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.

Alkmaar, Gouda, Cheese, Dutch Cheese, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt

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.

Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Waagplein, Cheese, Dutch, Crowd

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.

Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, Waagplein

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.

Alkmaar, Kaasmarkt, Cheese Market, Handjeklap, Hand Clap, Barter, Bargaining, Market, Dutch Cheese, Cheese

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!

Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, Waagplein, Gouda Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, Waagplein, Gouda

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).

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

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.

Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, Waagplein, Dutch Traditions, Wooden Shoes

A man makes traditional Dutch wooden shoes in Alkmaar

Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, Waagplein, Gouda

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 Hague (Den Haag): International City of Peace and Justice

I was in the Hague this week working for the World Justice Forum IV, a wonderful conference organized by the World Justice Project., so I thought it would be the perfect time to write a small post about this city.

The Hague (Den Haag in Dutch) is only the third largest city by population in the Netherlands, after Amsterdam (the capital) and Rotterdam, but it is the seat of the Dutch government and parliament. The Hague is known for being a truly international city, with more than 50% of the city’s residents coming from another country.  It is also the home to many international institutions and organizations, including the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

In my time off from working at the conference (which wasn’t much) I got a chance to explore the city. Here are some of my Hague highlights:

The Binnenhof– This complex of buildings has housed the Dutch parliament since 1446, and is one of the most recognizable sights in The Hague.  Visitors are free to walk inside to the inner courtyard. If you’re lucky, you might see a minister or two being chauffeured through the gates in their fancy cars.

Binnenhof, Den Haag, The Hague Binnenhof, Den Haag, The Hague

The Peace Palace– The Peace Palace is often called the seat of international law, because it houses the International Court of Justice (the judicial body of the United Nations), as well as the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Andrew Carnegie provided over $1.5 million for its construction in the early 20th century.  The Peace Palace is coming up on a milestone: August 28, 2013 will be the Centenary of its establishment.

Peace Palace, The Hague, Den Haag

M.C. Escher Museum in Het Paleis– The Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam get all the press, but The Hague has some lovely museums of its own. The Escher Museum was a favorite of mine.  Located in the former Royal Palace at Lange Voorhout, the museum features three floors of Escher’s most famous works. The top floor is dedicated to interactive exhibits, where you can try out some of Escher’s most famous optical illusions.

Escher Museum, Het Paleis, Den Haag, The Hague Escher Museum, Het Paleis, Den Haag, The Hague Escher Museum, Het Paleis, Den Haag, The Hague

Gemeente Museum– I am not a fan of modern art, but if you are, then the Gemeente Museum is a must. The museum holds the world’s largest collection of works by Dutch artist Piet Mondriaan.

Gemeente Museum, Den Haag, The Hague

Het Plein– The center of The Hague’s social scene.  Since The Hague does not have a university, most of the nightlife in the city revolves around the sidewalk cafes filled with diplomats and professionals enjoying after-work drinks that line this square.

Het Plein, Den Haag, The Hague

Statenkwartier– The Hague also has some of the nicest neighborhoods (in my opinion) in the Netherlands.  The Statenkwartier is an old suburb of the city packed with architectural gems: beautiful mansions, stately row houses, and gorgeous facades that have housed some of the city’s wealthiest residents throughout history.

Scheveningen– I have discussed this beach resort before, when I wrote about the Dutch herring festival held there each year, but it is worth mentioning again.  Scheveningen is a point of pride in The Hague. Easily accessible by tram from the city center, the beach is packed on any sunny day, no matter the time of year.  It attracts over 10 million visitors per year, making it the most popular beach town in the Netherlands.

Scheveningen, Beach, Strand, Den Haag, The Hague Scheveningen, Beach, Strand, Den Haag, The Hague Scheveningen, Beach, Strand, Den Haag, The Hague

This only represents a short list of some of the things I found most noteworthy about the Hague during my stay there.  I can’t wait to return and explore this international city further!