Say Cheese: Day Trip to the Alkmaar Cheese Market

Cheese is a big deal here in the Netherlands.  Where else in the world can you find shops devoted entirely to this dairy delight? It doesn’t matter if it is breakfast, lunch, or dinner- cheese almost always makes an appearance somewhere during a typical Dutch meal.   The Netherlands is also one of the biggest exporters of cheese, with Gouda (the true Dutch pronunciation is how-da, not goo-da like we tend to say in English) and Edam cheeses recognized the world over.

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In four towns in the Netherlands, this long-standing obsession with cheese translates into major tourist dollars. These towns–Alkmaar, Gouda, Edam, and Hoorn–all hold traditional cheese markets (kaasmarkt) in the summer months in order to teach visitors about the history of the industry in the Netherlands.  Out of these four towns, Alkmaar is the undisputed mother of all cheese markets.

Every Friday morning, starting on the first Friday in April and ending on the first Friday in September, visitors flock to Alkmaar’s Waagplein (weighing square) for the market.  Anyone wanting a decent view should ensure they arrive long before the bell rings at 10:00am signalling the start of the market, because it gets very crowded. And Dutch people are tall, so unless you play professional basketball you are going to want to be as close to the front as possible to make sure you can see.

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The crowd by 9:30am

Once the bell rings, a flurry of activity begins on the square.  Members of the historic Alkmaar cheese carrier’s guild (who are the only ones allowed to move and weigh the cheese at the market) rush around carrying eight cheese wheels at a time on wooden racks hung across their shoulders.

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In the meantime, sellers and buyers haggle over and eventually agree on a price for the cheese through a system called handjeklap (“hand clap”). The system involves both parties literally clapping hands together in a specific fashion to signal how much they are willing to pay/accept.

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After a price is agreed, the cheese carriers bring the cheese over to the weighing station. Back in 1365, when the first cheese was traded on the Waagplein in Alkmaar, the city only owned one scale. Now three scales, each larger than a grown human being, are used at the market!

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The cheese carriers have to be incredibly strong to shuttle the heavy cheese wheels back and forth across the square.  Each wheel of cheese weighs over 13 kilos (29 lbs.)! Carrying a full load of cheese wheels on the wooden barrows means having to lift over 130 kilos (287 lbs.).  Now think about the fact that there are approximately 2,200 wheels of cheese displayed on each market day- an incredible 30,000 kilos (66,000 lbs.) of dairy.  Those guys deserve a reward!

Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, Waagplein Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, WaagpleinMost of the market is purely a “spectator sport” with no active participation by the audience. However, one fascinating aspect of the cheese market that I got to partake in was the tasting of the cheese. The price of the cheese at the market is largely determined by the quality of its appearance and taste.  Trained inspectors use specially designed cheese scoops to bore cylinders of cheese out of the wheel in order to test the quality of the cheese before it is bought.  One of the inspectors came around with a wheel of cheese and broke off pieces of the fresh cheese for the crowd to taste.  My verdict on the product: that was some tasty stuff!

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Although the market provides commentary through a microphone for the crowd lining the square, do not expect to get much information out of it unless you speak Dutch. The commentator translated the proceedings into English, German, and Spanish for the benefit of the mostly-foreign audience, but I know enough Dutch by now to realize that the translations were terrible.  Anyone visiting the market would get much more out of the experience by reading up on the market traditions and procedure before they arrive.  A great resource for this is the Alkmaar tourism website (VVV).

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Even if you get tired of the crowds at the cheese market (as I quickly did), there is still plenty to keep you occupied in Alkmaar for a few hours.  The medieval center of the town is very picturesque, and the Waagplein is surrounded by market stalls where Dutch handicrafts of all kinds are sold.  If you’re looking for a place to buy nicer souvenirs than the typical t-shirt and keychain-fare that line the streets of Amsterdam, Alkmaar is a great place to do it.

