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Amsterdam, In Search of Windmills

I have always had a deep rooted desire to stand next to a windmill and determine what purpose they serve, or for that matter, how they work. To me, they seemed merely a symbol of Holland for tourists.

Did I say ‘Holland’? Faux pas number one; never refer to a Dutch person as someone from Holland. They will be quick to point out that they are a Netherlander. Upon closer investigation, I learned that Holland is merely one of twelve provinces in the country known as the Netherlands.

So, with my first strike against me, and having upset a few ‘Netherlanders’, I set off in search of a windmill. Research told me they are primarily in the north-west of the country, so off I went in my rented automobile, roadmap in one hand while driving at higher than acceptable speeds. I was under the misconception there are no speed limits in Europe and, although Germany may be more liberal, the Netherlands are certainly not. I did not see any signs posting maximum speeds, but after passing most of the other drivers I decided to slow to an acceptable one hundred and twenty kilometres per hour.

I drove north from the city of Utrecht (some forty kilometres south-east of Amsterdam) and, as I studied my map, was intrigued by a route that seemed to travel across a large body of water called Markermeer. I wondered how Dutch engineers had constructed a bridge this long, and when I arrived at Lelystad I realized it wasn’t a bridge at all. It was a dyke, built in the 1970’s, designed to keep the water back as the ‘Polder Lands’ were being developed.

What is a Polder you ask? In a nutshell, it is a piece of land with a large body of water in the centre. A deep ditch is dug in a circle around the body of water. Next, windmills are constructed to pump the water out of the centre into the ditch. Another ditch (also known as a canal) is then dug through which the water flows to other parts of the land. Almost twenty five percent of the Netherlands have been reclaimed from the sea in this manner (there’s an old saying, which goes, ‘God made the world, the Dutch made the Netherlands’). But, enough of the technical jargon.

Having driven thirty Kilometres across the dyke, watching the chilly wind blow waves up onto to the rocky shoreline, my journey had still not taken me near a windmill. Finally, in the town of Enkhuizen, at the western end of the Houtribdijk Dyke, I decided to ask for directions.

It was there that I made my second faux pas; not every Dutch person speaks English and my Dutch vocabulary was limited to ‘Goode morgen’ (good morning) and ‘Waar is de W.C?’ (Could you please direct me to the toilet?). I quickly learned the Dutch word for windmill is ‘Molen’, and was thrilled when I was directed a few kilometres south, where I was told I would see dozens of the magnificent wonders.

I drove quickly, filled with anticipation, and suddenly pulled my rented automobile to the side of the road. I gazed, my lower jaw gaping loosely, as I stared at dozens of large, concrete-shafted wind turbines. They stood spinning madly, row upon row, as they generated electricity for local consumption. I slumped in my seat deflated by my disappointment. I could, after all, drive downtown Toronto any time I wanted, to see the famous windmill, which causes so much controversy.

I drove on and stopped at a petrol station to inquire about the ‘traditional’ molens. The attendant directed me to an area about three kilometres from the main road. Enthusiastically I followed his directions and suddenly, off in the distance, I saw it; a windmill.

As I approached, I realized how large the molens actually are. It stood some distance from the road and I drove along a dirt path, which led to the base of the mill. As I gazed upward I heard the loud swoosh of the blades as the wind spun them with fury. An attendant explained that most windmills were only there for tourists and that the pumping of the water had been converted to generators. Still, as I stood there in amazement staring at the intricacies of the wind-propelled structure, I was impressed.

With the giant windmill slowly disappearing in the distance, I continued south, along road N247. I decided not to stop in the well-known cheese-making town of Edam, as the afternoon was progressing and I had to get to Amsterdam before nightfall. My trusty rental did, however, require fuel so I took the next exit, which led me to a town known as Vollendam.

After fuelling the car I continued on, in an effort to turn around and again find road N247. I wove my way through a built-up area and, as I turned into a hotel driveway, I suddenly came upon the most picturesque seaside town I have seen in a long time.

A narrow, winding road wove past quaint shops, built in the traditional Dutch architectural style. I was so impressed that I had to stop and explore. Parking in the main area of Vollendam is a bit of a problem and I ended up leaving the car in a private lot (hoping I would not be towed). Later I discovered ample parking at the end of the tourist section.

I visited several stores and was dazzled by the many colours of the thousands of souvenirs. Everything from blue Delft ornaments to colourful wooden shoes. I did learn that this hand-made and rather uncomfortable looking footwear has a name - not ‘clogs’, as I had always been led to believe. The Dutch word is ‘Klompen’ (which I believe translates into ‘Uncomfortable shoes made only for gullible tourists’). Of course I bought a pair (at only seventeen Euros how could I not?), and decided that I had better return to my automobile if I was to get to Amsterdam before dark.

I contemplated stopping at one of the several photography shops, where one could dress in traditional Dutch costumes and have a photo taken. Time, unfortunately, did not permit it so I pushed on.

The drive to the Amsterdam Ring Road took no more than twenty minutes (I found the distances in the Netherlands much shorter than expected). I had never realised before how picturesque the north-west of the Netherlands was. I was pleasantly surprised and extremely glad that I had taken the detour and visited Vollendam in my search for Dutch windmills.

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