There’s no doubt, the main atraction around the Zaan river are the working windmills and beautiful historic village of Zaanse Schans that form the open museum sitting on the river’s eastern bank. Head over to the west bank though, and the equally historic, if less blessed with windmills, village of Zaandijk makes a pleasant stroll en route back to the train station.
Established in 1494, when the area was known as the Lage dijk, or Lower Dyke, the founder of the village was Heyndrick Pietersz. His five sons settled nearby and, in that very literal human way, the village became known as D’ Vijf Broers, the Five Brothers. The village didn’t exactly take off, by 1573 it was home to only nineteen wooden houses. Unfortunately for the Dutch inhabitants wooden houses aren’t very fire resistant. A couple of years later the Spanish army arrived and burnt the village to the ground, part of their hearts and minds campaign during what is now known as the Eighty Years’ War – the protracted war for Dutch independence.
Luckily for the modern tourist, the inhabitants slowly came back and rebuilt. Today as you make your way down the main street past lovely 18th and 19th Century brick houses, and the occasional wooden building, it’s clear that the village has expanded. Now home to nearly 10,000 people, the historic heart of the community still exists in a small area of wooden houses criss-crossed with small water channels close to the river.
There was hardly a soul around when I visited, and as I wandered through the narrow streets it was very tranquil. I found myself fancifully imagining living inside a sturdy looking wooden house with good access to the Zaan river, pastoral scenes flitting past. Unfortunately, or maybe not, I kept being dragged back to reality by an overwhelming pungent sickly sweet-sour smell that filled the air.
There didn’t seem to be an obvious source for the stench, but as I made my way back to the train station the smell seemed to intensify. Finally, I discover the source of my olfactory discomfort: cacao processing. The Cacao de Zaan factory processes cacao which is ultimately destined for lots of different chocolate products in The Netherlands and beyond. I’ve never smelled ‘pre-chocolate’ before, it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for the final product. A factory has been operating in this area for over a century, I guess local people are used to it?