Zaanse Schans

If you want to know how the Dutch lived and learn a little about the history and cultural heritage of this successful little kingdom on the North Sea coast, then there are two fantastic open-air museums less than an hour’s drive from Bergen: the Zuiderzee Museum in Enkhuizen and the Zaanse Schans between Zaandijk and Zaandam. This article is about the latter; another about the Zuiderzee Museum will be published in time.

The ‘Early’ Industrial Revolution

The Zaan region along the river with the same name was vitally important Amsterdam’s rise as a global commercial powerhouse. It saw huge industrial growth and innovation throughout the 17th and 18th centuries and supplied Amsterdam and the Dutch colonial effort with everything from sugar to ships. Known also and at the same time as the ‘Larder of Holland’, the area was big agriculturally, with farmers taking full advantage of the vast new swathes of fertile land being created as polders began to be drained on a never-before-seen scale.

More than 700 windmills littered the flat landscape at the height of activity, and each and every one of them had a name, just like ships. First and foremost, they kept the feet of the population dry (life here happens below sea level), but power from the wind was also skilfully harnessed to grind grain, press oil, saw wood, turn lathes, make paint and much, much more.

The Zaan’s shipyards were second to none, producing state-of-the-art vessels that circumnavigated the globe and brought all sorts of exotic goods upon their return. So impressive was the industry that at one point more than 75 ships were built here each year. Tsar Peter the Great even made an extensive visit in order to learn from Zaan craftsmen how best to build ships for trade and warfare, and Dutch sailors considered themselves lucky if they joined a ship built on the Zaan.

Open-Air Museum

The Zaanse Schans is a huge open-air museum and park where all the elements of the region’s success come together and can be seen and experienced at first hand. Named after the Schans, or sconce (defensive earthwork/fort), which once stood on the edge of the site and was built by Diederik Sonoy in 1574 in order to defend against the Spanish, the Zaanse Schans is in fact a regular neighbourhood that was planned and erected starting 1964 on the initiative of the local population, who wanted to preserve and display their local cultural heritage. I say ‘regular’ because regular people actually live in its typical Zaan houses, all of which are more or less original, centuries-old buildings that once stood elsewhere in the region and were carefully dismantled and moved to their present location.

The same is true of the windmills, barns and warehouses you will see at the Zaanse Schans. Many locals can still remember how De Zoeker, one of the working windmills that can be admired, was spectacularly lifted in large, up to 18-ton sections over railway power lines as part of the journey to its new home.

The park offers a rather special and very comprehensive peek into the past. You can see how cheese is made, clog makers demonstrate their craft at the clog museum, you can go into Albert Heijn’s first ‘supermarket’ in the world, there’s a saw mill, a mustard mill and other windmills you can go into, an 18th-century merchant’s house, a wonderful clockwork museum and much, much more.

The Zaanse Schans is a wonderful day out for the whole family. It is, of course, a major tourist attraction and can get a bit busy during the holiday season, so be warned. Having said that, the park is free to enter and wander around, and some of the attractions are free, too. Others charge a small admission fee. If you want to go in and see most or all of the different little museums, it’s advisable to purchase an all-in-one Zaanse Schans Card (adults €15, kids €10, under 4’s free) which also gets you into the neighbouring Zaans Museum and gives you discounts in the souvenir shops and restaurants, as well as on windmill cruises and water taxis.

Getting There…

Car: Type “Schansend 7, Zaandam” into your car’s sat-nav and it will direct you to a large car park on the edge of the Zaanse Schans (parking €10 per day).

Train: It’s a 15-minute walk from ‘Zaandijk – Zaanse Schans’ railway station.

Find out more on the Zaanse Schans website.

Photography: Robin Glendenning, Gemeentearchief Zaanstad (map), De Zaansche Molen