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Historic Towns

Down to this day, the rich history of Noord-Holland has left its imprint on the towns and villages of the region. To this day the souls of fishing ports like Volendam, Muiden and Medemblik, which then still stood by the open sea, breath the atmosphere of the time when the IJsselmeer was still the Zuiderzee. These towns and villages are also well known as the "Golden Circle".

In the towns of Hoorn and Enkhuizen, it is still possible to follow in the footsteps of the Dutch East India Company or Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie. The many buildings and the statues distributed here and there stand as mementoes of that time in the 17th century when the East India Company reigned supreme here. Apart from the places around the former Zuiderzee, historic towns such as Naarden, Alkmaar and Haarlem are certainly worth a visit. All these towns have a character of their own going back to the Golden Century.


Haarlem, the capital of the Province of Noord-Holland, is a fine example of an historic town with an identity all of its own. Particularly characteristic of Haarlem are the almshouses that stand hidden here and there throughout the town. Besides its magnificent monumental buildings, Haarlem is also distinguished by its little historic buildings with beautiful corbie-stepped and coffered facades. In times gone by, a variety of architects from Flanders have been active in Haarlem, and the Flemish influence is clearly visible to this day. Haarlem enjoys great renown for the Great or St. Bavo's Church. This late Gothic church (1370-1520) shelters the grave of the painter Frans Hals and the Christian Müller organ of 1738. This very organ was once played by the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In Haarlem lovers of art and culture will find their hearts beating a little faster. One museum with an international reputation is the Frans Hals Museum, which among other things displays works by this Dutch Old Master. Besides them there are also works by other 17th- century painters to admire. The oldest public museum in the Netherlands is the Teylers Museum. Founded by scholars, it offers a wide range of themes. The international display of Italian, French and Dutch prints and drawings forms a permanent part of the collection. In the Verweyhal Hall modern art is represented by the works of the artist Kees Verwey, born and bred in Haarlem. Haarlem is also well known as a Floral Town. In April the flower parade attracts thousands of visitors who cheer the magnificently-decked floats along their 25-mile route from Noordwijk to Haarlem.


The fortress town of Naarden resembles a huge open-air museum whose most distinctive monument is the fortress, which still remains for a large part intact. Apart from a stroll round the ramparts, a visit to the historic centre with its many small antique shops is certainly worth the effort. Anyone interested in domestic design should certainly pay a visit to the Arsenal. There, besides cannon, culverins and mortars, they will find the Jan des Bouvrie show-rooms surrounded by a variety of restaurants and boutiques. The Naarden Fortress Museum is another crowd-puller. In this open-air and underground museum, the whole of the history of Naarden is narrated from a basis of historic artefacts. In addition you have the opportunity to make a tour of the moat of the fortress from the museum. The Comenius Museum is also located in Naarden. Besides temporary exhibitions, the museum also houses a permanent display of one of the greatest scholars of the 17th century, Jan Amos Comenius. Next to the museum stands the Waal Chapel where the Czech scholar has lain buried for more than 400 years.


The Alkmaar Cheese Market is a watchword throughout the world. From mid-April to mid-September the cheese porters can be seen in action every Friday between 10:00 and 12:00. The cheese porters are members of one of the few surviving Dutch cheese porters' guilds. The Cheese Museum (Kaasmuseum) is housed in the 14th- century weighing hall, the Waaggebouw. Here you can see how cheese- and butter-making were carried out in centuries gone by. But Alkmaar has much more to offer than just cheese. The old town centre with its little lift bridges, magnificent patrician houses and picturesque shopping streets provides a very beautiful setting for a stroll round town. The monumental Church of St. Lawrence (St. Laurenskerk), built between 1470 and 1516 by members of the famous family of architects, the Keldermans of Mechelen, is a magnificent example of many illustrious monuments in which the town is so rich. Culture lovers in Alkmaar can visit a number of interesting museums - the Alkmaar Town Museum (Stedelijk Museum Alkmaar) with an important collection of 16th- and 17th- century Dutch masters, and the Beer Museum, which is housed in a 17th- century brewery. Alkmaar is moreover, through its situation, a perfect starting point for a cycling trip through the polders or the woods and dunes of the coastal district.


