Zaandam – Holland

MOST strangers, after having visited Broek and the town of Zandaam, go to Friesland and return to the Hague under the impression that they have seen Holland. I, on the contrary, wished to push on to the extremity of North Holland, believing that in that out-of-the-way province, where no foreigners reside and few travelers go, I should find manners, customs, and ancient usages more distinctly marked than in the others. The dangers of not being able to make myself understood, of putting up at bad inns, of being alone, perhaps ill and sad, in some small place scarce mentioned in the guide-books, and which the most patient travellers pass through without stopping.

nothing turned me from my purpose. One fine morning in August, the travelling devil, the most potent of all devils who invade the human soul, transported me and my valise into a steamboat that was leaving for Zaandam, embarked me on the same day for Alkmaar, the metropolis of cheeses, and on the same evening gave me a second-class ticket for Helder, the Gibraltar of the North.

Zaandam, seen from the gulf of the Y, presents the aspect of a fortress crowned with innumerable towers, from the summits of which the citizens are calling for succour with frantic gestures to a distant army. There are hundreds of tall windmills, which rise among the houses, upon the dykes, along the shore, over the whole country about the town, some of which are busy in draining the lands, some in making colza oil, which is one of the most important commercial products of Zaandam; others are crushing into powder a species of volcanic tufa rock brought from the Rhine, and which is used in the composition of a particular cement for hydraulic works ; others saw wood, grind colors, clean barley, make paper, mustard, rope, starch, and paste. The town becomes visible only a few minutes before entering the port.

It looked like a scene in a pastoral ballet. The city is along the two banks of a river called the Zaan, which empties itself into the Y, and around it is a small basin formed by the Y itself, which serves it as a port. The two portions of the city are connected by a drawbridge. There are but few streets or houses near the port, the principal part of Zaandam extending along the banks of the Zaan.

Zaandam is a larger Broek, handsomer and less puerile than little Broek.

The houses are built of wood, with one storey, and pointed façades, and are almost all painted green. There are whole streets where no other color is seen, looking as if they were make of box and myrtle. The whole place has an air of cheerfulness and freshness that is very attractive; and although it is a rich and populous city, it seems a village. It has all the peculiar features of a Dutch town, but with them there is something new and exotic that distinguishes it from the others.

It being a holiday, the streets were full of people going to, or coming from, church. The first thing that struck me was the head-dress of the women. Under a hat covered with flowers, they wear a sort of lace cap which falls down upon the shoulders, and from beneath which protrude upon the forehead two bunches of hair, curled like clusters of grapes. The gold or silver hand which encircles the head and gleams through the lace of the cap, terminates on each temple by a square bit of the same metal, turned towards the spectator, and with a rosette in the middle. Another little plate, gilded and carved, a sort of metallic ribbon, attached in some way to the band upon the head, crosses the forehead obliquely and comes down almost to the opposite temple, or to the eye-brow, looking rather like a piece of the band, broken off and hanging. Two large pins stuck vertically into the two extremities of the band rise like two horns above the two bunches of curls. Long ear-rings hang from the ears, the neck is ornamented with several rows of necklaces, and on the breast there are enough brooches, clasps, and chains to furnish out a jeweller’s window. All the women, with slight differences, are decorated in this way; and as they are all fair and rosy, and dressed with the same bad taste, it is difficult for a stranger to distinguish a lady from a peasant. It cannot be said, exactly, that the head-dress and the super-abundance of ornament are elegant or beautiful; but yet the fair complexions under all that gold and lace and flowers, that mixture of the princely and the rustic, the opulent and the coarse, the pompous and the ingenuous, has a grace of its own which agrees, as one may say, with the air of the place, and ends by pleasing you. Even the children have their lace and their diadem; the men being generally dressed in black. And all, old and young, have an air of contentment, a primitive, virginal, and youthful look, that makes them seem unlike Europeans of our time, and imparts a feeling of another continent and another civilization, a country where riches grow without labor, life flows on passionless, society moves without shock or attrition, and where no one desires any other good than peace. And if, while these thoughts pass through the mind, the clock of a neighbouring steeple chimes out in silvery notes some old national air, the illusion is complete, and you would like to bring your family and friends to Zaandam, and end your tranquil days in one of those green houses.

But if all this beatitude is but an illusion, it is still a fact that Zaandam is one of the wealthiest of the Dutch cities, that in many of those little green houses live ship-builders who are millionaires, and that there is no family without bread, and no children without instruction.

Zaandam possesses, besides, what Napoleon called ” the finest monument in Holland”—that is, the cabin of Peter the Great, in honor of whom the city was at one time called Czardam or Sardam. A whole squadron of cicerone whisper the name of this cabin into the ears of all strangers arriving in Zaandam, and it may be said to be the main object of all those who visit the city.

When and why the great Emperor lived in this cabin are known to all. After having conquered the Tartars and the Turks, and made his triumphal entrance into Moscow, the young Czar wished to make a journey through the principal European states to study their arts and industries. Accompanied by three ambassadors, four secretaries, twelve gentlemen, fifty guards, and one dwarf, he left his own states in April of 1697, crossed Livonia, passed through Prussian Brandenburg, by Pomerania, Berlin, and Westphalia, and arrived at Amsterdam fifteen days before his suite. In that city, unknown to all, he passed some time in the arsenals of the Admiralty; and then, in order to learn with his own eyes and hands the art of shipbuilding, in which Holland was at that time superior, he dressed himself as a sailor, and went to Zaandam, where the most famous arsenals were situated. Here, under the name of Peter Michaelhoff, he entered the ship-yard of a certain Mynheer Calf, was inscribed among the other workmen, worked in wood, iron, and cordage, and during the whole time of his stay, dressed and ate and slept exactly as his companions in labor did, living in the wooden cabin which is still shown. How long he remained in the city is not exactly known. Some say that he was there several months, but others, with more probability, believe that, annoyed by the curiosity of the inhabitants, he stayed only one week. Certain it is that, returning to Amsterdam after a short time, he finished with his own hands, in the arsenal of the East India Company, a vessel of sixty guns; that he studied mathematics, physics, geography, anatomy, and painting, and that he left Amsterdam in January 1698 to go to London.

