Back to my Roots

I just finished a very small and easy (boring) event here in Amsterdam.  I extended my trip, missing the sunshine, and paddling and biking on the Island, but I will spend a couple days re-connecting with my roots here in The Netherlands.

Today I signed up for a bike tour, to go outside the bustling city of Amsterdam to Zaanse Schans, a traditional dutch village with windmills.  The town is really more of a tourist town.  It’s a collection of relocated buildings and windmills.  In the town, you can visit a cheesemaker, baker, wooden shoe maker, weaver, visit a museum and of course buy sourvenirs.  As with some tours, I would I would have like to spend a bit more time and visit the museum and some more shops, but what I saw I enjoyed.

The ride there and back was great, and our guide, Hans, took us on the path less travelled, and was full of really interesting information on windmills, and all things Nederlanse. So I’ll share some of the things I learned along the way.    


Everyone knows it full of canals, and I got to enjoy walking the streets along the canals today to and from Centraal Station, our meeting point.  The narrow, brick houses line the streets. All buildings are brick but it wasn’t always that way.  I learned today there was a fire in 1452 that destroyed 75% of the city (wood buildings); after that brick was mandated.  There are only 2 wooden houses remaining in Amsterdam today.  

It was much busier in the afternoon, when I returned. I had to keep my head on a swivel to watch for bikes, cars, scooters and other people.  Stay out of the dedicated bikes lanes for sure!  There are 3 sets of street lights:  pedestrian, bike and car.  You need to watch carefully.

Magic Light hour


Our first stop was an original windmill, built in 1762, and only decommissioned in 1952.  It was used as a sawmill.  I learned today that this area once supported 1100 windmills, and they were all industrial windmills.  I thought windmills were only used to pump water and grind wheat.  But in this area they were used for all sorts of activities: sawmills, grinding spices, grinding pigments for paints, grinding rocks, and crushing seeds for oil were the primary ones.  Apparently some bright engineer in Holland figured out how to put pistons in the windmill to use machinery, and this is quite unique in the world.  There was a huge sawmill industry here, but no trees in Holland.  So the trees were transported to Holland.  Since they had to be wet to be sawn, they were left to soak in the water for 2-3 years.  Then once they were sawn, there were left to dry in the wind for up to a year before being used for ships or other construction.  Sawmill windmills need a minimum of 20 knots (37 km per hour) of wind to operate, and so they were active only about 1 in 4 days.  Windmills would be rotated to optimize the position of the blades.  They could also put sails on the blades to catch more wind.   Sometimes it was just the top part (capwinder), and the other design was to rotate the entire structure which was mounted on a large wooden rollers. Of the 1100 built, only 12 original ones remain today, and only 5 remain in their original location.  The one we climbed up was one of those 5.  Oh, and the government taxed them based on the size of the blades.  

This is the original sawmill we climbed up!


As we rode towards Zaanse Schans, we all of a sudden smelled chocolate.  Well wouldn’t you know that 50% of the world cocoa volume comes to this town called Zandijk, on barge, from Amsterdam.  There are 5 factories that grind the beans, and separating them into powder and cocoa butter.  This semi-finished product is then shipped back out to the chocolate makers.  It was a treat to smell this while biking.  

Dutch Bikes

You’ve never seen so many bikes, with so so many shapes and sizes as here in Amsterdam.   They are a vital mode of transportation and the city is challenged to find enough parking space. 

You will see bikes parked everywhere.  The dedicated lanes, with their own traffic lights, are certainly necessary to keep the bikes and cars separated.  

I rode a bike that was not electric, but it was not necessary.  In the 15 km or so that we rode, the elevation gain was 10 m, and that all came from going up and over some bridges.  I would not call it a comfortable bike, with a seat that was way to large, but it was solid, had 3 gears, had an enclosed chain to protect it from the wet, and rode very smoothly.   

Land under Sea Level

We rode a beautiful path along some fields with, you guessed it, canals along the side and through them.   We were at 1.5 m BELOW sea level.  These ditches/canals collect the ground water and the network of ditches is ultimately connected to a pumping station that pulls the water out of the ditches and ultimately dumping it into the North Sea.  The Dutch people have been doing this for 6 centuries and 50% of the country, as small as it is, is reclaimed land.  As you bike along these canals in the city, or the ditches in the country, it’s easy to appreciate how picturesque and pretty it is, but you have to remember the constant fight they have to hold back the water.

Wooden Shoes

Wedding clog

This building had a small, but fascinating display of wooden shoes, from those worn by peat farmers (leather leggings attached so no water gets in) to wedding clogs with beautiful carving, to clogs with blades for skating, clogs with crampons  and even clogs for horses hooves to allow them to walk in the peat. 

The huge advantage these shoes have is that they are impervious to the moisture in the soggy ground and they last longer than any other shoe.  Apparently 80% of the 3,000,000 wooden shoes sold in Holland are bought by Dutch residents.  It’s a real thing!

We saw them make a shoe as well.  When they were hand-carved, each shoe would take 2-3 hours; now it takes about 5 minutes. They use machines like a modern key cutting machine to follow a template.  One for the outside of the shoe and one for the inside.  Wet poplar wood is used, so the shoe has to dry for 4 weeks after it’s made.  Then they are sanded and then painted.  Each factory has it’s own unique design.

Little Dutch Girl

Tomorrow is a road tour with my cousin Hanneke, her husband Matthias and my brother Mike.   Looking forward to it.  Stay tuned.

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