Just as Alkmaar, Edam is internationally known as a cheese town. This reputation is honoured throughout the months of July and August on Wednesdays from 09.30h to 12.30h with the organisation of the traditional Cheese Market. Many people do not know that Edam is one of the best-preserved small towns on the former Zuiderzee. This is not simply down to the cheese trade. Not long after the town obtained its charter in 1357, it blossomed through the building of a free-port on the then Zuiderzee. Shipbuilding became seriously important with time and traces of this period can still be found in Edam. After the Beemster and the Purmer were drained, the cheese trade became an important source of income. Anyone who scouts out Edam via the many canals will see this with his own eyes. Stately merchants' houses, lovely lift bridges, the most beautiful stepped and coffered facades remind one of the time of the town's prosperity. Over Edam towers the Great or St. Nicolaas Church, a triple-aisled 'hall' church founded at the end of the 15th century. The central point of the town is the Damplein Square (1624) with its magnificent town hall. On the other side of the square stands the oldest building in the town. It is now arranged as a museum with authentic furniture, old utensils and paintings.


Hoorn is rich in statues and monuments reminding one of the time when the Dutch East India Company was established in the town. The East India Company was a trading company which, during the Golden Century, was celebrated across all the seas of the world as the mother of all 'multinationals'. The connection to the Zuiderzee was cut off in 1932 on the construction of the Afsluitdijk dam, built to link Noord-Holland with the province of Friesland. Much of the history of the East India Company can be rediscovered in the Westfries Museum, the Hoorn Historical Museum and the West-Friesland Regional Museum. The museum is housed in the Staten College of 1632. Its 27 rooms accommodate, among other things, an East India Company collection, paintings and popular art. Museum visitors more interested in the history of this century can pay a visit to the Museum of the 20th Century. The collection evinces the changes and developments the Netherlands have undergone over the last 100 years. With its cosy harbour surrounded by small jolly pubs and restaurants, many watersports enthusiasts find their way to Hoorn, especially in summer.


The Dutch East India Company has left its traces behind in Enkhuizen too. In the town one can find various East India Company warehouses since rebuilt as dwellings. To sample the flavour of the life of the period, a visit to the Pepper Store in the Zuiderzee Museum or a quick look at the Museum of Ships in Bottles (Flessenscheepjesmuseum) is a must. After the Zuiderzee was dammed in and salt water gave way to fresh, the Enkhuizen fishermen changed over en masse from herring to eel fishing. By paying a visit to the Zuiderzee Museum, you bring those old days back to life. Around a hundred dwellings, small shops and workshops provide a good picture of life in the Zuiderzee fishing villages of yesteryear. The symbol of the town of Enkhuizen is the 'Drommedaris'. This town gate was erected in the 16th century to guard the approach to the old harbour. Outside the Drommedaris stands a bronze figure of the 17th- century painter Paulus Potter. Enkhuizen harbour is also very well worth a visit. Throughout the year, both modern sailing vessels and traditional ones like tjalks, botters and klippers, sail in and out of the harbour. A voyage across the former Zuiderzee in a traditional sailing vessel is also thoroughly recommended!


The greatest attraction in Muiden is Muiderslot Castle. This castle was erected about 700 years ago by Floris V, one of the key figures in the history of the Netherlands. The rooms of the castle are furnished in the 17th- century style. During this period the castle was inhabited by the famous poet and writer P.C. Hooft. The artefacts and paintings provide a good picture of life in the castle during the Golden Century. In the Middle Ages, Muiden was the outer port of the city of Utrecht but was later rebuilt as a defensive work before Amsterdam. The most famous part of the Stelling van Amsterdam fortifications, the fortress island of Pampus, lies within the town boundaries of Muiden. Once upon a time, Pampus was a mighty fortress whose function was to defend the mouth of the River IJ against enemies. Nowadays the fort is open to the public. From Muiden it is possible to visit the island by boat.


