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Travel Diaries: Windmilling to Disaster

How a visit to photograph Zaanse Schans went wrong

It was my last day in Amsterdam and as a dedicated travel photographer I had one goal in mind: sunset photos in the charming hamlet of Zaanse Schans. I had learned of this idyllic little spot doing my usual travel photography research. The images from Google promised winding paths that would carry me through long-grassed fields dotted with iconic (nay, cliched?) windmills.

The sun setting over the canal as a girl bikes across the bridge in Amsterdam
Amsterdam and its nearby towns offer endless photographic opportunities

I had also indeed planned ahead for my visit. In addition to a little time management, I’d also checked on sunrise and sunset times. Using the Photographer’s Ephemeris (available as either a desktop app or app for iOS), I was able to see the angle and position of the setting sun. But sometimes the usual planning ahead isn’t enough.

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Travel FOMO and Public Transport Woes

Since no visit to Amsterdam would be quite complete without a visit to the famous Vondelpark, I squeezed in a quick stop. Perhaps it was a bit of travel FOMO – not knowing when I might return to Amsterdam, it seemed a shame to skip even a brief visit. As I wrapped up the detour, I was unaware fate would have other plans. 

benches and tree-lined paths in Amsterdam's Vondelpark
Opened in 1865, Vondelpark sprawls across 120 acres and is popular amongst locals and tourists.

I boarded the tram near the park, proudly congratulating myself for managing my time so well. With an anticipated 6:00 time to visit Zaanse Schans, I’d have an hour and a half before sunset. This would give me ample time to scout the area a bit and grab a variety of shots, starting with Golden Hour all the way into twilight, or Blue Hour.

But I quickly realized that I was heading away from the train station. My pride swiftly took a hit. No big deal; I switched to the correct tram and enjoyed the dreamy afternoon light gilding the city. Before long, the tram stopped. And didn’t move for what seemed an eternity.

The minutes ticked by, each feeling longer than the last. At long last we started moving again. But we were rerouted in a way that could only be described as going round your ass to reach your elbow. Luckily, it would pass by a metro stop I knew would run straight to Amsterdam Centraal Station. 

From Amsterdam Centraal to Zaanse Schans

I hopped off the tram and booked it to the metro as time was growing ever tighter with each compounding delay. Golden Hour cares not for delays caused by public transport – or a traveling photographer that got a little too cocky.

More aggravation ensued at Amsterdam Centraal, as my card still wouldn’t work in the ticket machines (though it worked fine in shops & restaurants) and the line to purchase from a human was uncharacteristically long. FINALLY I get to the agent and buy my ticket. 

After confirming the track number, I hustled my butt to the assigned track as the train would leave in less than 5 minutes. I double checked the digital sign – yep, Zaanse Schans listed as the 3rd or 4th stop. Excellent!

The train was crowded but I found a spot by three younger women. Off we go and I hummed with anticipation. It looked like a fantastic sunset was in store. I expected to arrive just after 6:00PM just as I’d planned.

I watched the scenery slip by, and before long see the distinctive green and blue blocked hotel of Zaandam loom outside the windows. I hadn’t realized it was so close to the station, wishing I had time to stop off for just a minute. But the train doesn’t stop anyway. That’s odd, I thought to myself: Zaandam was one of the listed stops.

The distinct colors and whimsical architecture of the Inntel Hotel in Zaandam beg to be photographed.
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And the Hits Just Keep on Coming

I anxiously checked my little blue dot on Google Maps. It should’ve been 2 more stops to Zaanse, straight north. Oh shit. What the…?! The dot veered east, and I realized somehow (despite having successfully taken many trains throughout my time in Amsterdam) I was definitely not going where I wanted to. 

photo of an amsterdam train schedule on a smartphone

Tapping the girl across from me, I asked (in more polite terms) “Where are we actually going because the sign said this went to Zaanse and its not now. I don’t understand and I swear I’m not an idiot.”

Ever so apologetic she told me her English isn’t great (literally the first person I’ve come across who’s not brilliantly fluent in English – I’ve gotten a bit spoiled!) and enlisted another girl to assist me. Turns out we were headed for Hoorn. Which is on the OTHER SIDE OF THE COUNTRY

Well, double shit. Mercifully, the Netherlands is a small country so that’s only about 45 minutes away. Reinforcing my impression of people here as kind and helpful, she pulled up the app for the train system.

A few taps and she found the information I needed to actually get to Zaanse Schans and how long it would take. With some luck and no further snafus, I had a good chance to make it by the tail end of sunset. 

Pro Travel Tip: Cell Service

Having access to cellular data makes travel easier in so many ways. Most cell phones have dual SIM (physical or virtual) options. Make sure yours is unlocked and set up a travel SIM like the highly rated Airalo before you go.

Pro Travel Tip: Cell Service

Having reliable access to cellular data makes travel easier in many ways. Most cell phones have dual SIM (physical or virtual) options. Make sure yours is unlocked and set up a travel SIM like the highly rated Airalo before you go.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

distinctive blue and yellow dutch train at the Hoorn train station
The clock ticks as I wait for my train in Hoorn

Briefly, I considered just hanging out in Hoorn – which looked to be a cute seaside town – before slinking back to Amsterdam for a 9:00PM dinner reservation. Perhaps this was an instance where I should indeed go where fate was taking me?

But I had come for a windmill sunset dammit, and I was gonna get it. I calculated times, and if I hustled double-time, I could make it to the historic part of Zaanse Schans right at 7:30 – 4 minutes before sunset. While I’d miss out on Golden Hour, this still left Blue Hour so I quelled my rising distress and made the call.

It was tough sitting on the train and watching the countryside slip by, fluffy clouds lit up by a fiery setting sun. But sometimes you just gotta suck it up and roll with the punches, amirite? As soon as my train hit Zaanse station, I was off like a bolt, almost running the half mile across the bridge to the picturesque village.

Was Zaanse Schans Worth It?

This place might be a bit of a tourist trap during peak times, but it was all charming atmosphere at this hour. The shops were closed, except for a single restaurant, and most of the remaining visitors were on their way out. It was eye candy everywhere! Words like cute, adorable, idyllic, and quaint came immediately to mind.

the sun sets on the bridge from Zaanse Schans newer town to older, leading lines and golden color
The last slip of sun, looking back from the bridge I just raced across to get to the village.

Unsurprisingly, a few fellow photographers remained, tripods deployed and hands stuffed in pockets against the burgeoning chill as they waited on long exposures to finish. There was certainly no shortage of scenic views begging to be chosen. With little time (or light) to spare, I had to pick my spots quickly.

travel photographer Raffaella DeAmicis poses by her tripod with windmill of Zaanse Schans in the background
Even with the snafus, I still had a great time photographing Zaanse Schans!

While I did get some good results in the hour I was there, I really do wish I’d arrived earlier to scout and take advantage of dramatic golden-hour light. Plus it would have allowed me to compose more carefully and employ more time-consuming photography techniques.

dutch architecture in Zaanse Schans with windmill, marsh, and glossy green siding on the building

The lesson here: if you have your heart set on getting to Zaanse Schans or any special destination, leave plenty of room for error! Of course, planning ahead with good research and photography apps especially useful for planning travel photography are important too. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help and have a backup plan in mind just in case things really go sideways.

sunset glows behind a windmill at Zaanse Schans outside Amsterdam
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