Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Netherlands: Amsterdam and Zaanse Schans

[More notes from the trip, covering the next two days.]

April 24, 2011: Amsterdam

Inside our houseboat
Waking up in the houseboat is a dream: it's naturally cool; easily five degrees lower than the outside temperature. And it isn't stale either, even though there's no obvious air circulation (with the windows closed). After relaxing for a bit, it's off to the tourist information, across the tram lines from Amsterdam Centraal Station.

The place is packed -- with the ubiquitous "take a number" system in effect; the Dutch don't queue well -- but Tea and Kae manage to wrangle someone stocking shelves; as well as pointing out which tram we'll need to take to the Dutch brewery, Brouwerij ’t IJ (attached to the De Gooyer windmill), she offers some excellent suggestions for both windmill and flower gazing. (The plan for the next two days.)

[Note: you don't need to stand in line at the tourist information unless you're booking something (e.g., tours, hotel rooms, etc.), which isn't immediately obvious when you first enter the madhouse.]

From there, we catch a tram to the flower market on the banks of the Singel. Lunch, at De Beiaard's 'bierencafé' (on Spui), is our first order of business, though; happily, it's another excellent choice: the smoked chicken salad with pineapple, walnuts and raisins that I share with Tea is fantastic, and Kae really enjoys her fried mushroom and pesto sandwich with cheese. They also have De Bekeerde Suster's beer on tap; I enjoy their tripel this time, while the ladies stick with the excellent Witte Ros of the previous evening.

Brouwerij ’t IJ, attached to De Gooyer windmill
(Very cheap) tulips -- and a cheese shop -- rule the next hour or so. Then we take another tram a ways out of the city centre to Brouwerij ’t IJ. Unfortunately, there are no brewery tours today -- a private function, it seems -- but we still enjoy a few glasses of their beer -- both the Natte, and their tripel, Columbus; neither much to write home about, incidentally -- on the banks of the Nieuwe Vaart, watching dozens of boaters go by. The bar is packed as we leave; evidence that they need more breweries in Amsterdam, I'd say.

Kae in Oud Holland
We jump off to see the Anne Frank museum afterwards, but the line goes on for blocks. [This would continue for the rest of our visit, unfortunately. I'll echo Lonely Planet on this point: if you do happen to see a short line out front, drop whatever you're doing and see it, as that's rarely the case.] So it's back on the tram -- day passes are key! -- to the 'Dam', as we'd scoped out the nearby Oud Holland for supper the night before. We then pass a lovely few hours with their excellent 'home cooked' food, served family style, and friendly staff.

April 25, 2011: Zaanse Schans

The lady working in the tourist information said Zaanse Schans was the place to see windmills, so we are braving the holiday Monday crowds and buying return tickets to Zaandijk. We're puzzled as we disembark, however, because the scent of chocolate is all around (like when Mom lets you lick the mixing bowl and your whole head is in there), and we don't really know where to go. The former is easily solved -- ADM Cocoa is just down the road -- as is the latter, when the convenience stand man gives us a map in exchange for buying some bottled water. [Turns out the maps are free just outside the train station. You have to admire the man's ingenuity.]

It's a quick walk from the train station to the bridge that connects Zaandijk to Zaanse Schans. Looking out to that flat horizon, broken by so many spinning windmills, is really mesmerizing. According to our guide book, the heyday of the Zaan Region saw 600 such mills in operation, but the tourist attraction before us this day has its roots in the mid twentieth century: in an effort to preserve the region's cultural heritage, a plan was conceived to consolidate the iconic houses and mills in Zaanse Schans. De Zoeker (or "seeker/viewfinder") oil mill was moved to its current spot in 1968, for example.

The mill in De Zoeker
They still make peanut oil there today -- it's an amazing sight, watching the enormous wheels grind those peanuts down -- and, in a brave moment, we climb a steep, narrow ladder to take in the view from its platform. It's hard to grasp just how fast those sails are moving, until you're right next to them, that is, with only a rope and a sign separating you. From there, we continue along the path, past De Os (a mill without sails, preserved as an example of the transition from wind to steam power), to De Bonte Hen (or "the speckled hen"), where a small ferry takes us back to Zaandijk. We slowly walk back to the train station, Tea reading off notes from the ferryman and his wife, telling us all about the region's famed decorative facades as we pass them.

The view from De Zoeker

There's a queue at the locks back in Zaandijk

Walking through Zaandijk, toward the train station

[My notes jump around a bit, with the history of this and that. After we crossed the bridge, but before we got to the mills, we spent some time in the clog workshop and museum.]

The clog workshop is a treat! Kooijman Souvenirs & Gifts combines a wooden shoe workshop, store and museum, and is "one of the largest and best collections of clogs in the Netherlands," according to our guide book. We see them made before our very eyes -- the demonstration of how wet they are prior to the days of drying is my favourite bit: blowing inside, toward the toe, causes an enormous froth to gush forth -- and we spend a good, long while trying to decide which ones to buy.

"Start the car!"
You're supposed to be able to fit a finger in comfortably behind your heel when wearing good wool socks; as a satisfy myself that I've picked a good pair, a worker comments on my "good arches" for clogs -- ha ha! A use for flat feet! We stop for a snack -- Dutch pancakes, which look like crepes made with cheese and salami, and a sandwich for me -- before heading to the mills.

Up next: the Keukenhof, and the best pubs in Amsterdam

Check out our Amsterdam and Zaanse Schans albums for more pictures from the two days.

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