We were staying out at the Westcord Art Hotel, and after researching things to do in Amsterdam, it seemed there was a one-stop-shop for the distillation of everything Dutch: the traditional village of Zaanse Schans.
Google Maps reckoned it would take 55 minutes for the 12.4km (~7½ mile) cycle ride, so we arranged for hire bikes from our hotel (standard price EUR12.50 per day) and headed out on our Zaanse Schans day trip.
You can pretty easily divide the ride into three parts – a semi-industrial part on the south side of the river Ij, a free ferry ride across the river, and finally a semi-rural section on the north side of the river. All pretty well marked, all on dedicated cycle lanes and all very easy riding.
The semi-industrial section alternated between motorway over-bridges and quite picturesque tree-lined cycle-ways, separated from the road by a small grass verge. The traffic was a mix of trucks and cars but since they had their bit and we had ours, we could take in the surroundings and not worry about dodging 18-wheelers.
Where there were intersections, we had our own traffic lights, so the whole stretch was quiet, well managed and an easy introduction to cycling in Amsterdam.
The free ferry across the Ij had a clock counting down to the next arrival so we knew exactly how much time we had to wait. It turned out to be ample time to check out the kissing statue adjacent and take a few pictures before the ferry arrived, disgorging a couple of cyclists and the odd moped rider before the passengers on our side were allowed to board for the very short trip across the river.
On the other side of the river there was only slightly more variety with the path leaving the river and heading towards the city of Zaandam, turning away just before reaching the built up city centre and instead following the railway lines north.
The long stretch of open cyclepath was only brought to a halt when we needed to turn right and cross the road for the short kilometre-and-a-bit stretch to Zaanse Schans.
What to do in Zaanse Schans
So what is Zaanse Schans? Two parts: a windmill village featuring ten old windmills dotted along the river, plus a number of cottages featuring various traditional Dutch goods like: ceramics, clogs and cheese.
Zaanse Schans Windmills
Coming over the bridge as we did from the rail lines, the windmills revealed themselves majestically along the riverside – very photogenic! Across the bridge we locked up our bikes and then went for a stroll.
Most of the windmills will let you in to look around for a few euro, but the first one was free. A lot larger on the inside than you first realise, the whole ground floor was taken up with a shop selling typical tourist tat.
There was enough of the original machinery around to give you an idea of what the windmills do: mill stones are turned by the windmill’s sails, crushing grain on a disk and the husks and the seeds are separated, the seed to be bagged and stored.
Interestingly there’s a cool display of the routes that the trading ships took back in the height of the Dutch trading empire – south around South Africa and then across the Indian Ocean to the Dutch colonies in what is now Indonesia.
In fact the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope was a refuelling spot for the long journey. The impressive journey which bypassed the land routes and allowed the Dutch to capture the premium given to the goods produced on that side of the world – spices, hardwoods and textiles amongst others.
Other Things to Do in Zaanse Schans
We continued along the river, checking out the windmills from the exterior before we reached a boat waiting at a dock, half filled with tourists waiting in the hot sun.
The captain looked up as we approached and asked if we wanted to go across the river. We were starting to get hungry by this time, but I was concerned that there wouldn’t be any place to get something to eat on the other side. I looked at the nearby map and couldn’t see anything, so we shook our heads no and turned back toward where we had parked our bikes.
Back towards the entrance were a bunch of low slung buildings on little islands, separated by canals crossed by bridges. Each featured a shop or museum with a product historically associated with the Netherlands.
We were hungry so made a bee line directly to the restaurant, glad that though it was pretty close to noon, the swarms of tourists that we’d dodged on the little bridges were avoiding the restaurant entirely.
Clog Shop Zaanse Schans
After lunch we checked out the clog shop. A narrow hallway separated the main shop area from the entrance and they’d put some museum style exhibits up to explain all you’d need to know about clogs. What they were made of, how they were made that sort of thing.
They promoted the idea that clogs were the shoes of the common folk, comfortable, safe and affordable. And just to skewer that idea they also had a diamond encrusted clog – definitely not an everyday piece of footwear!
At the end of the building there was a workshop with machinery showing how they made the clogs. When the seats in front of the machinery were full, one of the staff would come over and show how they made the clogs.
As you can imagine, repeating this over and over during the day generated a whole bunch of clogs of not necessarily export quality.
This was born out by bags of the “demonstration” quality clogs for sale at reasonable rates. The difference between those clogs and the rest of the clogs in the shop was in the finish – nicely sanded and painted in an amazing array of designs, the shop was rammed with thousands of pairs of clogs.
Looking up into the attic the scene was repeated up there as well – row upon row of clogs and clog related paraphernalia. A size chart showed how to convert between US, UK and European sizes, but we weren’t in the market so made our way back outside.
Out the front of the shop were comically oversized cogs which you could wear and a single enormous clog which was swarmed by children using it as a jungle gym.
The funniest part was a lull between the waves of children when a tourist got her child to pose while sitting in the clog. She’d just walked away a little to frame the photo when the next wave of children came by, trailed by a posse of parents. Before she knew it the little girl was sharing the clog with a dozen other children all posing and calling to their parents.
The look on the little girl’s face was priceless as she looked from the other children to her mother and back again, somehow unable to fathom the invasion.
We were starting to feel the effects of the sun, our bike ride and the walk along the river and back, so decided that we’d forgo the cheese factory and other exhibits and head back to the hotel.
My butt wasn’t looking forward to the trip on the bike back so we compromised and decided to ride back to the train station (just across the river), take the train back to town and then ride from there to the hotel.
The speed at which Ange agreed to my proposal made me wonder if she may have been thinking along the same lines.
Training it Back to Amsterdam
And so we unlocked the bikes and rode back across the river to the train station. There we got a bike ticket for the train (€12 each!) and settled in for the train ride back into town.
The rail carriages at the beginning and end of the train were for bikes but since it was the middle of the day there wasn’t anyone else in the front carriage so we pretty much had it to ourselves.
Just as well really as it was rather awkward getting both ourselves and the bikes up the few steps into the carriage. The underpass to get access to the station had a rail alongside the stairs so that you could easily push your bike up or down to the platform level, but there was no corresponding assistance to get the bike into the train.
Still, we managed to man handle them aboard and then tried to cool down as the sun had been relentless for our walk around Zaanse Schans and for the short ride to the station.
At the other end of the train ride we wheeled our bikes into the lift and rode up to entrance level. I approached the ticket machine and tried to touch the reader with the ticket. Instead of going green and the gate opening, nothing happened. I tried again. Nothing. Hmm.. I said, and got Ange to try hers. No joy.
OK, I said, let’s ask for help. We wheeled our bikes awkwardly to the glass walls separating the outside world from the interior of the station, and tried to make eye contact with one of the staff in their little booth on the other side.
Before too long one of the staff members, pink hair and piercings galore (but tastefully done) noticed me waving and waved back sarcastically. I smiled as she approached and explained what was happening.
Ah, she said. That’s the ticket for the bike, you also need to pay a ticket for yourselves, and that’s what will allow you through the turnstiles. My eyes opened a little wider as I indicated my surprise that the bike itself cost €12 .
Oh, I said, looking around while knowing that travelling in Europe without a valid ticket usually brought at least a €50 fine – well we got on at Zaanse Schans, where can we buy a ticket for that fare?
Our new friend smiled wryly and said that next time we should pay for both ourselves as well as the bikes and then opened the gate and let us through.