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A man makes traditional Dutch wooden shoes in Alkmaar

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And, if you just can’t deal with the complete overload of cute, traditional Dutch things, then you can always head over to the museum dedicated to the Beatles (the band, not the insect).  Apparently John Lennon’s first guitar was made in Alkmaar. Who would’ve thought?

Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, Waagplein, Canal

The Netherlands is Closed on Mondays

Willem has started a project at work that requires him to travel to Leeuwarden–almost 2 hours north of Haarlem, in the province of Friesland–every Monday.  I had never been that far north in the Netherlands, so this past Monday I decided to hitch a ride with Willem in the morning and explore the city while he was at work.

Leeuwarden, City, Canal

I read up on Leeuwarden before we left to figure out what I wanted to do there.  I found out that it is a pretty interesting city, despite not exactly being a tourist hotspot.  It is the capital of Friesland, a Dutch province with a fierce identity, including its own language (West Frisian).  Friesland (or Fryslân in the local language) is the only province of the Netherlands with two recognized official languages. As soon as you pass into Friesland on the drive north from Amsterdam, you will see road signs posted in both Dutch and Frysian, with the Dutch often secondary to the local language.

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Monument dedicated to the winners of the Elfstedentocht in Leeuwarden

Leeuwarden is also famous for its role in the Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities Tour), a traditional 200km ice skating race that takes place over 24 hours along the canals linking eleven Frysian cities.  I have mentioned my interest in the Elfstedentocht once before, when I visited Heerenveen (also in Friesland) to watch speed skating, but it is such an amazing event, I think it is worth describing a little more in depth here…especially since Leeuwarden plays a starring role! The race only happens in years where the canals freeze over with ice to a thickness of at least 15 centimeters.  Every winter, the entire country of the Netherlands keeps a close eye on the canals around Leeuwarden, praying for them to freeze over to an acceptable thickness.  If the ice is deemed suitable, the race is announced by a committee of representatives from each of the eleven cities, and within 48 hours the competition begins. The finishing point of the race is a canal near Leeuwarden called the Bonkevaart, and winners of the race become Dutch national heroes.

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Cities of the Elfstedentocht

In the summertime though, Leeuwarden is just like any other Dutch city.  The center of the city is built around a network of canals, with centuries-old houses lining narrow streets.

We arrived in Leeuwarden around 9am, and I parted ways with Willem for the day. I planned to find the tourist office first, to get a map and decide the best route to take around the city.  Unfortunately, in what was to become a theme for the day, the tourist office was closed.  I had forgotten a very important fact about the Netherlands: Everything is closed on Mondays!

As strange as it sounds, this is not a joke.  Almost every museum, public monument, shop, store, or anything else that a tourist would want to see, is closed on Mondays in the Netherlands. If you’re lucky, some places open in the afternoon, but nothing is open before around 1pm.  How could I (and even Willem!) have forgotten this Dutch habit of extending your weekend as far as possible before going back to work?

However it happened, I now had an entire day in Leeuwarden with nothing to see or do. I decided to wander the city exactly as I would have on a different day, except today I would have to be happy with admiring the outsides of all those museums and monuments.  Travel is about adapting, right?

I walked towards the old center from Willem’s office, making my way to the Waagplein.  I bought a croissant and spent some time sitting on the pretty square, watching people walking or biking on their way to work (where they were going will remain a mystery, since nothing was OPEN).

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The Waagplein

I then walked west along the Nieuwestad to the parks and gardens that line the ring of canals around the center.  The Prinsentuin (Prince’s Garden) was so beautiful that I had to stop there.

Leeuwarden, Prinsentuin, Garden, Pier Pander Museum

The Prinsentuin

The park was originally built in 1648 as a private park for Prince Willem Frederik of Nassau, but was opened to the public in 1795.  I found a park bench along the canal and sat in the sun reading a book for over an hour before moving on.

