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).

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Cathedral of Football: A Pilgrimage to Camp Nou

They call it the beautiful game.  For some individuals, football (or soccer, as we Americans like to call it) is more than a game. It is a perfect harmony, a grand showcase of human talent and coordination.  It is a religious experience.

I have been a fan of FC Barcelona for as long as I can remember.  When I visited the city of Barcelona for the first time back in December 2011, I caught my first glimpse of Barça’s home turf: Camp Nou.  The largest stadium in Europe, Camp Nou can seat 98,000+ screaming supporters.  After taking the stadium tour and standing next to that hallowed turf, I knew I just had to return.  I did not want to read about Barça or watch them on TV anymore, I wanted to be one of those passionate fans swept along in the stadium’s electric atmosphere.  Attending a home Barça match catapulted to number one on my football bucket list.  I got my wish sooner than even I expected, when I received my Christmas present from Willem this year in the form of tickets to the upcoming La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Osasuna.

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Jamon y Pan Con Tomate: I could live off of this traditional Catalan food!

We decided to make a weekend out of the match.  We arrived on Saturday night, and after dropping our backpacks off at our hostel (more on the hostel later) we immediately went back out to meet up with some friends of mine from Barcelona.  Since my friends are all Barcelona natives, they took us out for a real Catalan dining experience at a neighborhood restaurant called Can Punyetes.  It was one of those places that you would probably walk right past if you didn’t already know it was there.  The unassuming entrance, however, revealed a beautifully cozy, old world-style interior.  The first thing I noticed was that the restaurant was clearly filled with locals.  There was a constant low buzz of familiar conversation, and the food smelled delightfully home-cooked.  The menu was completely written in Catalan, which I took to be a good sign (in my experience, places with dedicated English menus generally cater to tourists, and are always overpriced and overrated), although this meant my Spanish skills were almost entirely useless.  We started out with a platter of my favorite traditional Catalan food, pernil i pa amb tomàquet (Spanish ham on top of toasted bread spread with tomato—in Spanish, jamón y pan con tomate).  It may sound like a simple combination, but trust me, this appetizer is pure genius.  I would eat Spanish jamón every day if I could.  We each had a different main course in order to sample as many dishes as possible.  All in all, it was a wonderful, relaxed dinner—the perfect introduction to the local Barcelona lifestyle.

After dinner we returned to our hostel, Casa Consell. When I stay at hostels, I generally try not to expect anything more than a place to sleep and toss my stuff while out exploring.  I realize that you usually get what you pay for.  For the price we paid, though, this hostel was amazing.  It was definitely not your typical dirty dormitory.  The hostel was hidden on the second and third floors of a 19th century building near Passieg de Gracia, complete with one of those creaky, old-fashioned elevators with ornate wooden doors.  The architecture geek in me could not get over the gorgeous vaulted ceilings, beautiful hardwood floors, and secluded outdoor terrace.  We got our own key to the building, so it felt like we were real residents, not visitors.  I was sad that we could only stay there two nights, and that it was winter so we could not fully enjoy the outside terrace!

 

The next day, we woke up in total match mode.  We spent a few enjoyable hours wandering the streets of Barcelona without a particular destination in mind.  As the day wore on, I started to spot more and more football scarves and Messi jerseys adorning pedestrians around us.  The entire city was getting ready for the match, and I was getting more excited  by the minute! Below are a few of the pictures I took on our pre-match wanderings around the city:

 

We took the metro out to the stadium, along with dozens of other fans that were traveling in the same carriage.  As we walked towards the stadium, I could hear music wafting towards us from inside.  The closer to the stadium we walked, the more energized I got.  I felt like I had just downed a couple of energy drinks.  We collected our tickets at the proper booth, and made our way to our gate.  The process was surprisingly simple.  Compared to the Dutch Eredivisie match that I attended a few months ago (read about that experience here), there were fewer security measures at Camp Nou.  After finding the gate, we showed our tickets to the attendant and walked in.  From the time we had our tickets in hand to the time we reached our seats, less than 10 minutes passed.  The feeling in the stadium was also more family-friendly than in the Netherlands (and the male-female ratio was significantly better than every other European country where I have attended football matches).  Hooliganism, apparently, is not a severe issue in Barcelona.

