk’, a place not far east from Rotterdam. There you can find a row of windmills that were used to pump the lower areas dry. It takes too long to explain it properly, but the bottom line is that you want to keep the groundwater level below the surface area of the fields, but not too low, because your soil will compress and sink. The trick is to find that balance. The windmills did that job of pumping the water out of the ditches into a higher built canal behind a dike (an engineering feat on its own). If you don’t pump, the area would return to one big lake as the western part of the Netherlands is below sea level.
The other famous spot is Zaanse Schans, just northwest of Amsterdam. Conveniently located near Amsterdam, it brings bus loads of foreign tourists to a row of windmills along the Zaan river. Here the windmills functioned as wind powered saw, paint and oil mills for the shipping industry. The name ‘schans’ is derived from the Dutch word for an earthen wall and the Dutch verb ‘verschansen’ (to hide behind something) is still a common verb.
Spandex clad men
As our base station was in Haarlem, we biked north through Haarlem, cut through some fields and a hamlet and ended up at the NorthSea canal, which connects Amsterdam with the NorthSea.
The ferry (free for bikes of course) crosses the canal a number of times per hour, so there was no need to plan. A bunch of spandex clad older men cycled up to the waiting area and a couple of them walked into the bushes for a pee. No one seemed to care. When the ferry left, they waved enthusiastically from the back of the ferry to the next group of spandex clad men, who just missed the boat and instead went into the bushes for a pee.
At the other end of the canal, we all went our way. Right at the ferry is a futuristic looking hotel overlooking the canal. Or so we thought. It turned out to be a waste management company HQ. The dump was full and the company decided to build its own HQ and educational space right on top of it. Basically to prove a point that you can handle waste responsibly. On the south side it overlooks the canal, on the north side a grass roof blends into the polder landscape.
We headed east to avoid the more direct but less interesting regional road and instead turned north eventually on a much nicer road with old farms (after we passed what looked like a prison- not all Dutch are angels)), small shops and very little traffic. We stopped for lunch and enjoyed the Dutch skies as we know them from the 17th century landscape painters. Finding de Zaanse Schans was a no-brainer.
Cheese slicer demo
The Zaanse Schans is not a museum, but a collection of windmills and historic wooden buildings brought together in the 1960’s for heritage conservation. You can admire the buildings without an entrance fee. If you want to see more inside a windmill, you pay at a windmill.
It is very touristy, with lots of people in the cheese store (with cheese slicer demonstrations), the candy store and the buildings with the interior of the very first Albert Heijn grocery store (around 1901 or so).
You can take a tour over the Zaan and admire the windmills from the water. Still, if it is not too crazily busy, it is kind of fun to walk around for an hour and a half. I noticed that the prices for cheese and stroopwafels are still very reasonable. (we brought our own lunch of course)
We took a slightly different route back, which let us through the incredibly boring looking village of Assendelft. Even the waitress, who happily finished smoking her cigarette for a few minutes before she bothered coming to our table, told us that there is really nothing to do in Assendelft.
Pumping the lakes dry
Cycling through the town besides the Zaanse Schans, we noticed the cutest free little library, built in the historic style of the Zaandam houses.
The area around it and just north of it has some of the oldest ‘droogmakerijen’ of Holland. In school we learned the names: Beemster, Schermer, Purmer, Wormer; former lakes, pumped dry by land speculators for agricultural purposes (nothing new here). Little did we know that later in life some of us would start to appreciate the wonderful landscapes and big skies that make a Dutch heart beat faster.The Beemster polder fell dry in 1612 and is a UNESCO world heritage site since 1999. From above you can clearly see the outlines of the former lake.
After we crossed the canal again we crossed a golf course south of the canal, passed many attractive house boats and not much later we arrived in the northern outskirts of Haarlem again. The rain stayed away, but it was an iffy day for cycling. But then again, is a burning 30 degrees sun and a UV index of 8 a better alternative when you’re cycling?