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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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

The Dutch Love Affair With Herring

The Dutch are not particularly known for their culinary delights.  There is one delicacy, however, that every visitor to the Netherlands must try: Dutch herring. This raw, silvery little fish is something that is enjoyed by almost every Dutchman.  Actually, enjoy is not a strong enough word to describe the Dutch love of herring.  Dutch people would probably trade their first-born child for a couple of these slimy buggers. Where we have taco trucks and hot dog stands in the U.S., the Dutch fill every street corner with designated herring stands.

The Dutch passion for haring is a long-standing one.  Herring, fished from the North Sea, has been a valuable commodity in the Netherlands for hundreds of years.  There is a Dutch saying that “Amsterdam was built on herring bones,” meaning that profits from the lucrative herring trade financed many of the beautiful buildings that line Amsterdam’s canals.  Today, the Dutch empire may be lacking but the demand for herring continues unabated.

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Small fish, big influence

Every year in June, the seaside town of Scheveningen (try saying that five times fast) celebrates Vlaggetjesdag (“Flag Day”).  On Vlaggetjesdag, the fishing boats (grandly decorated with flags and pennants–hence the name “flag day”) sail back into the harbors of the Netherlands with the first catch of Hollandse nieuwe herring of the year.

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The captain of the first ship that reaches port was traditionally given the honor of bringing a crate of herring to the Queen.  Today, the first barrel of herring off the boat is auctioned off for charity. In 2012, the first herring barrel sold for a record price of 95,000 Euros!

The 95,000 euro barrel

So why is the Hollandse nieuwe herring harvest such a big deal? For starters, this particular Dutch delicacy could traditionally only be caught between May and July each year.  Any earlier, and the fat content of the fish was too low; any later, and it was too high. Now, of course, raw herring can be frozen and preserved year-round, but the Dutch still prefer to eat it fresh off the boats.  The Dutch also pioneered their own way of preparing herring for consumption:

“The fish are gutted on board the fishing boats, leaving the pancreas in place. The pancreatic enzymes do most of the conservation, so that the brine they are kept in needs much less salt. This could explain why Dutch herring is so much more flavorful than other salted or pickled herring varieties in the rest of Europe.”

Yum. I know I love to eat my fish with pancreas intact.

This year’s Vlaggetjesdag provided a great excuse for me and Willem to get out of the house, and for me to learn a little more about this Dutchiest of Dutch delicacies. I was pleasantly surprised at how much there was to see and do.  We were able to tour fishing boats and ships of the Dutch Royal Navy, see how traditional nautical handicrafts were made, and of course eat herring.

Dutch herring in all its glory

Willem, the good Dutchman that he is, downed three of them in the span of about five minutes.  I chose not to partake this time, as I have already had the honor of tasting herring.  Let’s just say, it was not my favorite food.  Supposedly herring is an acquired taste. After my experience with herring though, I don’t really want to acquire it.

Should you choose to try a herring when you visit the Netherlands (to anyone who visits us in Haarlem- there is a herring stand 50 meters from our front door, so prepare yourselves!), you cannot just eat it any-which-way.  The correct way to eat a herring is to 1) pick it up by the tail; 2) dip the herring in raw, diced onions; and 3) tip your head back and throw that slimy thing down the hatch!

Haring, Herring, Vlaggetjesdag, Hollandse nieuwe

Look at that technique!

Now doesn’t that sound delicious?

The Strange History of Texel Island

texel-island-mapRecently Willem and I spent a lovely Sunday afternoon in Texel, an area of the Netherlands neither of us had previously visited. Texel (pronounced Tessel in Dutch) is an island in the province of North Holland.  It is the most populated of the Frisian Islands, and is situated between the North Sea to the west and the Wadden Sea to the east.

To get there, we drove from Haarlem to Den Helder, where we took the ferry across the channel to the island.  The ferry is the only way to get to the island from the mainland, and while it is not cheap (18 euros for the car), it is fast and comfortable.  The ferry, operated by TESO, leaves every hour from Den Helder and the journey only takes 20 minutes. We were lucky enough to arrive right as the ferry was about to depart, so we drove right up and onto the ship.

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During the summer months, however, we read that the island is extremely popular with campers and beach-goers; a long wait for the ferry on a hot, summer day is not unheard-of.  On board the ferry there were plenty of snacks and drinks for sale, a souvenir stall (I bought some nice postcards there), and plenty of clean, free (yay!) toilets.  When we got to the island, we followed the signs straight to De Cocksdorp at the northern tip of the island, where the Texel Lighthouse is located.

