Much of my Viking cruise on the Rhine was spent exploring the medieval towns and cities of Germany. But on Day 6 the landscape began to change, and by midday we had reached the land of wooden shoes and windmills. With the Viking Hlin moored beside a typical Dutch dyke, we set off under threatening skies to get a taste of traditional life in Kinderdijk, Netherlands.
To most of us, Dutch windmills are just a quaint illustration to put on milk pitchers and souvenir plates. But in places like Kinderdijk, where the land lies metres below sea level, they were – and still are – the magic tool that allows humans to live on land that would otherwise be under water.
There are 19 windmills in the Kinderdijk area, the biggest concentration in the Netherlands these days. And they’re no modern reconstructions: most of them were built almost 300 years ago, in 1738 and 1740. The village is a living museum, and to recognize its “powerful testimony to human ingenuity and fortitude over nearly a millennium,” UNESCO has designated it a world heritage site.
There to show us around was a local volunteer who had lived his life in the lowlands — he was even wearing wooden shoes. And we followed him down the road, past timeless views of windmills stretching into the distance.
Then, a brief explanation of how the Kinderdijk complex works. While some Dutch windmills are used to grind grain and other products, these windmills are exclusively for moving water, to keep it at safe levels throughout the year. A set of locks is used to hold the water and control its flow.
It’s a fascinating feat of engineering, and so are the windmills themselves. The ones in this are called “bonnet” mills because only the top sections revolve with the wind. And the giant sails, which come within one foot of the ground (stand well clear), are propelled by gears and shafts made entirely of wood. Different woods are used for different parts, each one used for its particular durability and stiffness.
These windmills weren’t only giant pumps, however: they were also homes for families over the centuries, and a few are still occupied by people who pay their rent by maintaining the mill. But few, if any, are home to the kinds of families that once occupied them, some with a dozen children or more.
This we had to see for ourselves. And a few minutes later we were entering the front door of a historic windmill that had been home to a family of 13 (above). Looking at the odd, tiny living spaces inside, you were reminded of the old woman who lived in a shoe.
Shelves filled with crockery were tucked into slim spaces under the staircase. Wooden chairs perched in oddly shaped rooms under small windows. And here and there, enough space was spared for a room big enough to tuck a bed, or a table and chairs and a cupboard.
Running up through the middle was a steep, winding staircase that led through the numerous storeys, finally reaching an opening where the great gears were visible. And as our guide said, they were entirely made of wood.
The tour continued, but those of us with cameras were too busy using them to follow along. On every side were landscapes that evoked memories of the old Dutch Masters paintings, with the windmills standing out against dramatic grey skies. Water birds floated in the canals, and now and then local people sailed by in their boats, shaped much like the wooden-shoes they wore.
We feasted on the photo opportunities until the darkening skies — and the advancing hour — said it was time to get back to the ship or risk being left standing on the dyke. And we cast off, bound for Amsterdam, the last stop on our cruise and another place that’s made for those who love both history and photography.
I was a guest of Viking Cruises on this trip; however, the opinions I express are my own.