Windmills are so iconic of the Dutch landscape that it’s the first thing most people associate with the country. In the 17th century, some 19,000 windmills dotted the Dutch landscape. To date, there are about 1,200 windmills still in existence, the oldest of which goes back to before 1451. A spontaneous day trip brought us about half an hour away from Amsterdam to Zaanse Schans, a neighbourhood of the city of Zaandam. Someone wanted to see her windmills, and see her windmills she did.
Zaanse Schans is an open air conservation area and museum, an idyllic recreation of a Dutch village from the late 19th century. Most of the buildings were transported here from elsewhere in the Netherlands and meticulously recreated. It definitely doesn’t feel authentic and is completely touristy – it fittingly receives almost 2 million visitors a year.
It was a hot summer day in Holland but thankfully because the area is huge and has so much open space, it didn’t feel crowded. The restaurants though were another story.
Zaanse Schans houses 8 iconic windmills, each with its own quirky name (The Cat, The Young Sheep, The Houseman, The Crowned Poelenburg, The Ox, The Cloverleaf The Seeker, The Spotted Hen). The place also showcases the traditional architecture of the area: green wooden homes.
Since Zaanse Schans is a village where people actually live in, it’s not possible to visit the houses. You can however pay to enter the windmills which are kept in working condition. There is also a museum in the area, the Zaans Museum which showcases the heritage of the Zaan region.
Dutch Windmill Trivia
Windmills were used for turning any raw material that needed pounding, mauling, shredding, hacking or mixing into a tradeable product. The Zaanstreek paper mills, for instance, were renowned throughout the world for their good quality paper. In fact, the American Declaration of Independence was printed on sheets produced there. There were mustard mills, hemp mills, grain mills, snuff mills, cocoa mills, oil mills, chalk mills, paint mills and saw mills.
The architecture of the Dutch mills is extremely varied.
Amsterdam – the capital and largest city of The Netherlands, home to about 2 million people and an alpha world city, has something to offer everyone. From its 17th century canal houses to modern architectural masterpieces, narrow lanes and canals to highly efficient public transport and infrastructure, quaint cafés to hipster hangouts, Amsterdam seamlessly mixes history with all the conveniences of our fast-paced technological age.
Arriving at Schiphol at 9am, it took us just around half an hour to get to to our Airbnb place near the center as the train station is connected to the airport terminal and the airport is only about 15km away. What took longer was locating the place, as the exact address wasn’t showing up in google maps. Luckily, the owner of a laundry place explained to us how the house numbers worked.
Within 30 meters, we’d gone through a dozen house numbers. This is not a rarity in the Netherlands and comes from the Dutch people’s perpetual quest for saving a buck. You see, like in Hanoi (the so-called ‘tube houses’), once upon a time, back in the 16th century, houses were taxed based on their width.
We dropped our bags and stopped to grab a bite at the café at the end of our street. We were staying in a quite residential area just a few meters outside the canal belt, a neighbourhood dotted with cafés and local supermarkets.
All set for what was going to be a long day, we started with a visit to Rijksmuseum, thanks to a tip-off from our Airbnb host. It was the opening of an exhibit so we got free admission that day. It was packed and we had to wait in line for 10 minutes to get in. And afterwards, there were more lines.
I am yet to find another museum where they serve you free coffee while waiting to get in for free. That’s where I understood what ‘going Dutch’ meant. As the lady jokingly stated, the Dutch are a stingy bunch and no one’s having coffee while waiting in line unless it was free.
After our history and art appreciation session, we decided to push Van Gogh off for the day and head to the old Heineken Brewery, grabbing a bite along the way. We met with some friends and went on for The Heineken Experience or Beer 101. It’s quite steep at €16 per person (2.5 beers included), but we managed to be the receiving end of an act of charity that day. As we were handing out our money to purchase tickets at the counter, a young lady gave us two tickets. We were ready to purchase the tickets from her but she refused to take money. Initially, we expected there to be a catch but we got in completely fine. That was 5 free beers for the day!
The Heineken experience takes you through the old brewery where they still keep a portion of their old stable. Unfortunately the horses were on vacation. Two weeks a year, we’re told.
There’s a brief explanation of how beer is made (having recently got my Beer Diploma in Prague less than a month ago, I was feeling ahead of myself). Then they take you to a room with the old copper brew kettles, you can taste the unfermented product, before finally having your first small glass of beer.
The next room is a game room where you can take silly selfies or play digital football. The final experience is a 4D film on the Heineken brewing process, where you guessed it, they brew you. In a nutshell, Heineken basically owes itself to good marketing.
We headed off to the Central Station, a beautiful Gothic/Renaissance building which looks very similar to Rijksmuseum (they were designed by the same guy), and then wandered off to De Wallen a.k.a. Amsterdam’s most well-known and biggest Red Light District.
Despite the efforts of Amsterdam residents to ‘clean up’ their city though, a little too many people still associate Amsterdam with its infamous Red Light District and the open availability of marijuana.
Prostitution is legal in the Netherlands, with the exception of street prostitution. In De Wallen, prostitutes rent windows and one-room cabins typically illuminated with red lights.