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For three euros, you can climb the 45 meters to the top of the lighthouse (fun fact: lighthouses are called vuurtoren in Dutch, meaning “fire towers”, because lighthouses were kept lit by fires in the days before electricity), where you are rewarded with amazing vistas of the beach and sea on three sides.  You don’t have to climb very high to get impressive views in the Netherlands!

On our tour of the lighthouse we learned that the Texel Lighthouse was also the site of a very strange and interesting historical event during WWII: the Georgian Uprising of Texel (Opstand der Georgiers).  During the war, Texel formed part of the German Atlantic Wall system of defense.  By late in the war, however, the German forces were occupied with fighting in France and they had to find creative ways of holding their territory along the Atlantic Wall.  Texel Island was occupied by a battalion of captured soldiers from the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic (modern day Georgia) on the Eastern front who had been given the choice of being sent to POW camps or fighting in the Germany army when they were captured.

Georgian soldiers in the Germany army

In April 1945, the Georgian soldiers, aided by the Dutch resistance on the island, revolted against their German commanders.  The Georgians quickly gained control of the tiny island, but were unable to hold it when German reinforcements arrived.  Over the next five weeks, the Germans systematically combed the island for any of the Georgian rebels.  A group of the Georgians took refuge in the last available stronghold on the island, which was the Texel lighthouse.  Even though the Germans officially surrendered on May 5, 1945, the fighting on Texel Island continued until May 20, leading the uprising to be called “Europe’s last battlefield”. In total, 565 Georgians, 120 citizens of Texel, and around 800 Germans lost their lives during the uprising.

The lighthouse itself was heavily damaged during the fighting.  After tests, it was found that the structural integrity of the lighthouse had been compromised by the sustained gunfire it had come under, so an entirely new exterior was built around the old lighthouse.  Visitors to the lighthouse today can walk in between the two walls on a section about halfway up the lighthouse to see the original damage done by mortar shells and gunfire.

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This was the most fascinating part of the lighthouse, in my opinion.  It is scary to imagine how desperate the Georgian soldiers must have felt watching the Germans advance towards them while they were trapped in the lighthouse at the very tip of the island. There is also a Georgian cemetery and memorial on Texel that are open to the public for those interested in military history.

After visiting the lighthouse, we took the rest of the day to drive around the various towns on the island. Below are some of the wacky things we learned about Texel Island on our drive. For such a small place, it sure is an island full of things to discover!

Two Islands- The modern-day Texel Island actually used to be two different islands, Texel and Eierland.  The two were separated by a single small channel. In the 17th century, the two islands were poldered together, creating a single landmass that is now the largest natural land barrier between the North Sea and the Wadden Sea.

Beachcomber madness- Texel has a centuries-old history of beachcombing. The particular mix of currents, tides, and winds that constantly batter the island result in a whole lot of debris being washed up on the island every day.  In the old days, when ships wrecked off the coast of the island during storms, the islanders would come out by the hundreds to collect the materials that washed up on shore.  Beachcombing is such a tradition here that there are multiple Jutter museums (Jutter meaning “wreckage” or “debris” in the West Frisian dialect) dedicated solely to displaying the countless items found on Texel’s shores.

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Naval infamy- Texel Island is used today as a training area for the Dutch Navy, but it is also the site of one of the most embarrassing moments in Dutch naval history.  In 1795, Texel became the only place in history where an entire navy was defeated on horseback.  How is this possible, you ask? Well, the French army was fighting the Netherlands at the time, and received word that the Dutch navy was stuck in ice frozen around the island.  Upon hearing this, the French Commandant, Louis Joseph Lahure, simply rode up to the Dutch ships with 128 of his men and demanded their surrender.  Having no other choice, the Dutch were forced to surrender without a single shot being fired.  (I found this hilarious.  Willem…not so much.)

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Tuunwallen (“Garden walls”) and sheep sheds Driving around Texel, it is clear that there are many times more sheep than people on this little chunk of land in the Wadden Sea.  The pastures where Texel sheep graze are unique to the island.  Instead of fences, the edges of the fields are traditionally delineated by earthen walls made up of piled turf and vegetation, called tuunwallen.  The sheep shelters on Texel are also uniquely designed for the conditions on the island.  From afar, the sheds look like strange houses that have been chopped in half.  They are designed in this manner, with the entry on the flat side and always facing the northeast, because the harsh winds that blow constantly across the island come from the southeast. 

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We had a great time exploring the island.  It reminded me a lot of my trips to the Outer Banks of North Carolina as a kid.  Now, if only the finicky Dutch weather would warm up so we could actually swim in the water on one of these little visits to the sea!