Until the end of the 17th century, Medemblik had an important role as a mercantile town. Nowadays tourism is a major source of income. Certainly, during the summer the old town centre and, above all, the yacht harbour attract many tourists from the Netherlands and abroad. Many of these visitors go and have a look at Radboud Castle. This castle is the sole survivor of Floris V's strongholds built against the West Frisians in 1282. Inside one can admire a collection of old West Friesian coats of arms and paintings. There are also regular temporary exhibitions. An entertaining way to pay a visit to Medemblik is by steam train. The train leaves from Hoorn and runs through a magnificent and stately landscape. On arrival in Medemblik one can, for example, go and look at the Steam Engine Museum, which is housed in a former steam pumping station of 1869. Thereafter it is possible to sail for Enkhuizen aboard a saloon-steamer and, having visited the latter town, to travel back to Hoorn by Netherlands Railways (NS) train.


Volendam is a picturesque fishing town with characteristic small houses, canals and lift bridges. Many a tourist loses his way in the Labyrinth, the "Doolhof", where a maze of narrow lanes and alleys puts the visitor into confusion. The costumes of this old town are world-renowned. Across the entire world there hang portraits of people who have had themselves photographed in Volendam costume at the time of their visit to the place. Besides its folk-costume, this old town is primarily known for its incomparable eels, its world-famous performers such as BZN en de Cats and naturally FC Volendam football club. When visiting this beautiful town, you should certainly not omit a visit to Volendam Museum. Besides old interiors and costumes, the museum also contains a unique cigar-band house made from more than 7,000,000 cigar bands. It is extremely easy to visit Marken from Volendam. From the end of March to October inclusive, there is a boat service to the one-time island.


For almost eight centuries, Marken was an island. Since it was linked to the mainland in 1957, it has been a peninsula. Anyone entering Marken harbour will notice that the houses stand on piles. They were built in this way against the floods which regularly used to devastate the island when the IJsselmeer was still the Zuiderzee. In contrast to Volendam, Marken has not always been a fishing port. Before the clayey soil dried up, the Markeners lived by agriculture. Just like Volendam, Marken is known for its folk-costumes. Nowhere do people wear such a bright array of colours as on Marken. The Marken Museum is accommodated in four so-called 'smoke houses'. One of the houses is arranged as if a Marken fishing family were living there in 1932. The museum also has a variety of examples of the Marken folk-costumes on show.


Throughout the centuries, the windmill has been the symbol of the Dutch fight against the water. Polder mills were built from the 15th century onwards in the north and west of the Netherlands because the water level in the polders could not be maintained by natural means. In the 17th century, such mills were also put into service to drain inland expanses of water. Examples of these include the Schermer, Beemster and Purmer. But mills were built not only for Dutch water management. Before that mills were already being put into service to meet the requirements of industry. A good example of this is the windmills in the Zaan district which were erected on the basis of the industry in the area at the time.

Of the approximately 10,000 mills Holland once had, about 1100 (1035 windmills and 106 watermills) still remain. Of these around 138 windmills are in Noord-Holland. Most of the mills are to be found in the Schermer and the Zaans region. The Zaans district was once one of the prime industrial areas of the world. Once upon a time, 1000 industrial mills stood here. A large number were burned down and never rebuilt but the majority were demolished. The rise of the steam engine and other industrial developments were behind this. Around 1900, there were only some tens of mills out of the 1000 remaining and now this is down to 12. Among the industrial mills could be found oil, pigment, paper, corn and mustard mills. Almost a quarter of the mills (240) in the Zaan district were saw mills. The saw mills were developed in about 1600 specially for the sawyers' trade in Noord-Holland.

