Leiden / Wijk bij Duurstede / Zaandam, the Netherlands
June 7 – 9, 2019
Wind and water defined the Netherlands. Both elements billowing from the North Sea had shaped the country’s geography and culture. Sea breeze could blow a gale. The sea itself could sink a third of the country, one of the Low Countries, that lay below sea level. But the Dutch in centuries past were a hardy bunch. They harnessed these elemental forces with windmill technology to power their survival and progress.
Molen de Valk, also known as “The Falcon,” held the honor as my first windmill. This landmark not far from Leiden Centraal had welcomed everyone who came to Leiden since the 18th century. My host, Ms. O, identified it as a stage windmill, so named for the raised platform built around it. Its towering form casting a rippled reflection on Rijnsburgersingel completely comprised the Holland of my imagination. I was told the windmill had been turned into a museum showcasing the milling process producing whole wheat flour for sale there. Alas, both times I passed by, it was too late in the day for a visit.
An aside: A pig sculpture – of all things! – stood beside Molen de Valk. How culturally inclusive of Holland to celebrate the Chinese Year of the Pig. It turned out to simply be a coincidence. Ode to the Pig was a traveling art installation that raised public awareness and support for the anti-caged farming campaign. Artist Jantien Mook said it best: “With this work I want to express the beauty and the strength of animals. The pig reflects the joy and the life’s energy that every being has.” This was right up the alley of my Dutch vegan friends.
The iconic status of windmills in the Netherlands had been perpetuated in visual art by Dutch masters, most famously by Rembrandt. I had just seen The Windmill, Rembrandt’s childhood memory of Leiden preserved in an etching, at Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The subject was long gone, even before the print was made. In its place, a replica of the wooden corn mill was built by Jan Put in the 17th century. That, too, was destroyed, as were the succeeding two. Finally, present-day Molen de Put was built in 1987, a box type of windmill, according to Ms. O, characterized by an upper body attached to a smaller base.
The same fate had befallen the subject immortalized by Jacob van Ruisdael in the 17th-century painting Windmill of Wijk bij Duurstede. Sadly, I found that windmills in Holland were mostly reconstructions. Many were wooden and lost to time and the elements. In the advent of modernization, the Dutch tore down the rest, not realizing they would become a national icon. In Wijk bij Duurstede, we could only peek at the gated alcove of a house to see the foundation of the original windmill.
About 200 meters away from this site stood the 17th-century Molen Rhine en Lek, a stage type windmill with a unique feature. It was the only one in Holland that straddled a road. The reason was that the flour mill was originally built on the city gate. Vehicular and human traffic still passed through it as the tradition of grinding grain still upheld by volunteers every weekend. Frequently mistaken as the windmill in van Ruisdael’s painting, it also went by the name De Molen van Ruysdael to capitalize on this misunderstanding.
At least one windmill for every town seemed to be the rule in Holland. Looking out the window in train rides, I would catch a glimpse of their X-shaped or cruciform vanes every so often. At some point in the past millennium, about 9,000 windmills dotted the countryside and urban centers in the Netherlands. That was a testament to their central role in Dutch life and society. At present, more than a thousand had been rebuilt or restored.
The country’s windmill capital was the village of Zaanse Schans in North Holland. The heritage development across Zaan River was an industrial zone in the 17th century. More than 600 windmills were built then for food production, manufacturing, and water management. Some of these mills survived to the present, restored and repurposed into museums.
Alas, it was again too late to enter one; I only had a chance to see them up close. Zaan-style windmills differed in size and form from those in South Holland. What they lacked in height, they made up for with bulkier towers that were set on wooden base houses. The relationship between wind and water was more evident here as the mills were mostly built on the banks of narrow canals.
What little I learned about windmills told me of their great significance. A Zaanse Schans leaflet touted the windmills as “Dutch heroes” and credited them for paving the way for the country’s Golden Age and the Dutch East India Company, which, by extension, even changed the course of history on my side of the world. Indeed, windmills directed the history of the Netherlands and dominated its landscape even at present, consequently becoming one the most recognizable national icons in the world.