By Elissa Gilbert
I landed in Amsterdam and it was like I hadn’t left New York at all. I couldn’t read the street signs and the skyline stopped at the fourth floor, but the city felt very much like home: pedestrians thronged the streets, cars, busses and trams jostled for space with bicyclists (even if the rider was more likely to be a suited businessman toting his briefcase in the basket than a messenger). The elegant canal houses seemed slightly off-beat versions of town houses and brownstones back home. We hit traffic jams because of a new subway line under construction.
So I fled Amsterdam, going from A directly to Z, driving past flat green fields bounded by water-filled drainage ditches to Zaanse Schans, where preservationists relocated a collection of 17th- and 18th-century houses and windmills to protect them from urban development.
Along the way we passed rows of slender, white, modern, electricity-generating windmills, their arms turning in a mechanical ballet. At Zaanse Schans, seven traditional windmills, squat, fat and gray, follow the curve of the river. These mills make paint, mustard, oil or saw logs. The smell of roasted nuts drew us in to De Zoeker, where nuts were crushed to produce oil to the thumping rhythm of the pounders.
With these industrial windmills, Zaanse Schans claims the title of the oldest industrial area in Europe, but the village displays pure storybook charm. Dark green wooden cottages, their gables edged with scalloped white trim like frosting on gingerbread houses, sit by a small canal crossed by arched bridges. Carefully maintained lawns and gardens peek out behind white picket gates. A few roosters and lambs putter around the yards. Across the Zaans River boats line the river’s edge outside a row of tightly packed gabled houses.
At the klompenmakerij—the wooden shoe workshop—display cases showed regional shoes, flower-painted Sunday shoes, and intricately carved bridal shoes, which a man began carving for his fiancée the day they became engaged. Making a plain pair of shoes used to take a few hours by hand and takes just four minutes by machine. The shoemaker demonstrated this to us with much grinding noise and flying wood chips. Dutch factories still produce 2 million pairs a year, and tourists don’t buy all of them.
At the cheese farm, a silvery churning vat for demonstrations sat idle when we entered. But all I need to know is that cheese comes from cows. And sheep. And sometimes goats. Plates for tasting rested on every counter in the shop, with staff standing by to take special requests. I’ve had Gouda before, and cheese with herbs. But cheese with cumin seed? Delicious!
Those green fields we drove by on the way here were polders, reclaimed land. Holland is literally a man-made country, and it’s constantly changing. There are places where they are still reclaiming more land from the sea, and other places where they are letting the sea reclaim the land. At the “enclosure dike” by Ijssel Lake, a statue depicts a brick worker bent over to lay the last brick in the dam. His buttock has been patted to high gloss by tourists.
With the land itself so uncertain, no wonder some Dutch cling to tradition. We went on a safari through Rouveen and Staphorst in search of Dutch Reformed orthodox in traditional dress, passing thatched-roof farmhouses attached to small houses with green-and-white window frames. Some of the thatched roofs split down the middle – dark reeds on one side, light on the other – because of the sun, thatch on the east side of a house doesn’t last as long as thatch on the west. In Staphorst, we spotted women in dark hose, dark skirts and paint-stippled blouses and kerchiefs in line at the supermarket and fruit store. We sneaked snapshots as they loaded their bags onto bikes with crochet-decorated spokes.
Every country in Europe claims a Venice of its own and in Holland the small town of Giethoorn wears that crown. The name means goat horn; the peat diggers who settled the village found them as they dredged. We took a cruise through the canals of this Green Venice of the North. Lovely curved wooden bridges arced over the canals, and on the streets above people sat in benches in the sun or walked or biked around town. There are tiny little canals where they transported peat on flat-bottom punter boats, poling themselves along. A local shipyard still produces the expensive, handmade boats. Cozy thatched-roof houses rest on little independent islands, with chicken, ducks and swans nestled on their lawns.
We stopped for a bathroom break at the pottery factory in Makkum (the work produced here uses all colors, not just the blue and white favored by Delft). A mix of work boats and pleasure boats line the canal outside the factory. With children riding bicycles in the street or tossing bread for ducks, it could almost be any small town back home—until we walk to the end of the road and find sheep grazing on a dike near fishing boats. Mamas rubbed their heads on the babies while lambs gamboled and nursed.
Then we arrived at Volendam, a much more touristy fishing port; the day’s catch is processed in plants just past the outskirts of town. Professional eelers probably don’t use the fishing technique a guide recalled from his childhood – involving a dead rabbit, pantyhose and an open umbrella– but however they were caught, restaurants in town serve them deliciously smoky and moist on baguettes. You can also feast on pickled herring or smoked salmon; a New Yorker can almost enjoy a regular Sunday brunch. Or opt for Dutch pancakes; thin and eggy like crepes, you can fill them with meats as an entrée or with fruit and ice cream for dessert. The main street is lined with 120-year-old buildings, now housing souvenir shops and places where you can dress for photographs in traditional clothes, but walk one or two blocks off the main street and you find quiet streets of densely packed houses, the front curtains open to show they have nothing to hide, a striped awning keeping out the sun.
I didn’t want to leave this land of sheep, ships and windmills, but eventually I had to head home. When I got off my plane back in New York to the taxis, bus and subway, I knew I had been away.