Name some famous Dutch things. What comes to mind? Windmills? Clogs? Cycling?Cheese? Pancakes? Blue and white pottery?  If you are short on time skip Amsterdam and instead visit Zaanse Schans and then pop over to Delft to get an iconic Netherlands experience.

I was lucky to stay with my Dutch friend and her family in Wormerveer, which is a short train ride north from Amsterdam Centraal. They, of course, had bicycles for us to borrow, so off we trundled to the nearby open air museum, Zaanse Schans. Bicycles are ‘King of the Road’ in the Netherlands and have their own lanes, priority over all other traffic and are usually considered an extra limb to the Dutch. As a Brit, the fact that helmets are not even given a second thought just exemplifies how safe cycling is in the Netherlands and how cyclists are given respect by all other Dutch road users.

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Zaanse Schans was the first industrial area of the Netherlands, which at one time was dyke to dyke full of windmills, over 1100 of them in the area around the Zaan river. In the Golden Age of the Netherlands, when the Dutch East India Company was the world’s first and most powerful corporation that’s ever been seen, the windmills were vital by sawing wood for building ships and also to mill oil, paint, grains, cocoa, and spices.

However, many of the mills were destroyed by fire or storms and had to be constantly rebuilt. With the appearance of more powerful steam engines, alternative energy sources and the expansion of nearby towns the mills started to disappear….

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That was the case until the windmill museum was created in 1928. We chose at random to go inside the working reproduction of the sawmill, Hep Jonge Schaap, which had a live demonstration on how the power of the wind transferred into cutting up logs. There were some boards downstairs providing more information on the mill itself and how the conservation society had been created to preserve this slice of history.

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As part of the Zaanse Schans site, there are also some other interesting traditional crafts on show. There is a cheese farm, which was more like a giant shop but it did sell a really unique lavender flavoured cheese. Unfortunately, it was sold out! I did manage to sample a tiny slice and it was a super interesting flavour. Although it sounds awful, the lavender actually worked well. I would suggest that they expand the options and include a hint of lavender in a soft light sheep’s cheese… mmmm.

We had enough time to take a walk through the wooden shoe factory. Inside there were a few exhibits of clogs from around the world, antique clogs and a live demonstration on how clogs are made. It was fascinating to see how the wooden block transforms into footwear and I was amazed to hear that some Dutch farmers actually still wear them! Apparently, they keep your feet really warm.

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The rest of the museum consisted of more mills, some typical Zaans area houses painted in the local green colour, a bakery, an old-fashioned supermarket, a chocolate shop and a pancake house. The preservation area was a nice way to bring some of the olden days back to life and I enjoyed being able to explore different aspects of the Dutch cultural heritage.

I was also lucky enough to spend some time walking around the lush green polders of Wormerveer, dotted with mini windmills everywhere and listening to my friend’s parents give a fascinating outside tour. It was a great way to find out who lives where and how the Dutch live in a together as one community, with, against, and on the water.

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Next, I was off to the small, but world famous town of Delft. It became the capital of the Netherlands following the removal of Spanish rule and was also home to many painters, the most legendary being Johannes Vermeer. It’s easily accessible by train and is small enough to explore on foot in half a day.

fullsizeoutput_adbBack when the Dutch East India Company was ruling the waves they had a special trade deal with the Chinese, and the signatory blue and white pottery became very popular, especially amongst royalty. However, ironically, when there was a war and subsequently a porcelain shortage, so factories in Europe began copying the style and produced their own similarly decorated ceramics to meet the demand. Delftware became famous the world over and was even imported to China.

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I decided to take the free guided tour of the Delftse Pauw factory, which is slightly to the north of town. As part of a small group, we were given a talk on how the pieces are made by filling moulds, fired, decorated and then fired again. I found out that this is the only Delftware manufacturer that completes every item by hand! By keeping the traditional craft, the ceramics are more classic and special than anything completed by machine.

There were a couple of painters busy with their brushes on vases, plates, tiles, and ornaments but most of the team work from home, which must be nice. There was a shop with lots of stunning examples of the highest quality Delftware pottery which was lovely to see.

 
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I took the chance to take a walk through Delft town centre, a little meander through the streets, to see what I could find. I rambled along the quiet cute canals, past the medieval churches and magnificent houses of wealthy merchants. I made my way to the Oostpoort (Eastern Gate), which was part of the wall that guarded Delft against invaders and is the only city gate left in the town. It’s a nice example of Gothic architecture that now houses a small art gallery and inspired many local painters.

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In the main market square in the centre of town, the magnificent city hall is faced off by the new church, whose bells ring out majestically across the plaza. Head just out of this deeply historic and grandiose space and there are pop-ups of modern art, a large blue heart sculpture and a blue and white graffiti-esque homage to the famous pottery. In the back streets, the traditional canal houses are now homes to modern ceramics galleries and artisan restaurants.

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Heading back to the train station I reflected on my Dutch-tastic weekend. I couldn’t ask for anything more, I tasted purple lavender flavoured cheese, adopted a pedal power-driven approach to life, learned the importance of windmills, got the full low-down on the authenticity of handcrafted iconic earthenware and even tried on a pair of quintessential wooden shoes.

 

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