In many ways, Dutch heritage village Zaanse Schans is a paradox. A reconstruction of an 18th century Dutch village, it was put together in the 1960s with homes, windmills and shops that date back to the 16th-18th centuries. Some old buildings have been converted into museums – there’s a museum of clogs with wooden shoes over 300 years old, museums of chocolate and cheese where you are given a demonstration about how both were made in the past. The Information Centre was a warehouse for rice and corn in the 18th century.
We decided to make a weekend trek to Zaanse Schans to experience the past. We were told that it was a great place to get an insight into different aspects of that era in Dutch history. Besides climbing up old windmills and playing with fat sheep and goats at a farm on the premises, visitors can even book rooms at a Bed & Breakfast within the village and wake up to the smell of hot chocolate brewing nearby.
Zaanse Schans was perhaps a timely intervention to the rapid expansion of Holland. Especially North Holland. It is said that once over 700 windmills ran along the river Zaan, today there are just a few. Before the surviving few were also done away with, around the 1960s a number of them were moved to this village which was to become an oasis of the past just 15 minutes from Amsterdam.
One of the largest windmills here is De Huisman, which was built in 1786 in Zaandam and brought here around 1955. Originally a snuff-mill and later a mustard-mill, inside you can still the old machinery and learn how it worked. In fact, you can even buy a brand of mustard here called De Huisman Mosterd! At the Spice Mill nearby,we discovered a Greek seasoning that has now become a favourite in our house.
While it was fascinating to get a sense of how people lived and worked in a village like this, I was conflicted about whether the experience was authentic or fake. While these were real historical sites, they were out of their real context. Another interesting example is the tiny Albert Heijn shop in the village. AH is a giant supermarket chain in the Netherlands which dates back to 1887. The first-ever AH shop opened in Oostzaan and the replica at Zaanse has some objects from the original store. Including measurement tools, coffee grinders, pipes and turn-of-the-century shop posters. While we walked around, several parents were there with little children who seemed to be super excited. They were sitting inside giant clogs, running across picturesque bridges, sitting in shipwreck ruins and grabbed ice cream from the milk products store across the farm! Definitely a great place for youngsters to get involved with history.
Over 1 million tourists visit the Zaanse Schans every year, thankfully the day we visited there weren’t too many of them there. It was a cold and windy day, which made the old Dutch homes seem cosy and warm despite their lack of modern amenities. A number of local families who trace their roots back to Zaanse Schans still live nearby, some even work with the authorities and locals are employed at the village. The village describes itself as “living, evolving community aimed primarily at heritage preservation” according to its website. That’s definitely true.
There are a number of restaurants here, including one that serves traditional Dutch gin – Jenver. The one we ate at dates back to 1717 and was built as an orphanage. Hot pancakes with history on the side.
While it’s still confusing to me whether the village is more of a museum or a gimmick, I think the Zaanse authorities have done a great job. The village not only preserves the past, but also keeps it alive in a way that engages people of all ages and nationalities. The way it’s been designed and maintained, makes it open and accessible without endangering the site too much. Would I go again? Probably. I’d definitely take all my younger cousins who visit – what better way to get them to learn some history without a single yawn of boredom!
*This is a shortened version of an essay written for a course called Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets, taught by Sue Alcock of Brown University on Coursera.org. It’s an absolutely fabulous course for anyone with even the littlest interest in history!