Going Dutch: Where beautiful windmills turn back the clock

Story highlights

  • Zaanse Schans, Netherlands is dotted with working windmill sites
  • Windmill De Kat uses the wind to make paint out of stones

Zaanse Schans, Netherlands (CNN)Not far from Amsterdam is a living piece of Dutch history. The Zaanse Schans neighborhood celebrates the past as a working community whose roots can be traced back to the 17th century and it's one of the few places in the world where you can still find functioning traditional windmills.

The Zaan region is among the oldest industrial areas in the world and in its heyday of the 17th and 18th centuries it was home to around 600 active windmills. At the Zaanse Schans, among its wooden barns, houses and museums, just 10 windmills are still in operation, grinding oil, spices and colorings.
    One of these historic windmills is "De Kat," meaning "The Cat," which uses wind power to create pigments for paint. The listed building has a rich history; first built between 1646 and 1696, the windmill survived a fire in 1782 and a body rebuild in the 1970s.
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    Piet Kempenaar, the miller at De Kat, has been working with windmills for over 30 years. Every day he stands on the windmill's platform as millers have done for centuries, looking at the sky and feeling the power of the elements.
    "You must have a special kind of feeling for this technology," Kempenaar says.
    Kempenaar has to pay close attention to the wind because it dictates the day's work. Each part of the mill, from the wings to the tail, can be adjusted and tweaked to make the most of the wind that day.
    "Sometimes you hear a sound and it's a problem with a bearing. Sometimes you listen to the waves on the water and you say, 'oh boy the wind has changed direction.'"
    De Kat is a fully functioning paint mill. When the wind is strong, it turns 3,000 kilogram granite stones which grind down limestone into a fine powder and pack it with pigments.
    "The weight of the stones are enormous and powered by the cleanest energy in the world," Kempenaar says. "The breeze of the Lord."
    This natural process is nothing new; it goes back to the area's roots. "The whole industrial revolution was born here," explains Kempenaar.
    "It was all coming by Amsterdam, the main port of the world, the main port of Europe for 300 years, so many boats were arriving in the harbor of Amsterdam on the coast loaded with raw materials and needed an industrial process."
    Windmills are a passion Kempenaar has had since he started his studies as a miller in 1978, and he'll continue to preserve this art for as long as the wind continues to blow -- and as long as the Zaanse Schans continue to preserve this reminder of the Dutch Golden Age.