Zaanse Schans, Volendam and Marken
Visiting Amsterdam can mean many things, but first and foremost, it is a bustling cosmopolitan experience. Set against the historic charms of majestic canals lined with 17th-century gabled houses, the city’s most well-known sites range from world-class art museums to a rich cuisine culture and a robust nightlife scene. It’s one of Europe’s great capitals with all the energy and bustle that urban adventures could ask for.
A short train or bus trip away, the metropolis wanes and the idyllic vistas of the Dutch countryside flourish. More than just a change of scenery, one gets a great sense of slowing down and traveling to a simpler time. Quaint villages and towns preserved in the past treat visitors to a feast for the eyes and taste of some of the nation’s signature foods. Three of these areas are Zaanse Schans, Volendam and Marken.
For many people, Dutch classical imagery brings to mind vistas of windmills dotting the horizon. This vision comes alive in Zaanse Schans, a neighbourhood in the province of Zaandam. Situated a mere 10-minute train ride from Amsterdam’s Central Station, the area was originally developed as a protective fortification during the Eight Year’s War of Dutch Independence. In the 1960s and ‘70s, many of the local area’s oldest buildings were relocated to Zaanse Schans in an effort to preserve them. Many of the ancient windmills – some dating all the way back to the 1600s – are still in working order, grinding up spices, oils, paints and flour. Tours allow visitors to step into some of these iconic structures for a glimpse into Holland’s industrial past.
Zaanse Schans is a vividly picturesque region that might be best seen like a local – pedaling around on a rentec bicycle. Views of endless green fields, old restored houses and the network of canals offer a storybook feel. Bout tours are an option for those who prefer a more nautical view of the scenery. There’s also a great abundance of chocolate factories in the vicinity, infusing the tempting scent of roasting cocoa into the air. Those interested in museums will find no fewer than half a dozen here with exhibits on local history and even traditional foods. In many ways, Zaanse Schans is the best place to experience classical Holland, now largely lost to a time gone by.
About a half-hour’s bus ride from Amsterdam is the town of Volendam. Originally built to serve as a port for nearby Edam, it rests right on the coast of Lake Markermeer. This hamlet was an important fishing village for most of its existence – until the creation of a freshwater lake that cut off its connection to the sea. The city’s deep ties to the Roman Catholic Church helped define its unique culture; residents use a local dialect spoken nowhere else in The Netherlands. Voldendam’s Old-World feel and local scenery attracted artists like Picasso and Renoir.
This is a place where many residents are still most comfortable wearing the traditional Dutch clothing featured in tourist posters rather than modern trappings. Best seen by simply walking around, the town imparts a sense of timeless wonder upon its visitors. Make sure to check out the well-preserved fishing boats at the docks. Then explore the many restaurants and cafes serving typical Dutch seafood dishes. Cheese is another staple of the town’s fare, with sample tastes offered on factory tours. Plenty of souvenir shops offer local crafts to take home. Most surprising, perhaps, is the local music scene. Despite the thriving traditional culture, Volendam has produced national pop stars and even has its own distinctive kind of music known as Palingsound.
Another Lake Markermeer village with its own unique history can be found via a relaxing 30-minute ferry ride from Volendam. Originally part of the mainland, the town of Marken is built on a peninsula. But it was actually an island for several hundred years. A 12th-century storm isolated the population, allowing it to evolve its own distinctive culture. Most impressively, the locals had to engineer their own architecture due to constant flooding. Houses were built on poles to avoid water damage as risking tides often threatened Marken. Centuries old, these houses have been preserved and are unlike any others in the world. Marken is another walking town. Attractions include a famous lighthouse, built in 1839, and one of the nation’s most iconic wooden shoe factories. Even quieter than nearby Volendam, this is the place to go if you want to avoid the tourist crunch and still get that Old Holland feel. Hiking on the flat land is easy and rewarding as residents proudly display their well-kept gardens. After spending a relaxing day wandering, visit the harbour to cap off a perfect day with a nice meal or drink overlooking the lake. The quaint old fishing cottages create an atmosphere that’s as inspiring for family trips as it is for romantic outings. Getting back to Amsterdam is easier now that Marken is no longer an island. No need to ferry back to Volendam (unless you want to for fun); a bus will have you back in the city in about an hour. Upon your return, it will be hard to believe that such a charming vestige of the Old World can be so close to the country’s astoundingly modern capital.