Zaanse Schans is a region of Zaandam, a town situated just north of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. It is home to tulips, clogs and historic windmills, embodying all the most popular notions of Dutch culture.
Zaanse Schans has gained global recognition in the last 50 years for the successful preservation of a cultural heritage site that has defined the Netherlands for the past four centuries. The windmills of Zaanse Schans are without a doubt beautiful, but they have also played an integral part in the industrial and cultural history of Holland. Construction of the windmills begun in 1574, and at the manufacturing peak in the 17th century, there would have been up to 600 windmills in the region, making it the oldest industrial area in Western Europe.
The windmills served a variety of industries and include a saw mill, a dye mill, an oil mill, paint mill, and a spice mill. The production of wood in the region made Zaanse Schans the centre of ship building in Western Europe, and throughout the 18th and 19th century approximately 26 shipyards launched over 100 ships a year, all thanks to these picturesque windmills. Wood from the sawmills was used for the wooden clogs worn by all Dutch citizens for work and leisure across the country, and it was also used for the famous Dutch houses, which are constructed in a quaint wooden architectural style, and were originally built on stilts due to a great portion of the country being below sea-level.
The paint mill was integral to Dutch cultural movements, producing the coloured pigments for paint that would have been used by the artists of the Dutch Golden Age such as Remembrandt, whose work can we viewed in a museum named for him in Amsterdam.
The oil mill would have used seeds from local fields, such as linseed and rapeseed, and pressed these into oils. The spice mill is a reminder of the Netherlands colonial dominance in the 17th and 18th century, and would have ground various spices, as well as grinding tobacco into snuff. These spices and tobacco were acquired from the various Dutch trade routes across Africa, the Americas, and Asia. The spice mill is now used to create a delicious mustard that is available for visitors to purchase.
Ten of the remaining windmills are now dotted along the river Zaan. Though they look natural here, and are rather charming amongst the reeds of the river bed, they weren’t originally built in these exact locations. From 1961-74, and with tremendous effort, an architect by the name of Jaap Schipper led a project with other local conservationists to save the culturally significant mills in their region. As these sites where they were originally situated were already planned to be rebuilt on, Schipper had no choice but to move the windmills! After persuading locals authorities not to demolish the buildings, the conservationist team, along with assistance from other locals, managed to transport the windmills and other heritage buildings by road and river to the site they stand on today.
Thanks to the efforts of the conservationists, visitors to the site are now able to take a walk through history and witness firsthand the inner workings of these mills. Most are still in working condition, just as they were hundreds of years ago, and are still producing various items. Each has dedicated museums and workshops with demonstrations available for the public, and alongside them are other museums dedicated various aspects of Dutch culture, including one that is solely dedicated to Dutch wooden clogs, and a cheese and dairy factory too.
The region still plays an important role in Dutch industry; there is still a shipyard adjacent to the windmills, and across the river there is a chocolate factory, causing a wonderful scent to linger in the air as you walk amongst the mills.
These windmills serve as a reminder of the past and the early beginnings of industrialisation, and regardless of the nearby modern industrial units, the idyllic setting of Zaanse Schans boasts all the fineries of Dutch culture. Nowhere else captures the romantic aesthetic of the past in the same way.