Rows of green wooden houses look like pretty trims along both banks of the Zaan River in the Dutch city of Zaandam. Windmill blades rotate sleepily, and each gust of wind carries the rich aroma of cocoa from a factory across the water. Cyclists whizz past, pedalling further into the endless peat meadow landscape.
I am lulled into feeling that I’m in the faraway countryside. Such is the effect of Zaanse Schans, a village preserved to depict life in 18th- and 19th-century Netherlands, just a 25-minute drive from buzzy Amsterdam.
Trade thrived in the Zaan district from the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century. Zaanstreek (the region through which the Zaan flows) brimmed with over 600 industrial windmills that produced paint, oil, spices, paper, flour, and cocoa powder. Thanks to a massive restoration project, I’m standing amongst original mills and abodes of that time—some humble, others spiffier with white trimming along their roofs. Since 1961, centuries-old derelict homes and windmills from around the district were moved to this open-air museum. A small community lives and works here, running shops, restaurants, warehouses, and museums, ensuring Zaanse Schans is no hollow relic of the past.
Walking around the village, I pop in and out of shops and museums to time travel. There’s the Albert Heijn Museum Shop, a 19th-century grocer’s store that grew to become a famous supermarket chain in the Netherlands. Old painted tins line its shelves, and grains, candy, and bread are displayed just as they were centuries ago. I follow a family past a bakery, into the cheese-making factory. Children flit in and out of an old wooden house which is now a souvenir shop where their parents pick up miniature windmills. As I walk further, I begin to note signs of the past of these homes. An 18th-century riverside house in a garden was once a merchant’s teahouse, built so the owner could keep an eye on river traffic while sipping on a cuppa.
The houses weren’t always green. They became that way in the 19th century, during the reign of Queen Victoria who preferred this “quiet colour.”
At De Kat, a wood-panelled mill that began producing paint in 1646, I climb a steep staircase to the first floor where three immense wheels turn languorously. The continuous vibration of the floor and walls makes me feel like I’m inside the belly of a gargantuan creature. The guide holds out red paint powder, and tells me that the mill still produces about 35,000 kilos of paint annually.
Every slice of Dutch history is present in this two-acre reimagined village, including clogs. At the Kooijman clogs museum, some are painted with tulips, others with fishing scenes or biblical images in the style of Hindeloopen folk art. Modern artists have added their own touch: a pair resembles an open mouth with teeth bared viciously.
Restaurant De Kraai next door is testament to how the Dutch have always loved their pancakes. My group and I polish off velvety pancakes glistening with bacon and cheese, strawberry and cream, apple and cinnamon sugar, and cherry with cream. I leave this bucolic retreat with my tummy full, after one last look at the houses that have found a home in my heart.
Orientation Zaanse Schans is in Zaandam city, 20 km/25 min northwest of Amsterdam.
Getting There Buses and trains ply regularly between the village and Amsterdam Central Station.
Tickets Entry to some shops, restaurants, and structures is free (www.dezaanseschans.nl; most sites are open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m.). Museums and some windmills have entry fees. The Zaanse Schans Card allows free entry to several museums, one windmill, and discounts at shops and restaurants (adults €15/`1,100; children between 4-17 €10/`730, children under 4 free).
Tours Visitors can also opt for guided tours in English that cover the village’s well-known attractions in a limited time (2.5-hour Typical Dutch Luxe guided tour July-Aug daily, Apr-June and Sept Tues-Sun; adults €18/`1,315; children 3-12 years €13/`950). The Zaanse Schans app is a great way to explore the village at leisure (free, on iOS and Android).
Kareena Gianani is the former Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.