From the glorious seaside to UNESCO-protected polders, historic windmills, world-famous cheese towns and time-honoured traditions, Michael Cowton takes a trip down memory lane through Old Holland

DSC_5209THEY ARE coming at me from all angles, jokers to the left of me, policemen to the right. I feel like 12-year-old Regan in The Exorcist, my head spinning uncontrollably as I constantly check from where the next one will be approaching. I am in Amsterdam, and I am mostly talking bicycles.

DSC_5208Yes, bicycles. Thousands of them. In fact, everyone seems to have one. What, with the vehicles and trams to contend with as well, it is a relief to find a side street café off one of the attractive canals, where I sit with a latté and contemplate the last few days of my visit.

I had, actually, travelled here to experience a different side of Holland, one rarely visited by British holidaymakers, which is a shame, because I can reveal that a surprisingly short distance westwards from Amsterdam lies the sea and mile upon mile of glorious beaches.

DSC_4969Zandvoort is one of the oldest seaside resorts in the Netherlands, where historically the inhabitants made their living from the sea. All that was to change in the 19th century with the rise in popularity of sea bathing, and with it the opening of a direct train link between Amsterdam and Zandvoort.

DSC_4971I am here in May, and the promenade, which runs parallel to the 9km beach, is buzzing. This is no normal promenade, as in some places it stretches to around 100 metres. On the Blue Flag beach, I lunch at Thalassa pavilion (, surrounded by dozens of sand-pitched bright yellow umbrellas, shading sun-dwelling families and couples. As the high season approaches, over 30 beach pavilions will open their doors to hungry and thirsty holidaymakers.

DSC_4978Like many visitors before me, I am surprised to discover a hilly dune landscape, so unlike the classic flat polders. These dunes are an intrinsic part of the history of the Netherlands, and have protected the land against the sea for centuries. Zandvoort aan Zee is bordered by two nature reserves. To the north is National Park Zuid-Kennemerland, and to the south the dunes of the Amsterdamse Waterleidingduinen. A great way to explore the area is by hiring a bicycle, which is simple enough in the town. DSC_4981I do just that, and head north along the promenade to the Zuid-Kennemerland, one of 20 national parks in the Netherlands. I follow a scenic trail through the dunes, enjoying a species-rich cross-section of flora and fauna, from waving beach grass to varied inland forests. I also spot European Bison, which were recently introduced to the region.

DSC_4995The roar of engines from the Circuit Park Zandvoort carries on the brisk southwesterly breeze. A motorcycle track day is being held at this former Formula One circuit, directly opposite my hotel for the evening, the NH Zandvoort (

If tradition is your preference, then again you do not have to travel far from Amsterdam to discover picturesque villages, water-rich landscapes and industrial heritage sites. Head north of the city and you find yourself in the land of Hans Brinker, the hero of the 19th century children’s novel who saved the nation from disaster by plugging a hole in the dyke with his finger.

DSC_5053The Waterland region has two areas of particular scenic interest, the village of Broek in Waterland and surrounding villages and towns, and the 17th century polder De Beemster, a listed UNESCO World Heritage site. In the early part of the 17th century, dozens of windmills managed to reclaim land from what was an inland sea. Today, this masterpiece of creative planning is quintessential Holland, with its ruler-edge rectangular pattern of canals and roads, dotted with classic Dutch farmsteads and stately mansions built by merchants, many of which are used today as second homes by affluent Amsterdammers.

DSC_5091On the shores of the Markermeer lake are four historic harbour towns and villages: Volendam, Edam, Monnickendam and Marken. Each one is well worth a visit, especially for the quintessentially Dutch houses, the traditional clothing still worn by some residents, and the convivial atmosphere.

DSC_5103I made for Edam, drawn by the thought of tradition and cheese. The canals, the houses with their stepped gables, even some of the people in traditional dress… it is as if I have stepped through a time warp, and not a bad one at that.

DSC_5101I see clogs hanging in shop doorways, and pass the two cheese shops in the town. I wander the narrow cobbled streets and passed unique buildings, including the former Town Hall (Raadhuis), the Edam Museum and the Fort at Edam (Fort bij Edam), a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

DSC_5119If you want to step yet further into Old Holland, then head to the museum village Zaanse Schans, a neighbourhood of Zaandam that boasts a collection of well-preserved original Zaandam houses and a picture-postcard panorama of windmills.

DSC_5116Once the beating industrial heart of the Netherlands, today’s visitor is offered a preserved glimpse of what it was like to live hereabouts in the 18th and 19th centuries, with many of the village’s characteristic houses now museums, gift shops, workshops and craft centres. You can even try your hand at chocolate making.