The famous cabin is to be found at one end of Zaandam in sight of the open country; and is encased, as it were, in a little edifice of mason work, which the Queen of Holland, Anna Paulovna, who was Russian by birth, caused to be built for its preservation. It is a simple fisherman’s hut, of wood, with two little rooms, and in such a tumbledown condition that, if it were not upheld in the manner described, the first high wind would level it to the ground. In one room there are three rough stools, a large table, a bed, and a large chimney of the antique Flemish pattern. In the second, there are two portraits; one of Peter the Great in his workman’s dress, and the other of the Empress Catherine. The Dutch and Russian flags are spread out on the ceiling. The furniture, walls, doors, and beams are all covered with names and inscriptions in all the languages of the world. There is a slab of marble upon which is written : ” Petro magno Alexander,” placed there by order of the Emperor Alexander in commemoration of his visit in 1814. Another stone records the visit made by the present Czar, when hereditary prince, in 1839, and under it there is a verse by a Russian poet to this effect: “Over this humble abode, the holy angels watch. Czarevitch ! bow down ! Here is. the cradle of thy Empire; here was born the greatness of Russia.” Other stones record the visits of kings and princes, and there are many verses and inscriptions, generally in Russian, expressing the joy and enthusiasm of those who have reached the goal of their sacred pilgrimage. One of the inscriptions sets forth that from this cabin the carpenter Peter Michaeloff directed the movements of the Muscovite army, when fighting against the Turks in the Ukraine.

As I came out, I thought that if the most glorious day in the life of Peter the Great was that in which he lay down to rest in that hut, after having for the first time labored with his own hands, the happiest must ha e been that one in which he came back, after eighteen years had passed, in the height of his power and glory, and showed Catherine the place where, while working as a day-laborer, he had learned to he an emperor. The in-habitants of Zaandam remember that day with pride, and speak of it as of an event which they had witnessed. The Czarina had stopped at Wesel for her confinement; the Czar arrived alone at Zaandam. The joy and pride may be imagined with which he was received by those merchants, sailors, and carpenters who had known him eighteen years before. For the world at large, he was the conqueror of Pultowa, the founder of St. Petersburg, the civilizer of Russia, but for them he was Peterbas, Master Peter, as he was familiarly called when he worked among them; he was a son of Zaandam, who had become an emperor ; he was an old friend come back to them. Ten days after arrived the Czarina and also visited the cabin. Emperor and Empress without pomp or attendance went to dine at the house of Mynheer Calf, the shipbuilder who had received the young crowned workman at his arsenal ; the people accompanied him, shouting: “Long live Master Peter ! ” and Master Peter, the exterminator of boyards, the condemner of his own son, the formidable despot, wept.

To go to Alkmaar I took a steamboat, which went up the Zaan as far as the Northern canal, and thus saw East and West Zaandam, or those parts of the city which stretch for almost three miles along the two banks of the river.

It is a spectacle which vindicates Broek twenty times over.

Everyone remembers those landscapes painted when a boy, after Papa, or some kind uncle, had made a pre-sent of a box of colors. The general wish is to depict a delicious spot, such as is dreamt of at school when dozing over the last Latin lessons just before vacation. In order to render the place truly delightful, the boy crowds into a small space a villa, a garden, a lake, a wood, a field, a river, a bridge, a grotto, a cascade, all close together and well wedged in ; and that nothing may escape the eye, every object is painted with the most vivid colors that the box can furnish ; and when it is finished, struck with the idea that he has not really profited by every inch of space, he puts in a little house here, and a tree there, and a cottage in the corner, until, it being clearly impossible to insert another blade of grass, or stone, or flower, he lays down his brush delighted with his own work, and runs to show it to the maid-servant, who exclaims in admiration over that true terrestrial paradise. Well, Zaandam seen from the river, is precisely like one of these landscapes.

The houses are all green, with bright red roofs, upon which are little green kiosks, surmounted by gay flags, or wooden balls of different colors stuck upon iron rods ; there are little towers crowned with railings and striped awnings; edifices in the form of little temples; sheds and barracks of unknown structure, capriciously crowded one upon the other, as if for lack of space; an architecture of expediency, full of show and vanity. In the midst of these buildings are streets, through which no one ever passes, squares about as big as ordinary rooms, court-yards but little larger than a table, canals scarce wide enough for a duck to swim; and in front, between the houses and the river-bank, childish little gardens, full of summer-houses, boxes for the chickens, arbors, toy wind-mills and weeping willows; and in front of these gardens, on the river-banks, little ports full of little green boats, tied to still greener posts. In the midst of this medley of gardens and barracks, tall windmills rise on every side, green edged with white, or white edged with green, with their wings painted like flagstaffs, and the centre gilded and ornamented with many-colored weathercocks ; steeples green and varnished from top to bottom, chapels that look like booths at a fair, painted in squares like a chess-board and bordered with all the colors of the rainbow. But what is still more curious, the buildings, small enough at the beginning, go on growing smaller as you proceed down the river, as if the population were distributed in the order of stature, so that towards the end there are none but sentry-boxes—places to hide in—looking as if they protruded from a buried town ; a tiny architecture that is there, under your feet, but seems to be far away a human beehive, where the children look colossal, and the cats jump from the streets to the roofs.