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Beatrice Clarke is an Australian writer based in Amsterdam. In March 2019, she took a cycling cruise for the first time and experienced a delightful new side to life in the lowlands.

Despite having lived in Amsterdam for 10 years, there are some aspects of Dutch life that I have never truly experienced. Windmills are one of them. So it was a pleasant surprise when I joined the Tulip Tour Premium, to discover that the first destination would be the iconic historic Zaanse Schans neighborhood north of Zaandam.

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Life on board the Magnifique II

The first evening of the tour, we settled in comfortably aboard the Magnifique II. As the name suggests, this hotel river barge is refined but unpretentious, with a gracious welcoming interior. We dined on creamy zucchini soup, salmon and fennel and home-made chocolate cake. We had sailed from Amsterdam that afternoon, along the river IJ towards the North Sea, then into Zaandam’s harbor.

Arie’s brief history of Zaandam

Our tour leader Arie is a funny guy, with a classic dry Dutch sense of humor. After dinner, he explained how to read Dutch cycling road signs before diving into local history. The next day we would visit the Zaanse Schans, an open-air museum showcasing Zaandam’s industrial heritage and – in particular – windmills!

Zaandam: Powerhouse of the Golden Age

Arie explained Zaandam’s importance during the Dutch Golden Age in the 1600s, as it was home to hundreds of “molen” (windmills). Many of these were “zaagmolen” (sawmills), which cut Scandinavian logs into lumber for shipbuilding.

During the 17th century, Zaandam became a big industrial center, as it produced not only the timber for boats, but also the magnificent tall ships themselves. These were the ships that powered the Netherlands’ then-global dominance. Zaandam’s reputation was so great that Czar Peter I of Russia himself even came to study shipbuilding.

Cycling to the Zaanse Schans

The next morning, we set out on our bikes through Zaandam: cycling past neighborhoods of worker cottages and cocoa processing plants with a mysterious chocolatey aroma. We headed north along the river Zaan, spotting many of the city’s distinctive clapboard houses. It’s thanks to all the available timber that Zaandam’s iconic green houses are made of wood.

Windmills in action

I’d always heard about the Zaanse Schans, but had never seen it with my own eyes. After we locked our bikes, I turned to look at the view and my gaze was met by a glorious vista of six windmills, four with sails in full flight. A truly magnificent sight!

The area was so open and rustic that at times it felt like I could have traveled back in time. The peacefulness was enhanced by an adjoining nature reserve, where grazing ducks and geese were waiting for the arrival of their spring hatchlings.

Up close with paint mill De Kat

On the recommendation of my cycling companion Katja, I paid a visit to De Kat paint mill. This mill continues to grind dyewoods and pigments for paints and fabric dyes in the same way as was done in the 1600s. This was how Rembrandt, Vermeer and Frans Hals came by their colors!

De Kat’s all wooden interior is a highly evocative space, where giant circular stone runners grind chalks and ochres into powder. The intricate wooden mechanics, and the turning of huge creaking wooden cogs, are a powerful sight. De Kat is quite possibly the last remaining paint windmill in the world.

The power of the wind

By late morning we were back on our bikes, cycling towards Haarlem. I left the Zaanse Schans utterly charmed by the peace and picturesqueness of it all.

But the thing that impressed me the most? Staring up at those enormous sweeping sails, as they spun fast or slow with the breeze, and thinking about the past generations that harnessed the power of the wind!

Tours that visit the Zaanse Schans

If you’d like to visit the Zaanse Schans with a boat bike tour, we have eight great tours that can take you there:
5-day Tulip Tour Premium
8-day Tulip Tour Premium
Northern Tour of Holland
Southern Tour of Holland
8-day Tulips & history
Best of Holland Premium
5-day Tulip Tour
8-day Tulip Tour


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