DSC_5113The River Zaan threads between the many industrial monuments found here. Pop into the Zaans Museum, which paints a picture of the industrial development of the region. A special section is devoted to what is perhaps the ultimate symbol of Dutch industry, the Verkade biscuit and chocolate factory, where original machines can still be seen at work in a living re-enactment of history.

OldHollandZaandamInntel Hotel, Zaandam (photo courtesy Amsterdam Marketing –

Along the banks of the River Zaan, I stroll past traditional green wooden houses, which are home to rental couples, and in the distance I see windmills still working their magic. If you happen to overnight in Zaandam, which I did, book into the Inntel Hotel (, with its extraordinarily impressive façade of ‘stacked’ green houses. Built as a modern interpretation of the traditional green Zaan houses, the blue house at the top is based on the eponymous painting Claude Monet painted in 1871 in Zaandam.

DSC_5179Haarlem is my last port of call. The largest city in North Holland after Amsterdam, it is only a 15-minute train ride from the capital. I find myself surrounded by rich history, with medieval churches, canals, the town hall on the Grote Markt (Market Square), museums, and the famous Haarlemse hofjes (almshouses), which today are quaint, relaxing oases in the heart of the city.

DSC_5171The Grote Markt is dominated by St Bavokerk (St Bavo’s Church), built between 1370 and 1520. Also found here is the Town Hall, with its battlements and tower, part of which dates back to the 13th century. The 17th century Vleeshal (Meat Hall) and Vishal (Fish Hall) are now used for exhibitions. Other historical churches in Haarlem include the Janskerk with its adjoining convent, and the Bakenesserkerk with its striking white tower.

DSC_5164My city guide takes me to several of Haarlem’s 22 hofjes (courtyards of almshouses), built primarily in the 16th and 17th centuries as a form of charity, and places where the destitute elderly could enjoy their old age in simple comfort.

Haarlem boasts a number of unique museums, the most famous being the Frans Hals Museum, housed in the 17th century Oudemannenhuis (Old Men’s Almshouse). Of all the Haarlem-based painters of the Dutch Golden Age, Frans Hals is by far the most famous, and this eponymous museum owns the world’s largest collection of his paintings.

DSC_5188I took a stroll around the Teylers Museum (, the oldest museum in the Netherlands. Here, visitors marvel at an extraordinary collection of art and scientific objects, including fossils, scientific instruments, coins, paintings, prints and drawings by artists including Rembrandt and Michelangelo. The interior of the museum alone, with its monumental Oval Room as the jewel in its crown, is a must-see.

DSC_5184This is the only place where you can still see and experience an authentic museum interior from the 18th century. It is also where you will see the very top of Mont Blanc, having been ‘extracted’ from the mountain!

DSC_5178Jopen has restored Haarlem’s time-honoured brewing tradition with the transformation of an old church into a modern city brewery, grand café and restaurant. At the Jopenkerk (, you can see the magnificent brew kettles whilst enjoying a drink.

DSC_5211I ended my visit to Holland where I began this story, in the bustling metropolis that is Amsterdam. With a few hours to spare before my return flight, I visited the Anne Frank House, the historic house and biographical museum dedicated to Jewish wartime diarist Anne Frank. Located at the Prinsengracht, close to the Westerkerk in central Amsterdam, I was stunned by the amount of people queuing. It was a sobering journey through history.

DSC_5215Walking alongside a canal with friends to find somewhere to sit and enjoy a coffee, I was almost knocked over by a cyclist. Holland enjoys over 25,000 miles of traffic-free cycle routes, and cyclists often have priority over motorised traffic. Perhaps they have over pedestrians, too!

  • All images ©Essential Journeys/Michael Cowton



I RETURNED to Zaanse Schans on my final evening to a most unusual setting for dinner. It was held in the authentic De Kat paint mill on the Kalverringdijk.

DSC_5142DSC_5143 This is possibly the last remaining paint windmill in the world, with the production and sales of antique paints and dyes having resumed here a decade ago. Dinner was laid on by Groeneveld Eton (, an organisation which provides organic catering on location. The company uses only fresh, organic ingredients, and everything is homemade. The company base is a café next to the museum Zaanse Schans, where you can enjoy lunch on the terrace.

Dinner menu

‘Zaanse’ mustard soup with ‘Zaanse’ eel prepared with organic fish flavouring from natural flavouring company ‘Exter Aromas’

Glazed ‘duivenkater’ (sweet Dutch bread) with slow roasted entrecote from Watervliet Farm and brandy jelly from De Tweekoppige Phoenix distillery

Chicken skewer from Ruig poultry farm marinated with Dutch East India spices

‘Boffers’ (small Dutch pancakes) with ginger and raisins prepared with honey from van Randen apiary from Westzaan

Parfait of Verkade Café noir cookies with a cinnamon syrup from De Tweekoppige Phoenix distillery

Chocolate truffle with ‘Zaans Gedaan’ cocao