I love me a good city break. So when we decided to visit Amsterdam, there was plenty of excitement. NIGHTLIFE! PRETTY CANALS! LOTS OF FOOD! Definitely plenty to get excited about. However, I totally wasn’t expecting my highlight from the trip to be an experience that’s about as far from an action-packed city break as you can get.
Zaanse Schans is a living heritage community that’s open to the public, giving an experience of traditional Dutch craftsmanship and ways of life. As part of our weekend trip, we spent a morning visiting the centre – and I was amazed that it became one of my travel highlights of the past year. I mean, initially the idea had sounded pretty fun, I guess, but the 8am wake-up call definitely put a dampener on any excitement for it. But when I got there I just felt incredibly moved by the whole place and the incredible surroundings. I’ll try and put into words how much I loved Zaanse Schans, but if they don’t work, hopefully the pictures will help out too.
The centre is absolutely free to enter and explore, although there are small fees for some of the attractions. As part of our tour group, we’d already been paid onto a couple of the demonstrations, the first being clog making. I know, clogs aren’t exactly the most fashionable of footwear choices – but they’re sturdy, solid, and popular in the Netherlands for working outside. Also, SO traditional. In the demonstration, our guide showed the machinery used to make the basic clog shape – it’s amazing how quickly the basic shape comes together. Afterwards, we were given time to wander around the ‘clog shop’ – and tempting as it might sound, I didn’t bring any back for my next #OOTD post. Soz guys.
The next demonstration was about CHEESE (I love cheese), and even though the guy delivering the presentation was VERY new and got a bit stuck at points (it was adorable), he gave us a good idea of how Dutch cheese is made at Catherina Hoeve, a cheese farm that relocated to Zaanse Schans in the late 1980s. But the real highlight was walking through into the cheese shop, where we found more types of cheese than you could imagine – and plenty of samples. They had everything from the traditional gouda cheeses to interesting flavours such as champagne cheese for us to try.
After eating up plenty of the cheese samples we headed off for our ‘free time’ to explore more of the area. I think I spent most of my time with my mouth open, gazing around as it was all so stunningly beautiful. The buildings, the countryside, the little pathways and bridges over tiny rivers heading out to the huge expanse at the centre. And, of course, THE WINDMILLS. I definitely got overexcited and forgot how to adult a bit when I found out you can actually climb up inside a REAL ACTUAL WINDMILL and have a look around. It wasn’t as high up as I expected (which was probably good as the ladders were quite awkward and I think a Chinese dude saw my pants), but looking out at the huge expanse of water surrounding the mill and taking in the INCREDIBLE view took my breath away a little.
After I’d tested Conor’s dislike of heights with my slightly childlike desperation to climb things, we headed over to another small building, where we found LOTS AND LOTS OF CHOCOLATE. Even though we were off to Bruges the following day, we were told to try out Dutch chocolate as its very different to Belgian chocs – and our guide was right, it’s definitely much more bitter compared to the creaminess of the Belgian stuff.
We’d probably had enough of the cheese samples to more or less constitute a meal, o it was totally acceptable to eat dessert, meaning we picked up some truffles to try out. Initially, we went for two dark chocolate ones we knew we’d like and an unusual Basil-coated Mango truffle to ‘try out’ – but, as the surprises kept coming, it was actually our wild card that was a firm favourite. I wasn’t exactly drooling over the sound of the basil coating – but it worked incredibly with the dark chocolate and the mango centre. We ended up buying another bag of three, which were pretty much eaten by the time we’d left the car park.
One thing I love about travel is experiencing the culture and heritage of other countries in ways beyond meandering down dry museum corridors. Visiting somewhere that’s truly alive – where people spend their days working, playing, falling in love – is such a perfect thing to do when you’re travelling anyway, and even better to be actually learning about and seeing heritage in action. There were actually still things we didn’t get to fit in including boat trips, a liqueur distillery and the Dutch pancake restaurant. I could probably have happily spent the whole day just chilling out there, if I’m honest. Even with the ducks and storks testing my bird fear.
Although I love city breaks and bustle, Zaanse Schans is probably one of my travel highlights so far. Yes, it’s marketed to tourists – but it still has a wonderful, authentic feel. It wasn’t rushed or busy, and I felt an overwhelming sense of calm while taking in its absolute and utter beauty. I felt like I could breathe. Having grown up with the countryside being a bigger part of my life than it is now, I felt young again. All of a sudden, I was a child again, with my muddy boots on, walking my grandparents’ dogs through fields and down country paths. Sometimes I feel like I’m so busy trying to work out how to be a proper adult, I don’t spend enough time embracing those childlike, simple ways of finding happiness.
Zaanse Schans gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own daily grind of hopping on tubes, rushing down streets – and the chance to bathe in a way of life that’s probably as far from my own as you can get. And despite the fact I’m not quite ready to give up cocktail nights, pop up restaurants and Uber rides just yet, it’s an absolute gem of a place to spend half a day in if you’re visiting Amsterdam. An absolute travel highlight of the year.