If they hadn’t, the ground we were standing on at the moment would have been under several feet of water.
Bill and I were visiting three Schermer windmills, about an hour’s drive from Amsterdam, with Gerk Kazemier, owner of Holland Personal Tour Guide. As much as we were enjoying Amsterdam, we also wanted to see some of the other iconic sites and images so intrinsic to the Netherlands. We had already checked off tulips from our wish list; remaining were windmills, cheese, dikes, and wooden shoes.
We had driven through miles of flat, green expanses of land punctuated with small villages, cultivated fields, farm houses, and livestock to get to the windmills, which were used to pump water out of lakes to reclaim land, mainly for farming.
The Netherlands has an age-old relationship with water, given about one third of the country is at sea level or a little below, and every town is connected by water, whether by rivers, canals, or lakes. Water has been both friend and foe, providing a means for transportation, fertile fields, and commerce, but also destruction from flooding. During the Middle Ages water regulatory boards were established to control water, and, thanks to a complex system of earthen dikes and mechanized pumps, the water level generally stays the same nowadays. The abundance of water has helped make the Netherlands a major global exporter of agricultural products, including flowers, tulip bulbs, potatoes and other vegetables, milk, and cheese.
Gerk said windmills were often dismantled, moved, and rebuilt elsewhere if needed. Not only were windmills used to pump water, but they also ground wheat. With the invention of the crankshaft by a Dutch engineer, they outfitted some windmills with saws to cut wood, which was especially important when Holland was a major ship builder. As new technology for water control usurped windmills, many were kept and restored because of their great historical value. They certainly are dramatic on the landscape and a prominent reminder of the impact of water.
The one Schermer windmill that is still capable of pumping water was built in 1634. On the whole, the Schermer windmills were so efficient they remained in active use until 1923, Gerk explained. It also served as the home for the operator. Now the windmill is a museum, furnished as it would have been during its heyday. I climbed up the interior’s narrow, rickety wooden stairs mounted in a sheer vertical rise (gulp) to the windmill’s top to watch the wooden mechanism in action and look out the window. Back outside, there was a fairly strong wind so the wings were rotating briskly. The cardinal rule of windmills? Stand nowhere near the wings when they’re on the go.
When it comes to cheese, Holland is the largest exporter in the world, and the town of Alkmaar is the home of its most famous cheese market. Every Friday between April and September, the city continues its centuries-old tradition of selling cheese at the historic cheese building on the Waagplein, or public square. It happened to be Friday, so we stopped in to view the colorful spectacle. As we approached the festivities along the canal, bells rang from the tower of the ancient weighing building to signal the start, and a smiling gent rowed his small boat, laden with rounds of cheese, back and forth to show how cheese used to be transported.
The selling process involves weighing the cheese rounds on a large scale and using a special tool to extract small pieces for sampling to determine the quality. The price negotiations involve a hand-clapping ritual. Once the cheese is sold, members of the prestigious cheese carrier guild hauled away the cheese on wooden barrows to the new owners, striding in their own special rhythm to ease the process.
Cheese maids in native costumes strolled through the crowds inviting purchases. Along the waterfront a market was set up, and we watched a man carve wooden shoes. Gerk said clogs are perfect for walking in marshy fields and gardening.
He led us to a temptingly pungent cheese shop away from the crowds, telling us that gouda (the locals pronounce it “howda”) is classified by age, ranging from the young, grassy-tasting new cheese to extra-aged. We bought a wedge of medium-aged gouda for afternoon wine and cheese in our apartment.
Edam, once a thriving shipyard and port, is the other great cheese market town we visited. Its market is held on Wednesdays. We were totally captivated by Edam’s serenity, quiet canal, old cobblestone streets, immaculately maintained 17th century row houses with doors painted in the signature Holland glazed green, and the towering, 15th-century St. Nicolas Church with its historic collection of richly colored stained glass windows. Bill and I decided if we ever move to Holland, this is the place.
Throughout the day, Gerk offered a running commentary about Dutch history, culture, economics, and lifestyle. We were most surprised to learn that our own statesman John Adams had traveled to Holland and returned with a copy of the country’s Letter of Independence, which he gave to Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin. They referenced it to create the Declaration of Independence. On a lighter note, we burst out laughing when Gerk said that some guides jokingly tell tourists that sheep often straddle the dikes to graze, which makes for long left legs and short right legs…and they believe it.
Our last stop of the day was the quaint former fishing island of Marken, now connected to the mainland by a dike. With its fishing industry gone by the wayside, Marken is mainly an attraction for visitors to get a sense of how a traditional Netherlands fishing community looked. The architecture is distinctive – generally small green or brown wooden houses on stilts.
We were heartened to see that the traditions and characteristics we associate with Holland were still alive and well, sharing time and attention with the present.