There’s a saying in the Netherlands that I quite like: “God created the earth, but the Dutch made Holland.”
It refers of course to how much of the Netherlands is reclaimed land. Netherlands (or Nederland) means “Low Countries,” which it is. About half of the country lies barely a metre above sea level, and a quarter of the country is reclaimed land that would flood if not for the dykes. The larger areas of reclaimed land are called polders.
Reclaiming land from the sea involves an intricate drainage system of dykes, canals, and pumps. In days gone by, windmills were the pumps.
And that’s the lesson you learn when you visit Kinderdijk. This UNESCO World Heritage site is home to 17 windmills that have been pumping water for almost three hundred years. They were supplemented by steam pumps during the nineteenth century, and then, in the last century, they were replaced by electrical pumps.
But now the windmills — the largest concentration of old mills in the Netherlands — remain as a living museum.
Kinderdijk means “children’s dyke” and there are a number of stories about how the name came to be. The one I like best is a simple one: the dyke that was lower than the surrounding dykes was smaller, like a child, and became known as the Kinderdijk.
The Kinderdijk windmills are called “ground sailers” because the sails almost reach the ground. I expect it was a risky business, living in a windmill, as one wrong step could easily end your life.
There are three kinds of windmills at Kinderdijk. The Nederwaard mills (at right in the photo below) were built in 1738 and are made of brick, except for their caps, which are thatched. This cap can be turned, which allows the miller to move the sails so they face the wind. The mills are staggered to make sure they do not steal the wind from the sails of the other mills. One of them has been turned into a museum, furnished as it was during the 1950s when the last miller lived there.
I learned there is nothing quite like the sound of being inside a windmill as its sails turn. Let’s just say there was a whole lot of creaking going on.
The Overwaard mills (at left in the photo above) were built in 1740. They are thatched mills and are not staggered because they are spaced further apart.
The last type of windmill is a wipmolen (hollow post mill), which is the oldest type of windmill in the Netherlands. There is just one of these at Kinderdijk and it too has been turned into a museum.
The wipmolen can also be rotated, which is exactly what this miller is doing.
If you want to see windmills in the Netherlands, Kinderdijk is where you need to be. It is easily accessible from Rotterdam by bus or waterbus and can done as a day trip from Amsterdam.
And if the wind is blowing, as it was when we were there, be assured you will see many of the mills in action.
Destiny guides our fortunes more favorably than we could have expected. Look there, Sancho Panza, my friend, and see those thirty or so wild giants, with whom I intend to do battle and kill each and all of them ….”
“What giants?” asked Sancho Panza.
“The ones you can see over there,” answered his master, “with the huge arms, some of which are very nearly two leagues long.”
“Now look, your grace,” said Sancho, “what you see over there aren’t giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone.”
“Obviously,” replied Don Quixote, “you don’t know much about adventures.”
― Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
One adventure I was keen to experience for myself on our two-week jaunt around central Spain were those very windmills that Don Quixote had confused for giants. A photograph of the mills somewhere sometime had caught my eye, and I promised myself I would one day see them for myself.
And so I did. Windmills are a big part of my heritage, so maybe my love of windmills is in my genes. Or maybe it’s just because windmills are so beautiful.
The windmills in Spain were modelled after the Dutch windmills, but the difference between them is the Dutch mills are mainly used to pump water, whereas the mills in Spain were built to grind grain, mostly wheat.
This first group of windmills are at Consuegra. Built in the sixteenth century, there were 13 mills originally, of which 12 have been reconstructed. They were in use up until the 1980s.
The next group of windmills we visited are the ones at Campo de Criptana. Here, there are ten mills altogether, situated at the edge of a village. It was very windy when we were here and we kept moving around the mills, trying to find a calm place in which to eat our picnic lunch, but to no avail.
The last group of windmills we stopped at were at Mota del Cuerro.
The landscape of this part of Castile La Mancha is flat, dry, dusty, and windy. Way off in the distance, there are mountains. It reminds me of parts of Alberta, actually, and that may be why I fell in love with this part of Spain.
My memories of our visit to Castilla La Mancha and Castile and León are dim and faded, but revisiting the region through these blog posts has brought it all back again. Which has been lovely. It’s a region of Spain that doesn’t get a lot of attention, but deserves far more.
I had lunch last month with a couple of friends who were in town for the holidays. One of them grew up not far from where I was living last summer, and naturally our conversation turned to my summer in Amsterdam. We had a very nice discussion about the differences between the Netherlands and North America. Our topics? The weather, table service, and, erm, the bike culture.
I looked out the window for a moment, thinking about what else I had noticed about life in Amsterdam, and then turned back to face my Dutch-born friend.
“You know what the Dutch do really well?” I said. “Trains.” I then marvelled aloud that I was able to travel by train from Amsterdam to another town for lunch, to yet a different town for dinner, and still be back in Amsterdam by midnight.
Yes, the Dutch have an excellent and comprehensive train system. What do I mean by “comprehensive”? I mean there are 3000 kilometres of railway in a country that is scarcely 400 kilometres from one end to the other. Along that rail network are nearly 400 train stations. That’s right: 400. Few Dutch towns are without a train station.
That kind of rail network isn’t possible in a country like Canada, of course, thanks to the fact that we “have too much geography.” I know that. Yet I still couldn’t help but wonder the other week, as I schlepped by Greyhound from Calgary to Red Deer to Edmonton, how much more pleasant my journey would have been by high-speed train.
Discovering the Netherlands by train was one of the highlights of my summer and I had lots of fun photographing the dozen or so Dutch trains stations I travelled through.
I don’t have a photo of the station I used most often (that would be Amsterdam Centraal) because the building was enshrouded in scaffolding all summer long. But here’s a look at the imposing entrance to Rotterdam Centraal, a station that was rebuilt only five years ago and, like Amsterdam, is one of the country’s busiest rail stations.
Den Haag Centraal is another of the country’s busiest stations. Note the Mondrian windows at the top right.
This is Leiden Centraal, another spectacularly designed station.
Most of Holland’s train stations date back to the nineteenth century, however, like this one in Kampen. It’s one of Holland’s smallest train stations. Only one train stops here, a small two-car train that does the ten-minute journey between Kampen and Zwolle three times an hour.
This is the entrance hall to the Maastricht station. See those ticket machines? There’s one for each national rail service: Belgium, Germany, and Holland. How efficient (and multinational) is that?
And this photo is from one of my favourite stations: Haarlem. Haarlem is on the Amsterdam–Rotterdam route, the oldest railway line in the country. The current building was built in the Art Nouveau style between 1906 and 1908 and is a national heritage site.
The sign above this doorway reads “Waiting Room First Class.”
I was especially intrigued by this plaque in Delfts Blauw tile on one of the walls in the Haarlem station. It’s from 1939 and commemorates 100 years of Dutch rail service. Train buffs know that the 1840s were the tech boom of the nineteenth century — railway lines were being laid down all over the place. In Canada, too.
I don’t know how many kilometres of rail travel I did last summer, but I do know this: it is such a civilized way to travel and I loved it.