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Flowers in the Prinsentuin

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Flower in the Prinsentuin

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The view from my bench along the canal

Over the next few hours, I walked past all of the most famous sites and museums in Leeuwarden: the De Oldehove Tower, the acclaimed Keramiek (Ceramics) Museum, the Jewish Quarter, the Fries Museum, and the Verzets (Dutch Resistance) Museum. I found out that the last two are closed for renovation, so I wouldn’t have been able to see them anyway.

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De Oldehove

If De Oldehove looks like it is crooked in my picture, that’s because it is.  In fact, the tower leans more than the leaning tower of Pisa in Italy! The Oldehove was originally designed as a church tower. Construction began in 1529, but during construction the tower began to lean. All efforts to correct the lean failed, and work on the tower was stopped for safety reasons in 1532.  Funnily enough, the church that was connected to the tower was demolished, but the tower remained standing.  For all the worries about safety, De Oldehove has outlasted everything around it!

Leeuwarden, Ceramics Museum, Keramiekmuseum

Ceramics Museum

Leeuwarden, Jewish Monument, Old Center, Friesland, Jews, WWII, The Holocaust

Monument to Leeuwarden’s lost Jewish population. During the Holocaust, over 550 out of the 650 Jews that lived in Leeuwarden were killed, and most of the survivors left.

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Narrow streets in the Medieval town center of Leeuwarden

Leeuwarden, City Centre, Friesland, Street

Graffiti in Leeuwarden

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Busy canals

After I got tired of walking, I spent the majority of the rest of the day working on my laptop and reading in the local library (boring, I know) until Willem finished with work.  Leeuwarden is a pretty city, but it is small.  Unless you have things planned to keep you occupied, you will exhaust your options fast.  So learn from my mistakes- don’t try to do anything in the Netherlands on a Monday!

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The Frisian landscape passing by on the drive home

Deventer Boekenmarkt: The Biggest Book Market in Europe

Book Market, Boekenmarkt, DeventerWith well-known cities like Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and the Hague to keep tourists in the Netherlands busy, Deventer is usually not very high on many people’s list of must-sees.   But every year, on the first Sunday in August, Deventer hosts the biggest book market (boekenmarkt) in Europe- an event that I think should be on every list!

Deventer, located on the River IJssel,  was an important trading center during the Middle Ages and was a prominent member of the Hanseatic League.  The city center (where the book market is located) was largely spared from destruction during WWII, so the entire area is full of charming, centuries-old buildings and public squares.  Deventer also has the advantage of being easily accessible from Amsterdam.  It took us approximately 1hr 15min to get to Deventer by car, or you can get there in 1hr 30min by train.

Book Market, Boekenmarkt, Deventer

This year, the book market started at 9:30am and lasted until 5:30pm. We didn’t arrive until almost 11am, but were told that there were people lining up to start browsing the book stalls as early as 7am.  In total over 125,000 people visit the Deventer book market annually.

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If you decide to brave the crowds (as every book lover should), make sure to give yourself enough time to browse all of the stalls. We were happy that we got there before noon, because this mother-of-all  boekenmarkten is HUGE.  Each year, an estimated 900 vendors showcase their wares at the Deventer book market.  The stalls weave through the old city and along the IJssel riverside, covering an area almost 6km long.  Don’t forget your comfortable shoes!

Book Market, Boekenmarkt, Deventer Book Market, Boekenmarkt, Deventer

The two of us had a wonderful time geeking out amongst the miles and miles of books.  There weren’t as many English books as I had hoped, but I still found plenty to interest me.  We brought along a backpack to carry our purchases, but our appetites for the written word resulted in many more books than the poor little rucksack could handle. We ended up having to cut ourselves off when the backpack felt like a pile of bricks and our arms strained to carry the books that wouldn’t fit in the pack.  We should have brought a suitcase!

