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Face the wind and remember when the Netherlands ruled the world

September 2011

Sometimes we forget that the Netherlands was a powerful seagoing nation in the 17th century, and you can capture a bit of what life was like in those days on two short day trips from Amsterdam. As a former inhabitant of New Amsterdam (now New York City), I’d like to thank them for their explorations.

Zaanse Schans,16 kilometres northwest of Amsterdam, is easy to get to by train, bus or car, and has no entrance fee. We arrived on Windmill Day, so this open-air museum with its six windmills was bustling and we got to climb all over them and learn how they work. According to Marit Hendriksen, a spokeswoman for National Windmill Day in May, there are 1,156 mills officially listed, and the Dutch still love to go out and “meet the guys that work these things” that have been “the face of the country for so long.” Windmills were the very first factories, popular from 1650-1850, and used to run machinery.

We met Pete, whose family owns De Kat, which makes paint pigments, probably the last wind-powered dye mill in world. Windmills are run by sails, which must be turned to face the wind (which they can count on for only about half the year). Workers can regulate speed and use a brake on top, which can make the mill stop in 15 seconds. Other mills at Zaanse Schans press linseed oil, grind spices and cut wood.

Windmills were the first factories, used to run machinery and popular from 1650-1850. Windmills were the first factories, used to runmachinery and popular from 1650-1850. Photo: Stan Posner and Sandra Phillips

The buildings that surround the mill are a bit touristy, but are still an enjoyable visit. There’s a cheese maker, a bakery, a museum of the Dutch clock, a distillery, pewter foundry, and you even get to see how wooden shoes are made.

For real living history, take the train (about an hour from Amsterdam) to the Zuiderzee Museum in Enkhuizen, which covers Dutch life from 1850 to 1932. The area was created with barrier dams and the reclamation of land, and whole towns were moved here.

There’s a fishing harbour forming a coastal village with its stilt houses, a church district with the sail-maker, barber, coopery, smithy, school—and sweet shop. The canal area has a wood-turner, paint workshop, pharmacy and theatre, a working steam laundry and a dike and windmill. Even though our guide said Amsterdam is so multinational that “you can find any food except Dutch food,” we found some delicious traditional food at Restaurant Haesje Claes. In the six Dutch-style buildings bedecked in wood, we dined on crispy cheese croquettes and hearty pea soup heaped with carrots, sausage and potatoes. We licked our plate clean of a memorable “hotchpotch” with carrots and onions in mashed potatoes and meatballs, sausage and bacon. We could’ve had stamppotten, smoked eel or fish stockpot with cheese. We tasted the old-fashioned dessert made with raisins, brandy, egg liqueur and cinnamon ice cream and grandma’s semolina pudding with red berry sauce. The liqueur page brought smiles, for you can drink “my aunts water, tears of a bride, Hans in the cellar, parrot soup or mistress in the green.” If you’re near the Central Station, try De Kroonprins. It’s pub-like, with beer on tap and simple dishes like Indonesian sate with peanut sauce or the popular Dutch steak with yummy fried mushrooms, salad and fries, wiener schnitzel or sea perch, and even a Dutch shrimp cocktail. For dessert, we tried the traditional Dame Blanche, a cousin to the hot-fudge sundae.

Indonesian food is ubiquitous in Amsterdam, but you can expect a warm family welcome if you dine at Puri Mas, popular for the past 22 years. Ordering is easy because their speciality is rijsttafel; it’s a set meal of many small tastes served by friendly waitresses in traditional dress. The dishes in their distinctive sauces are carefully explained and placed in order of cool to hot. Starters would be a crispy egg roll and fried prawns, while mains are chicken brochette in peanut sauce, pork brochette in a spicy sauce, lamb in curry, chicken in a Balinese sauce, spiced cucumber salad, veggies in peanut butter sauce, fried potato sticks, coconut powder to dust about, and you finish with tropical fruit and ice cream or fried banana.

A relaxing finale to your vacation could be resting your bod on the breezy ride of a canal boat. If you take one at night, the lights of Amsterdam will twinkle goodbye.

Even getting home from The Netherlands is fun. Schipol airport is like no other. Just start with the concept that they offer “comfort chairs”—reclining leather seats where you can put your feet up and even sleep, and there’s lockers nearby to store your stuff safely. There’s a small branch of the Rijksmuseum to view some artwork. Families will love the kids’ play areas, and the folks can rest in a den with leather-like couches that face a video of a fireplace. You can spend time at a computer centre, take a shower or use up the rest of your euros at a casino. Frazzled nerves can be calmed in the meditation room or in a chair massage, a foot massage, an aqua massage, a visit to the oxygen bar or the XpresSpa. And don’t even get me started on the shopping options.



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