Waking up with a full energy bar, I reached over to the side table to grab my mint and lemon infused water bottle guzzling down the remaining ounces of water. The light peeking through the curtains is telling me I should get up and grab some fresh air. After doing some calisthenics, I begin to gather clothing items forming an outfit for the day. My travel capsule consists of jeans, tees, long sleeves, a few scarves and slip-on sneakers. Attached to my backpack is a foldable shopping bag that also serves as a luggage tag, which I have used extensively through this trip. In that bag, I pack a water bottle leaving room for the broodje I'll pick up at Centraal later.
The train ride from Amstelveen to Amsterdam Centraal was approximately 25 minutes. Your eyes will be engaging with the surroundings so it won't seem as long. I have no need for the information booth today and feel like I've integrated into Dutch society with a broodje, and sinaasappelsap, in my bag and a small koffie in my hand while trying to juggle train tickets and delight. I could have taken the bus, but that would have eaten up forty minutes of my time. This of course assuming that traffic doesn't exist. Instead, the train ride saved me a half hour and this time around I didn't have to deal with conductor bathroom mishaps. Yet, it would have been too easy to go a day without some kind of GVB gaffe. The platform signs kept changing and I ended up waiting an additional 15 minutes for another train. A small price to pay for comfort I guess. Still, I prefer train rides anyway. They are relaxing and you get to cover more ground in a short amount of time.
From the Koog-Zaandijk station, you'll have to walk 15 minutes to Zaanse Schans. I was under the assumption that I would just see windmills! As soon as I walked off the train car I was smacked with the aroma of chocolate. Heaven on earth! I did what any other sane chocoholic would do, I followed my nose. I've heard of taco stands, but cookie stands?! I lost the picture, but I can assure you it did happen! As I kept walking the chocolate smell kept getting stronger and to my left was a chocolate factory. The street was lined with chocolateries, and bistros. Sensory overload and I couldn't stop smiling, like some villain who had just come up with a dubious plan.
Sidewalks were covered in chalk with sayings such as, “Go Vegan,” and “Save the Planet,” a story reminding me of my carbon footprint unfolding. As I walked over the phrases, I came upon a nice big green windmill. Because I am traveling alone, I pose for a selfie, a bad one at that. When I went to check the picture, there's was a guy who totally photobombed the frame. Before I could delete the picture he asked, “Hey would you like me to take your picture?” I hesitated because my phone has been my lifesaver thus far; yet, I see he has a nice Nikon camera hanging from his neck, so I put my guard down and hand him my phone. The interaction was brief, but I watched him walk behind me as we headed towards Zaanse Schans. The next streetlight and turn right.
The photographer is busy snapping away and I'm just trying to cross the street without getting hit by a car. Zaan is the river is wide and separating me from my destination. If you rush over to Zaanse Schans, you'll miss part of the beauty in standing on the bridge and just looking at the windmills. Luckily, there weren't many people disturbing me in my little piece of heaven and I was able to take in the scenery. Windy, sunny, with just a hint of cold, I would later learn the names of the famous windmills that adorn postcards from this region. I remained on the bridge for about 10 minutes, moving only when I saw a fellow traveler framing their shot. My new friend waves goodbye after bursting a few photos and I'm left there breathing in the fresh air letting any worries dissipate. I could stay here staring at Zaanse Schans from here, but I better get going.
Zaanse Schans: Windmills, Tourists, and Orange Juice
One thing I must say is that everyone has mixed feelings about Zaanse Schans. Some call it a tourist trap, while others believe that it is a place you must visit. It's a quick trip from Amsterdam, so if you have the time, I'd say go for it. There are tour packages, which I find expensive and unnecessary. Instead, pack a lunch and have your walking shoes ready. Each windmill specializes in some type of food, like cheese, herring. Some even housed bistros. Since I already had lunch I didn't bother, but I did peek inside. Speaking of the inside, you can see some of the windmills' inner workings for roughly 10€. Understand that there will be a lot of people here, some running into you because they are busy snapping away or on bikes, which in that case you should just move out of their way when you hear the bike bell. Don't worry, the paths are clearly marked. If you get thirsty, there are plenty of orange juice vendors carting the citrus elixir up and down the road. Although it is probably some of the best OJ you will have, I suggest you bring bottled water (or get this handy tool) also. The walking paths are lined with benches. Pick one and enjoy your lunch there. Take in the sights and relax. The best way to enjoy Zaanse Schans is at your own pace. I often saw people rushed as if they were trying to fit too many activities into one day. If you take your time, you will be rewarded. Promise.
A Boat Ride to Zaandijk
For one euro, a small boat will take you across the Zaan and on over into Zaandijk. If you blink you will miss the sign, so keep your eyes peeled. My thought process behind this was, “Well, it's just one euro.” The boat is small and seats 10, including the captain and crew member. I was on a boat with tourists from Spain. The captain collects the meager fee, while the crew member hands you an information sheet in the language of your choice. I chose French, but immediately put it away for later reading. At times I felt we were going to tip over, and that was part of the thrill for me. While the Spaniards were chatting away, I remained quiet and meditated on the floating oasis. The entire boat ride was less than 10 minutes.
Upon my arrival, I started to follow the smell of chocolate once again. If you're looking for historic wooden houses, you will be happy to find them as soon as you get off the boat. There are plenty of them from the early 1600s and if you're a history buff like me, you'll probably have a hard time leaving.
It was relatively warm and I was craving iced coffee. If you have read any of the previous posts, you'll know that finding ice around Europe can be quite a feat. Walking through the neighborhood, I peeked into a window where a beautiful vase filled with tulips caught my eye. As I entered, there were a group of women cross-stitching, having a conversation, and a glass of wine.
The answer, a resounding no; yet, the counterperson sensing my limited Dutch began conversing with me in broken English. Our conversation did not get far since the owner of the shop interrupted with a smile. I'm trying to decide on a truffle, and whether or not I want some gelato. All of the sweets are made on the premises, so, either way, I know I'm in for a treat. Once I tell her I'm visiting from California, she lights up and begins to tell me about her travels through California in a VW bus in the late '60s, early '70s. Before I can sit down with my cappuccino and truffle, she pulls up a chair and continues to talk about her travels. She remembers the smells, sounds, and that gorgeous California coast, which she describes in great detail. Her favorite city, San Francisco.
“One day I will go back.”
The young lady who assisted me initially, chimes in with her travels to Japan and before you know it we are sharing experiences. Three women from different age groups just enjoying each others company and learning through storytelling. The older woman tells me she is part of a historical society in Zaandijk and has created a board game in order to teach new generations about their heritage and to preserve history. Not only do I get to enjoy freshly made truffles and gelato, but I'm also getting a history lesson and hang on to every word. What are the odds of walking into a chocolaterie and receiving an in-depth lesson about the region from someone who works to preserve it? She then hands me several brochures breaking down each region for me but advises that it will most likely take numerous trips to the Netherlands to fully embrace and understand every province.
Leaving Cacaoboom (the Cocoa Tree) felt like saying goodbye to a relative. Neither of us wanted the conversation to end. I assured them I would be back and we would see each other again. I would later send a card from the States thanking them for the experience and conversation. Less than a month later, I received a postcard. I can still smell the chocolate and fresh tulips, hear the power of the windmills and taste strong Dutch coffee. All of which reminds me why I need to book another ticket to the Netherlands.