Book Market, Boekenmarkt, Deventer

Before we left Deventer we also took the time to climb the tower of the St. Lebuinus Chuch (Grote of Lebuinuskerk), a Gothic church dating from 1450.  It only cost €2 to climb, and we were rewarded with vistas over the entire city (including the book market) at the top. Between the kilometers of books and the hundreds of tower stairs, I think we got our exercise for the weekend.  Now I don’t have to feel bad when I spend the next few days on the couch reading some of my new book finds…

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Canal Cruising: Amsterdam By Boat

There is no better way to see Amsterdam than from the perspective of its world-famous canals.  But don’t take one of those over-priced, crowded canal cruises that leave by the hordes from outside Amsterdam Central Station.  As I found out this past weekend, there is a much better option: rent your own boat.

Amsterdam, Canal Boat, Canal Cruise, Boat Rental

This may look nice, but there is a better option!

I have always loved boats, but I only recently discovered that it was possible to rent your own boat in Amsterdam.  At first I didn’t even bother looking into the possibility, because I assumed boat rentals would be too expensive, or would require a license.  When I found out that some of our friends from LSE would be coming to visit us for a few days, though, I finally decided that a boat rental might be worth researching.  For a couple of our friends, this would be their first trip to Amsterdam, so I thought a canal boat ride would be a perfect introduction to the city.

I discovered that there are quite a few companies in Amsterdam that cater to private boat rentals, but their offerings vary widely.  We originally planned to rent a boat from boaty.nl, which was the cheapest option for a three hour rental; however, their boats only allow up to six people, and we were a group of seven.  The option we decided to go with instead was sloepdelen.nl.  While the second option was slightly more expensive, the boats are big enough to fit up to ten people.

On Saturday we made our way to the Nassaukade, the pick-up and drop-off point for the boats. It took us about half an hour to walk there from Amsterdam Central Station, but the weather was nice so we didn’t mind the distance.  We arrived at 11:45am for our noon reservation.

Sloepdelen, Amsterdam, Canals, Boat Rental, Canal Cruise

It only took a few minutes for the staff to show us how to work the electric boat.  Anyone is allowed to drive without a license, provided they are over 18 years old and refrain from drinking while maneuvering the boat. We were given a map of the canals, told to yield to any boats larger than ours, and off we went!

Sloepdelen, Amsterdam, Canals, Boat Rental, Canal Cruise

The boat was perfect.  All seven of us were able to comfortably lounge on the seats lining the sides of our boat, and there was a raised platform in the center which was a great place to lay out a picnic spread of the snacks and drinks we had brought along.  Even if you forget to bring supplies (or you underestimate your passengers’ capacity to consume food and beverages!) having your own boat means having the flexibility to just tie up alongside the canals for a few minutes, hop out, buy some more supplies, hop back in, and be on your merry way.

The only small problem we had during our trip was something completely out of our control: the weather.  It is the Netherlands, after all.  About half an hour into our two hour trip, the skies opened up and the rain started pouring down.

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But we weren’t going to let the possibility of a little rain ruin our chance of cruising Amsterdam’s canals.  We took shelter under the nearest bridge along with a few other fellow boaters caught out in the storm.  Luckily we had plenty of food and good conversation to keep us occupied!

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We were slightly disappointed that the storm meant wasting part of our time on the water, but the boat rental company was extremely considerate and gave us an extra hour for free due to the rain delay.  They were also helpful when we called them to ask for directions back to the docks after we got slightly lost due to our map getting wet (and thus becoming illegible).

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The sun came back out!

I couldn’t believe how quickly the time passed cruising the canals. In a few short hours, we motored past all three of the main 17th century canals in Amsterdam: the Herengracht, the Keizersgracht, and the Prinsengracht.  It is no wonder the canal ring area, lined with beautiful Golden Age canal houses, was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2010. If you ever come to Amsterdam, I highly recommend renting a boat.  See Amsterdam the way I’m sure it was meant to be seen–from the water.