Western Europe #09 Near Amsterdam
Western Europe #09 – 4 towns Near Amsterdam
This is part 9 - and the final segment - of a trip we took through Northwestern Europe in August of 2018. This edition includes the towns of Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, Marken and Volendam all of which are within about 30-60 minutes of Amsterdam by Bus or Train.
Full Trip Map
Map of 4 towns in this edition in relation to Amsterdam
“Amsterdam can be thrilling, but any native will tell you that to really experience everyday life in the Netherlands, get out of town. In postcard-perfect Dutch villages like Edam, you can mellow out like a block of aging cheese”. I don’t recall where I got that quote from.
Marken is a bit over 30 minutes by car from Amsterdam’s Central Station and you can get there by bus with only a stop or two. The towns of Marken and Volendam are often bundled together as a day’s outing for tourists staying in Amsterdam as they are only a short ferry ride apart. But as far as we were concerned, as it turned out, the only one worth seeing was Marken. So, I’ll spend most of my typing about Marken and much less on Volendam.
As of 2012, Marken had a population of 1,810, making it a small village. It used to be on a small island but due to the addition of a thin strip of land supporting the only road in or out, it is now a peninsula. Its main attraction are the characteristic wooden houses dating back to the 19th century.
When Marken was an island in the Zuiderzee, during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s its inhabitants were the focus of considerable attention by folklorists, ethnographers, and physical anthropologists who regarded the small fishing town as a relic of the traditional native culture that was succumbing to the modernization of the Netherlands.
But going back in time, the main purpose of this little island town was as a harbor for whaling and herring fishing. But starting in the late 17th century, the Zuiderzee began to silt up making it more and more difficult to run a fishing operation from this harbor. To make matters worse, the town was eventually almost completely abandoned when the entire Zuiderzee was walled off from the North Sea.
Then in the late 1950’s (yeah ‘19’ fifties) a causeway from the mainland to the island was constructed allowing cars and trucks to reach the town. And then came the tourists looking for a glimpse of the past. This was not lost on the few folks who still lived there and they went to work sprucing the place up while at the same time implementing strict zoning restrictions to keep modern architecture from polluting the ambiance of the town.
What makes Marken such a marvelous little town to visit is that it really does live in the past with its well restored and maintained traditional buildings, and low key atmosphere. Another thing that makes it so nice to visit is that it is distinctly not overrun with tourists.
As one meanders through the narrow streets and walkways some barely wide enough for a bicycle one marvels at the architecture designed for the environment. Some buildings are built on little hills or on stilts to keep them above what had been frequent tidal flooding. As is the case with many small villages, Marken too has its own color scheme. I’m not sure why this is, but it could be as simple as those were the only colors available at the local hardware store over several centuries. And that in turn was due to what the local paint mill could produce with readily available minerals and dyes. In Marken, the outsides are a mix of black and dark green. These were the paints that were most weather resistant. However the insides brightened things up with yellows and blues.
Of course the center of such towns was, and still is, the harbor. Here you’ll find some traditional homes, a few traditional shops and a couple of nice restaurants along with the ferry dock.
All in all, Marken turned out to be a wonderful way to spend the best part of a day outside of Amsterdam
Cluster of houses in Marken
Unique door knocker
Narrow Marken “streets” barely wide enough to ride a bike down
Marken church. Note model sailboats hanging over the side pews
Outskirts of Marken
Houses along edge of Marken Harbor
Large house converted to restaurant along Marken Harbor
Another Marken Restaurant on the waterfront
The 2nd town I mentioned at the beginning is Volendam and the dichotomy between it and Marken was jarring. Like Marken, it too is an historic fishing village, but unlike Marken it has been overrun with uncontrolled tourism. In fact as Rick Steves said “Volendam — is grotesquely touristy…mix Killarney and Coney Island and then drizzle with herring juice”, and I couldn’t agree more.
One gets between these two towns on a very pleasant ferry ride of about half an hour. As it turns out, our I Amsterdam City Card I talked about in part 8 includes a free one way ride on this ferry but you first have to get a boarding pass by showing your City Card at the ticket booth on the dock.
The town's promenade is lined with souvenir shops, indoor/outdoor eateries, and Dutch clichés. Some have kept to the traditional styles seen in Marken but most have infused modernity into their establishments. Now throw in cheek by jowl restaurants all with what seems to be identical menus full of ‘designed for tourists’ entrees, thrown onto plates as quickly as possible. Then put a ‘carny barker’ out front of each accosting tourists and funneling them into his eatery and you get a good sense of Volendam.
The attention given by the city leaders to the service industry can be summed up quite simply by example. There is only one public restroom along the entire waterfront, and it closes before dinner time. As there were no signs leading to it, I’m not even sure it is public. It may just be the restroom from one of the shops or restaurants that happens to have an entrance from outside around back. For such a high tourist area we were amazed that we had to ask in 4 different shops before anyone could tell us where the restroom was and even then they directed us to the one mentioned above which was closed (this was just a bit before 6:00 pm). We finally just went into a hotel/restaurant, pretended to be restaurant patrons and found a restroom.
After our comfort break, it was time to find some dinner. After scanning the stomach churning menu at restaurant after restaurant along the main drag, waaaaaaay down at the end of town, a bit down from the clamor of the tourist section we did find a place to eat that had not entirely succumbed to the tourist frenzy and had a halfway decent meal.