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My golden ticket

Before the match started we heard news that Cristiano Ronaldo had scored a hat trick in Real Madrid’s match against Getafe earlier that day.  I jokingly predicted that Lionel Messi (a.k.a. my hero) would then score four goals in the match we were about to see, simply because he couldn’t bear to lose to Ronaldo.  Willem laughed in the most skeptical way possible, as if to say, “I know you are Messi’s biggest fan, Sarah, but really? You’re setting your expectations a little high.”  I bet you can guess what happened that night (hint hint, the woman is always right)!

Every Barcelona match begins with the Cant del Barça (Song of Barcelona), Barça’s anthem and an integral part of the team’s identity.  The hymn is always sung in Catalan (and not Spanish), because Barça has long been a symbol of Catalan culture, and at times the center for the Catalan independence movement from Spain.  During Franco’s rule, for instance, Camp Nou was the only place where traditional Catalan songs and protests for independence could safely be sounded, because Franco was afraid that crushing the protests would attract too much negative international media attention to his regime.  Even today, most people are unaware that Barcelona officially supports the Catalan national football team (though it is not recognized by FIFA since Catalonia is not an independent state).  As a bastion of Catalan culture, Barcelona supplies a majority of the team’s players, including its captain, Carles Puyol.  So for many of the Barcelona players, their team is not just important for football, but also as a medium for preserving and promoting the idea of Catalonia. Whatever your politics, it is impossible not to get swept along with the passions swirling through Camp Nou when the entire stadium rises to sing.  Though I knew few of the words, standing amongst the sea of supporters belting out the Cant del Barça with every power they possessed sent chills down my spine. To hear the anthem for yourself, click here.

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Part of the Barcelona family now!

It was clear to me that FC Barcelona’s motto, “More than a club” rings true for its supporters.  Fans who have attended Barça matches their entire lives talked about the players as if they were family, never merely as entertainment.  When Messi scored the first goal of the match, the old men sitting next to us smacked each other on the back, as if to congratulate themselves on the achievements of a successful son they had personally raised. And when Puyol, the defender often described as the heart of the team, made a particularly intense 80 yard sprint up the field to support the attack, he received an appreciative ovation from the crowd upon his next touch of the ball.

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Messi about to take his penalty kick

This family-style modus operandi results in an extremely fluid style of play, with an emphasis on teamwork and constant ball possession.  Watching Barcelona’s players pass to one another is truly like watching a dance.  Except it is a dance where half of the dancers are professionals and the other half are toddlers. Luckily for my fingernails (which would have been gnawed off in nervous anticipation otherwise), Barcelona handily defeated Osasuna.  The final score of the match was a 5-1 win for Barcelona.  Four of Barcelona’s goals were scored by Messi (that’s my boy!)—and all of them were perfect testaments to the beautiful game. An additional goal from Pedro brought Barcelona’s tally to five.

As amazing as the match was, I don’t think a different score would have changed my opinion of this team and this stadium.  The history, the atmosphere, and the Catalan-steeped football culture in Barcelona are unlike any other place on earth.  Camp Nou is a massive stadium, even by American stadium standards, and yet it retains an intimacy.  Yes, the stadium may be well-worn, to the point where ramshackle would probably be a better word to describe it in some places (it is over 50 years old, after all), but it is also well-loved.  Every year, the club brings the issue of the construction of a new stadium to the table, and every year the club members vote it down.  They don’t want a new stadium.  Camp Nou is their home. It is their cathedral.  And now, it is mine too.

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View of Camp Nou from our seats