Koninginnedag: Celebrating Queen’s Day in the Netherlands

Every year on April 30th the Dutch celebrate Koninginnedag, or “Queen’s Day”.  Queen’s Day is a national holiday recognizing the official birthday of Queen Beatrix.  For one day, the entire country dresses in head-to-toe orange and goes crazy partying in the streets.  This year though, Queen’s Day will be more than just a party.  It will be a historical event!

Queen-Beatrix

Earlier this year, Queen Beatrix announced that she will be abdicating the throne in favor of her son, Willem-Alexander, and that she would officially step down on April 30th—Queen’s Day.  So in addition to the normal Queen’s Day festivities, Her Majesty will abdicate during a ceremony at the Royal Palace on the Dam Square in Amsterdam; in a separate ceremony the same day, Prince Willem-Alexander and his wife, Maxima, will be invested as King and Queen at the Nieuwe Kerk.  Starting next year, the holiday will become Koningsdag, or “King’s Day”, and will be celebrated on a different date.

Willemalexander en Maxima in Amsterdam

The soon-to-be King Willem-Alexander, and his wife Maxima

The Netherlands is already simmering with excitement about the historical celebrations that will be occurring on next Tuesday, and so am I! Every window display is saturated with orange, and a constant topic of discussion revolves around whether or not the weather in this perpetually cloudy nation will cooperate for the millions of people planning their outdoor parties.  In case you’re interested in knowing a little more about this insane (and surprisingly underrated/unknown in the rest of the world) holiday, I’ve compiled some essential facts about the day to get you in the mood to party like it’s the last Queen’s Day in history!

Interesting Facts about Queen’s Day in the Netherlands:

  • A Day in History- The holiday that evolved into the modern-day Queen’s Day was first celebrated on August 31, 1885, in honor of the birth of Princess Wilhelmina, who later became Queen Wilhelmina.  
  • Weather Worries- Queen’s Day, while commemorating Queen Beatrix’s official birthday, is not her real birthday. Queen Beatrix’s actual birthday is on January 31st; however, she chose to continue celebrating Queen’s Day on her mother Juliana’s birthday because the weather in April is much more conducive to outdoor celebrations than January in the Netherlands.
  • Don’t Coronate! Inaugurate!- Dutch monarchs do not have a coronation when they become King or Queen because they are not technically crowned.  Instead, the new monarch is “inaugurated” or “invested” as King or Queen.  It sounds strange, but that’s the way it is done in this quirky little country.
  • Girls Rule- When Prince Willem-Alexander is named king on April 30th, it will be the first time the Netherlands has had a king since 1890. That is a long line of strong ladies!
  • Crowd Control- Amsterdam is (unsurprisingly) the most popular place in the Netherlands to celebrate Queen’s Day.  Combine Amsterdam’s 750,000 inhabitants with over 1 million visitors and you get a very crowded city. In fact, the city of Amsterdam has literally been filled up on Queen’s Day in the past.  I use literally in the true sense of the word here: one year the city was actually CLOSED to further cars/buses/trains because the city was at capacity.  This year is expected to attract even more people, so come early if you want to make it into the city on public transport.  Once you’re in the city, expect to do a lot of walking.

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    Crowds on the canals in Amsterdam on Queen’s Day

  • Hoarder’s Paradise- Queen’s Day is the only day of the year in the Netherlands where people can legally sell goods on the street without a permit and without being subject to value-added tax. This is called the Vrijmarkt, or “free market”.  Anyone and everyone is free to take part in this national yard sale madness.  In Amsterdam, the vrijmarkt temporarily becomes one of the world’s largest flea markets. Savvy wanderers can find anything—from antiques to worthless knick-knacks. It is a hoarders dream.
  • Orange Craze- If you plan to celebrate Queen’s Day with the Dutch, make sure you wear something orange.  This mass orange-wearing by the Dutch populace during holidays and sporting events even has a name: Oranjegekte, or “Orange madness”.   Why do the Dutch wear so much orange, you ask?  The Dutch royal family is descended from the House of Orange-Nassau, so despite there being no orange in the Dutch flag, the color remains close to their hearts.  To help you blend in on the big day, below is a little fashion inspiration I created for celebrating Queen’s Day in true Oranje-style. Add in a few orange feather boas and a bright orange hat, and you’ve got yourself an outfit!

Fingers crossed the weather on April 30th matches the sunny Dutch spirit of revelry!

Queen's Day AmsterdamQueen’s Day Amsterdam bysbedenbaugh