20 Jun 2017 13:57 IST

In the land of the windmills

Windmills in the Netherlands have helped the Dutch keep their feet dry during floods

Don Quixote might have tilted at windmills, taking them to be enemies, but the only feeling that the windmills at Kinderdijk arouse in you is tranquillity. When the wind blows and the blades of the windmills begin to whirr, a music is made, that is quite pleasing to the ears.

A mix of wood, wind and water in the area lulls the senses, spreading a feeling of well-being.

Kinderdijk, a village in the south province of the Netherlands, is situated in a polder (a low -lying land) at the junction of rivers Lek and Noord.

The Dutch built 19 windmills around this area to keep water out of the polder in 1740. This is the largest concentration of old windmills in the Netherlands and is recognised as UNESCO world heritage site.

When you reach the windmill village, the first thing that assails your senses is the delicious smell of food and freshly baked bread. The village and other restaurants at Kinderdijk have a lovely view of the river across the road, compelling you to enjoy the beauty. Next, the churn of the cycle chains and the blur of the colours of the cycles catch your attention. Cycles can be seen throughout the country and this place is obviously no exception.

The Dutch love their cycles, but while cycling is fun, walking in the village is far more enjoyable, especially during the rare sunshine!

Kinderdijk’s history

The Netherlands is a country that is closely identified with its windmills. About 25 per cent of the country lies below sea level and is, therefore, prone to severe flood. So to keep feet dry, techniques using wind and water have played a key role for centuries. Holland was once dotted with more than ten thousand windmills. This era is captured in Kinderdijk, that retains the atmosphere, as it was back then. The village consists of ten stone brick windmills, eight thatched windmills and one windmill of polder Blokweer.

But before the emergence of windmills, Kinderdijk was a swamp where only hunters and fishermen came for their food (fish). As more people started to settle in the fertile land around, the water had to be kept out, leading to the construction of dikes (walls to regulate water levels). However, the people still faced threat of flood from rainwater and groundwater and a way had to be found to discharge the water into the river. Things went out of hand in 1421 when Saint Elizabeth flood hit these areas and swept the dikes along with it. Thousands of people drowned in this disaster. It has been told that after the flood, the survivors saw a cradle bob up and down on the water carrying a crying baby. A cat had been balancing the cradle to keep it from sinking and saved the baby. This is how the village got its name — Kinderdijk meaning ‘children’s dike’.

Kinderdijk is the lowest point at the western tip of the area where the water from the polder flows. Ever since the flood, various techniques were tried to drain the water until Water Board came out with the idea of windmills. Thus, the millers keep the water moving through the mills to drain water from low-lying areas into the river, thus preventing major floods. As the technology improved, pumping stations at Kinderdijk took over the functions of windmills. However, the windmills are kept in operational conditions even today in case of any emergency.

Tour of the windmills

You can reach Kinderdijk from Amsterdam centraal in two hours’ time, but from Rotterdam or Dordrecht it is a lot closer. You can get your tickets on arrival or book online. The tickets allow you to visit two of the windmills — Nederwaard 7 and Blokweer, let you watch a movie on its history and throws in a canal cruise with a view of the windmills from the water ways. Plus, if you are lucky, you get to see a working windmill.

The tour inside the windmill will show you how people (millers) had lived. It was no easy task to accommodate a large family of 12 or more children in that vertical space, least of all live in it. All the floors of the windmill are connected by the windmill mechanism, which means, if you are living there, you have to get used to the noise of the windmill. Other few noticeable things are low door openings, narrow staircases and smaller bedrooms called bed bunks.

The windmill consists of the ground floor, middle floor, smoke floor and cap floor. Ground floor is where the under-wheel (part of windmill mechanism) is situated along with living room and kitchen. Middle floor is where you can find the bedrooms for the children and directly above is the smoke floor. This is where the millers store goods such as fruits or smoked food such as rabbits or fishes, which is why the walls of this floor could be blackened. It is also because the chimney ends at this room. The top floor or the cap floor rotates 360 degrees but is, unfortunately, closed for tourists due to vandalism.

All the windmills at Kinderdijk are watermills, meaning their function is to drain the water.

During the second week of September, the mills at Kinderdijk are lit at night (often termed as ‘mills in floodlight’). It is truly an unforgettable experience when you walk along a dark path with water on both sides, with nothing but lights from mills to guide you.

All along the 19 windmills, there are small walk bridges built on the water front.

You get to sit, relax, play in the water, may be even take a dive, feed the ducks and spend your time, as the windmills keep pace with the wind.

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine.)