Zaanse Schans Dutch tourist village: Amsterdam's cliche attraction and why it's worth seeing

There is something to be said for bundling a whole lot of travel kitsch under the one roof.

There must be, somewhere, an Amsterdam beyond the cliche but, really, who cares? Unless we're going there for the umpteenth time (or to live) don't we want canals, cheese, clogs and windmills? Chuck in the red light district, a soupcon of Anne Frank, a bit of Bruegel and Bob's your uncle; Amsterdam in a tulip bulb.

This is where the Zaanse Schans Dutch tourist village comes into its own. Just on the outskirts of the city, this sprawling open-air park brings all the cliches together under one, er, roof (as it were).

A cliche is simply a truth that's been over-used – think budgie smugglers on Bondi beach or tango lessons in Buenos Aires – but even I am a little loath about going the whole hog like this, and leave the Avalon Imagery II in Amsterdam's docks with a sense of foreboding.

The coach journey takes just half an hour (it's an easy 20-kilometre bicycle ride if you're up to it) and before we know it we're disgorged from the coach on the edge of a landscape of quintessential Dutchness.

It's a stark contrast to the last week of cruising through deep gorges and castle-topped hillsides along the Rhine. There are dikes and ditches cutting through countryside as flat as a poffertje pancake and a phalanx of windmills standing guard like a line of anxious parents waving their arms in warning. "Look out," they seem to be saying, "there are giant clogs in your immediate future."

And indeed there are. It's this more than anything else that seems to sum the place up. Yes, the oversized clogs are touristy and kitschy and overrun with people having their photographs taken with them but what's in the building behind it is intriguing.

Imagine, if you will, an existential collision between a sawmill, a souvenir shop and a museum and you'll have some idea of what's in store. Yes, you can buy ceramic tulips and truly appalling fridge magnets in the souvenir shop but there's also a section devoted to the history of the clog and a workshop where you can watch this most iconic of Dutch footwear being made.

Here we find all manner of weird and wonderful work clogs, Sunday best clogs, ancient clogs for horses, roller-skating clogs and fun novelty clogs painted like two-tone brogues, bare feet and motorcars. There are even special strap-on blades should you wish to go ice-skating in your clogs. Clog, by the way, is said to originate from clogge, a 14th century word meaning ''lump of wood''. It was also used in Middle English to mean large pieces of jewellery or big testicles (something you'd need if you plan to go ice-skating in clogs, if you ask me).

The path then meanders past a collection of typical Dutch buildings that contain shops, crafts stores and coffee shops before wending its way to the banks of the Zaan River, which bends gracefully here as if to say ''come on, isn't this the best place to place a line of windmills?''


It's quietly perfect. Squint through your bad eye, ignoring the selfie sticks, and it could be a painting from the Dutch landscape school of the 17th century, the land sitting below the river line, the sky huge and blue, the windmills testament to the Netherlands' industrial might at that time.

The windmills here today include a mustard mill, sawmills and oil mills but one of the more interesting is De Kat (The Cat) paint windmill. Here, a volunteer explains how the mill was (and is) used to grind coloured minerals into the bright powders that painters such as Rembrandt mixed with linseed oil to create their paints. The current building, he explains, is the last working paint mill in the world.

We look around the inner workings – the great grinding stone, the giant cogs, the stacked wooden barrels of pigment stamped with names such as Venetiaans rood and geel oker citroen – and then climb the steep wooden stairs up to the first-floor outdoor platform, which affords magnificent views across the river on one side and the low-lying reclaimed land (known as polder) on the other.

We finish off by visiting the Catharina Hoeve Farm (a replica of a typical 17th-century Oostzaan farm), where an enthusiastic young woman in traditional costume explains what goes into the making of the famous Dutch gouda cheese before we are spat out into the gift shop.

Here you can toothpick your way through free cubes of herb flavoured and smoked cheeses or buy up big with yet more ceramic tulips and windmill-shaped chocolates.

All in all it's curiously satisfying and we settle back in the coach for the return trip with a warm glow. Though that might be the liqueur coffee I had in the cafe. Proost.




Cathay Pacific Airways flies from all the major Australian cities to Zurich via Hong Kong. See


Avalon Waterways' Romantic Rhine cruise from Basel to Amsterdam runs between April and November, in both northbound and southbound directions. From $3705 a person double occupancy. Price includes all meals, daily excursions and beer and wine at lunch and dinner. See

Keith Austin was a guest of Avalon Waterways.