In order to view the mills of Noord-Holland from close at hand, special mill routes can be obtained from a large number of Tourist Offices (VVVs). These cycle and motor routes lead past the finest mills the province contains. On Mill Open Days, a large number of mills that are not always open to the public are freely accessible. There are two mill museums in Noord-Holland; the Museum Mill (Museummolen) in Schermerhorn and the Mill Museum (Molenmuseum) in Koog aan de Zaan.

Mill Museums

The Museum Mill (Museummolen) in Schermerhorn is an authentic water mill and dates from the 17th century. The mill is still in operation and, together with two other water mills forms a so-called molengang. A molengang is a series of several mills. They were used when the difference between water heights was so great that the height could not be overcome by one polder mill. Each mill raises the water one level higher. This system is also called a 'flight mill'.

At the Museum Mill, the visitor can see how the water was once pumped four metres up from the polder into the main drainage channel. Within the mill all sorts of information is provided about Holland's polder land and the part the mills played in it. The floor consists of glass sheets through which the mill machinery can clearly be seen. In the loft there is an extensive collection of mill-wrights' tools. You can also pay a visit to the authentic 19th- century miller's house.

The Zaanse Schans is a reconstruction of a Zaans residential and working neighbourhood. In this open-air museum there are around twenty wooden houses, mills and storehouses from the 17th and 18th centuries. In all the site has nine mills including the "De Zoeker" oil mill of 1673 and the "De Kat" windmill of 1782. A tour boat leaves the Mosterdmolen mustard mill every hour for a trip past the mills and houses of the Zaanse Schans. In addition, visitors can pay a visit to the bakery museum, the Netherlands Clock Museum (Museum van het Nederlandse Uurwerk), a cloggers' and a cheese-makers'.

At walking distance from the Zaanse Schans stands the Zaans Mill Museum (Zaans Molenmuseum). The museum offers the visitor a chance to see the life of a mill in close-up. There are also prints, drawings and a collection of scale models on show. In his painting 'Zaans Mill Panorama' (2 m. by 12 m.), the painter Frans Mars provides an image of the great age of the Zaans milling industry. In addition there are regular temporary exhibitions by visual artists.

Mill Cycle Trips

At the VVV Tourist Office in Zaandam, there are 3 mill cycle trips of various lengths to be had. The shortest route leads past 13 mills and has a length of 18 miles. The 38-mile route takes in 21 mills and on the longest route of 56 miles a cyclist passes 37 mills. The starting point of all the routes is the VVV Tourist Office in Zaandam. The VVV Alkmaar Tourist Office has marked out a mill cycle trip of 25 miles. This trip leads through 8 villages and past 14 mills including the "'t Roode Hert" corn mill in Oudorp and the polder mills in Rustenburg and Schermerhorn.

Mill Open Days

National Mill Day is organised every year on the second Saturday in May. On that day, more than 600 water and wind mills right across the country are open to visitors (free). In many mills there are demonstrations of particular aspects of millers' work. Participating mills can be recognised by their blue pennant. Schermer Milling Day takes place at the beginning of September. On this day, as many as possible of the Schermer Mill Foundation's mills are turning. Naturally the Museum Mill in Schermerhorn is open as well. Zaanse Molendag (Zaans Mill Day) is held on the last Saturday of September in the Zaans district. On the day a large number of mills, including the world's only wind paper-mill, are open to the public. The mills which can be visited freely can be recognised by the Dutch flag they fly.

Mill Language

In the past, the mills were a centre point of their environs. The miller kept the people up to date with what was going on in the community. This was done by means of the position of the sails of the mill when it was stopped. Thus the mill had a 'joy' position. On happy events, the sails stood 'coming'. This meant that the miller stopped the sails just before they reached their highest point. In the 'mourning' position, the sails stood 'going', whereby the vertical sail stood just past its highest point. This position told you that someone had died and the miller was in mourning. If the sails simply stood in a horizontal and vertical position, the miller was going to get on with his work quickly. If his rest was to be of longer duration, the sails stood in an 'X'. In the Second World War, the mill positions were used as a sign to warn people in hiding about raids.