There were women of different ethnicities and women of different sizes. Some of them looked bored, and some of them were in the mood to make money. I went to one of the peep shows where you pay €2 to see a naked woman for 2 minutes. It was an interesting experience. There’s pornography, and there’s seeing things right in front of you. I can’t quite describe how it feels to be among men and watch a naked woman touching herself and not feel any sexual attraction.
I appreciated what I saw – she was lovely – but it stopped there. Perfect figure, perfect breasts. She had scars from breast augmentation, but I realised then that nobody really cares if it’s real or not. Liked photoshopped models, we know it’s not real, but we appreciate its beauty anyway.
I won’t go into the details of prostitution, but it was a very strange experience for me to see women and sex as commodities.
De Wallen is also dotted with ‘Cannabis coffeeshops’. Before the coffeeshop licensing in the 1970s, some began openly selling cannabis which got them into trouble with the police. By 1976, the government changed the law so that the possession of less than 30g of cannabis was no longer a criminal offence.
A tolerance policy followed, giving rise to coffeeshop licensing which meant that they could sell drugs provided they were soft drugs.
We ended the day with a boat trip along Amsterdam’s canals. Amsterdam grew from a settlement by a dam in the river Amstel, and the canals we see today are the result of good city planning back in the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century.
The architecture around the canals are of particular interest and beauty. The wealthy merchants back in the day wanted their houses to appear bigger than they actually were and so made the windows on the lower floor much bigger than the ones on the upper floor and added grand doors so that looking up from street level, it looks like the higher floors are further away than they are.
Also, houses are so narrow that the only way to get furniture up the higher floors is through hoisting them up through cantilevers. This is why almost all houses have beams with hooks on them. Looking at the rows of houses, you’ll also quickly notice how they’re leaning in all directions. Some were built to lean forward so that the things being hoisted up would have a lesser chance of bumping against the façade while others do have foundation problems. Over the years, subsidence has made rows of houses look like teeth desperately in need of braces.
And that was Amsterdam for the day. A city made for biking that it’s impossible to not see a bike somewhere. Insider tip though, it’s not as romantic as it sounds. Bikers in Amsterdam are notorious and it’ll take a while to get used to the fact that you don’t get a bike lane – you get a bike highway.
Germany is dotted with quaint little towns most people will never have heard of and will probably never visit. These towns are the stuff fairytales are made of: narrow cobblestone streets and colourful timber-framed houses dating as far back as the 16th century.
The Harz region, a mountain range that lies about 200km from Berlin is strewn with these little towns. An unplanned drive with my visiting uncle led to our discovery of Quedlinburg, a UNESCO World Heritage Site along the Romanesque Road.
The name Quedlinburg comes from a villa that belonged to a nobleman name Quitilo. His name stemmed from the Old German ‘quit’ which meant ‘to speak/converse’. Thus, Quito was somebody who could speak well and Quitilo was used to refer to the young Quito. Quitilo and his descendants lived here and the town was refered to in documents as Quitlingen or Quitlinga.
Quedlinburg is dubbed as Germany’s First Capital, having been the place where Heinrich der Vogler (Henry the Fowler) was offered the German crown in 919 by Franconian nobles. Henry’s son, Otto I (Otto the Great) became king of the Holy Roman Empire. After Henry’s death, his widow, Saint Matilda founded a religious community, Quedlinburg Abbey, for women on the castle hill where daughters of the higher nobility were educated. The main task of this foundation was to pray for the memory of King Henry and the rulers who came after him.
For some time, Quedlinburg was ruled by women as abbesses without ‘taking the veil’, and they were free to marry. The last of these women was Sophia Albertina, a Swedish-Prussian princess who founded a school for poor children, established the first theatre in the city, and increased the salary of the clergy. Her rule was a popular one and gossip pointed out Quedlinburg as a place where noblewomen went to give birth to their illegitimate children in secret.
During the Third Reich, the memory of Henry I became a cult as Heinrich Himmler saw himself as a reincarnation of who he believed was ‘the most German of all German rulers’.
He wanted the church and castle to be a shrine for Nazi Germany and create a new religion for the Nazi Party. The local crematorium was kept busy burning bodies of prisoners from the nearby concentration camp.
After liberation in 1945, the Nazi-style eagle was taken down and the Protestant bishop was allowed to return. The churchbells were also returned to the towers.
During the DDR era, Polish specialists were brought in to restore the timber-framed houses in Quedlinburg and today it is a center of restoration of Fachwerk (timber-framed) houses.
‘Visiting Quedlinburg makes you realise how much of Germany’s quaint little towns you bypass.’ -Stefan
The oldest cheesecake bakery in Germany
The old town of Quedlinburg as well as the church and castle complex have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995. It’s a town with friendly locals, where nothing much seems to be happening outside of day to day lives. Occasionally, you’ll come by gaudy houses sticking out from its medieval neighbours that will make you wonder how they even got the building permit. Fortunately, there are very few of these around.
What more can you ask for on such a beautiful day while sitting outside in the mild summer sun, eating a German cheesecake in a quaint fairytale town you didn’t know existed until today?