After dinner, on our walk to the bus stop on the edge of town for our return to Amsterdam, we thought we’d see examples of nice traditional cottages and houses along the way. But, once you get a block off the main harbor side tourist drag, there isn’t even the pretense of keeping with traditional styles. We could have been anywhere with strip malls, liquor stores, and just plain old 1950’s houses.
We would have been much better off to spend more time in Marken and just skip Volendam altogether.
Coming into Volendam on the Ferry from Marken
Piece of the main tourist drag along the harbor
Zaanse Schans is an open air conservation area and museum on the east bank of the Zaan River, north of Amsterdam. In the states we would know this sort of an attraction as a “living history center”. The site is an easy 30 minute train ride from Amsterdam’s Central Station followed by a short walk. Being so close to Amsterdam, it is one of most popular tourist attractions in the Netherlands. At around 75 acres, it is a fairly large site but even so it can get quite crowded.
The site sits on the banks of the river and depicts life in late 19th century. Most of the buildings were saved from demolition throughout the country, meticulously restored and relocated to this site. The site consists of around 10 operating windmills, 7 craft workshops, 6 museums, and 7 shops all of which are operational and open to the public. Each is run independently by a family and as such some have admission fees and some don’t. Most of the for fee attractions took our I Amsterdam City Card which was quite nice. If one ignores the credit card readers and electric lights, the factories, shops and stores are all operated by docents in period attire as they would have in the 1800’s.
Even though the buildings are originals, I’m sure that in the 18th and 19th centuries they were not as pristine, perfectly painted, and with manicured gardens as they are now presented. So, in that sense it's not a very authentic depiction but rather it is an idealized re-creation of a Dutch village from the period. However, it is quite fascinating seeing the inner workings of various types of windmills and seeing how crafts and domestic goods were made before industrialization.
In addition to the windmills stores and workshops, on the edge of the site is a new regional museum. There are also a fairly large number of restored houses – not open to the public – which are rented out to either long term tenants or as short term tourist rentals. Some of the folks who work the windmills and workshops in traditional ways live in these houses on the site.
As a foreigner, my idea of Dutch windmills was that they were used to pump water through canals and then out of the low (below sea level) lands and over to the other side of the famous dikes. But, it seems most windmills were used to power factories of various types. Here at Zaanse Schans, there are several examples of this. Among others, there are windmills for spice grinding, lumber sawmill, paint factory, seed oil factory and grain grinding.
Paint mill windmill in action (Sawmill De Gekroonde Poelenburg)
Paint Mill (windmill) grinding stone
Windmill gears in motion at paint mill
In addition to the windmills one can visit various workshops and see how things were made in the past. Here we have a bakery, a wooden shoe factory, cheese factory, pewter foundry, weavers, a cooper (barrel maker) and Cocoa workshop. One can also visit several small (single house) museums such as a recreation of a bake shop, a grocer, clock and watch museum, and paper manufacturer museum.
Hand Loom in Weavers House (Het Wevershuls)
Farm House (De Catharinaq)
Lathe for making wooden shoes
Finished wooden shoes for sale
Houses for rent
Three windmills through window of Spice Mill Windmill
One of several Spice Mill grinding wheels
Hoist at cocoa workshop
Zaandam is one of many cities that form the suburbs of Amsterdam. Like Zaanse Schans, it is located northwest of Amsterdam’s Central Station by train about a third of the way to Zaanse Schans. As far as suburban cities go it is incredibly unremarkable. Just a typical suburbs with shopping malls, dentists offices, schools and churches. So, why am I bringing it up here? There is one eye catching building in this city that I just couldn’t resist photographing. I had heard about it beforehand and my local guide (see bottom of this document) was willing to take us there for some photography.
This building is really just an 11 story hotel in the Inntel chain with 160 guest rooms. But the architecture makes it look like a neatly stacked pile of nearly 70 individual traditional houses. All but one of these houses in this pile are painted in one of the four traditional shades of Zaan Green and some even show a bit of red tile roof. Each one depicts a different style of traditional house ranging from a typical notary’s residence to a worker’s cottage.
However one of the houses is painted blue. This one was inspired by “The Blue House” by Claude Monet which he painted in Zaandam in 1871.
Inntel Hotel in Zaandam made to look like a pile of traditional houses
Each individual “house” depicts a typical traditional house style of region
I hope you enjoyed reading about charming Marken, the should have skipped Volendam, historic Zaanse Schans, and the unique hotel in Zaandam section of our NW Europe trip. This installment is the last one for our August 2018 trip through northwestern Europe and I hope you enjoyed coming along with us after the fact.
PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS AS I ENJOY HEARING YOUR REACTION TO WHAT I'VE WRITTEN
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Or, this whole series at:
These and other Images of this trip are posted in a Gallery on my website.
https://www.danhartfordphoto.com/n-europe-trip-all (all images)
https://www.danhartfordphoto.com/n-europe-trip-fav (subset of images)
Check out my travel blogs for other trips under the “Blogs” menu item at www.DanHartfordPhoto.com .
Thanks for reading – Dan
(All images by Dan Hartford. Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, and pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way.
Thanks to our tour guide, Roelf Foppen for showing us great spots at Zaanse-Schans and the Inntel Hotel in Zaandam. You can find tour info for him at https://www.withlocals.com/experience/zaanse-schans-windmills-photography-tour-5e962ad7/?adults=2&children=0 or see his photos at www.roeloffoppen.photography .
Keywords: amsterdam, blog, dan hartford photo, dantravelblog, dantravelblognw-europe, marken, netherlands, volendam, western europe, windmill, zaandam, zaanse schans
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