Zaanse Schans

A lot of places are known by their cliches. The word Dutch” evokes tulips, cheese, delftware, clogs and windmills. While we had experienced the first three, we hadn’t yet seen much of the other two except as souvenirs and postcards in shops that dot the area around Centraal Station. We were told that the deficiency was easily cured at Zaanse Schans - just a 20-minute train ride away from Amsterdam. On a rainy Saturday morning, we were there. After walking barely a few hundred meters from the Koog-Zaandijk station (the station closest to Zaanse Schans), you find yourself at this very modern bridge, crossing which is like crossing a bridge across time. The place is almost like an open air village-museum with some really quaint but very well preserved houses, small cheese and bread factories and even a clog museum-cum-workshop.

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Albert Heijn is a big retail groceries chain in the Netherlands (their logo looks like the Devanagari क’ and used to make me homesick during our early days here). Our first stop was a small replica of the first Albert Heijn store. It looked a bit like your average small-town neighborhood grocery store in India. They were selling prints of their vintage advertisements which we postponed buying for our trip back but never could make it in time.

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We spent most of our time walking around the waterfont looking at the cute houses, tiny bridges, small gardens, open fields and of course the windmills.

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Then it was time to check out the various shops and museums. The most remarkable shop here was the one selling antiques. An old lady was the proprietor and she looked like Miss Havisham had walked straight out of Great Expectations. There were two rooms full of all kinds of fascinating old things - from toys to porcelain vases to old table lamps to coat hangers of questionable taste.

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In the second room inside there was a small closet with very old dolls. I must say it did get a little spooky.

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The facade of the clog museum-cum-workshop leaves you in no doubt as to where you are and what you should expect inside.

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The museum’s collection of intricately wood-carved clogs is not big but it still worth a look. But the part that fascinated me most was the live demonstration of how the clogs are made these days.

The machines are simple and ingenious, and if you have one clog, you can clone” another one from a block of wood within minutes. The wood is soaked in water beforehand for a few days to make it soft. When the clog was ready, the boy giving the demo held it next to his mouth and blew into it loudly. A stream of water came out of the clog to loud, cheerful applause from the small gathering of tourists watching the demonstration. The clog would be left to dry for a few days before being painted and sold in the workshop. Or you could buy a freshly-made one for just €2.

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Finally, it was time for that walk back to the station over that bridge across time. We kept looking back, vowing to visit again. Zaanse Schans might be a little contrived and a little over-the-top in its touristiness, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s beautiful.

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Epilogue: I’ve often wished for photographs to communicate some sense of the smell of the place where they Were taken. Not here. The smell of fresh, wet grass on getting down at the station, was soon overpowered by the aroma of chocolate. There is a cocoa processing factory in Zaanse Schans and thanks to the fumes it spews, the smell of chocolate just doesn’t go away from the air. While it initially causes strong chocolate cravings (without any shops selling chocolatey things in sight), after a couple of hours it turns into strong revulsion. It’s the olfactory equivalent of replacing every article in a fat book (say A Suitable Boy?) with the word chocolate. Worse, the smell is only about 90% chocolate - there is a 10% element of wrongness - like old French cheese gone bad (if such a thing is even possible). The next time I go there, I will be a little more generous with my deodorant.

July 27, 2011