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!

Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, Waagplein, Scale Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, Waagplein, Scale Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, Waagplein, Scale Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, Waagplein, Scale Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, Waagplein

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 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.

Herring, Haring, Hollandse nieuwe

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.


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?

Lang Leve de Koning! Queen Beatrix’s Abdication and Queen’s Day 2013

Royals on Balcony

King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima pose with their daughters on the balcony of the royal palace in Amsterdam

Queen’s Day 2013 is over, and what a day it was! As you may know from my last post on the tradition of Queen’s Day, I was worried about the weather.  Well, the day couldn’t have been better! The weather cooperated, the people were orange, and we now officially have a king in the Netherlands for the first time in over 120 years.

Leading up to the event, we had been DSCN7130hearing all week about how crowded it was expected to be in Amsterdam. Some of Willem’s work colleagues were even planning to go away from the city for the day in order to avoid the crowds.  But I was determined to go all out for this Queen’s Day–right in the middle of all the action.  Who knows how many chances I will get to see something like this?  I was lucky enough to see the Queen of England in person last year as she floated down the Thames during her grand Jubilee celebrations, and so the “cultural anthropologist” side of me was also curious to see how the Dutch celebrate their own monarchy compared to the British.

On the morning of the big day, we woke up by 6:30am (I dragged poor Willem out of bed at the crack of dawn on the one day he has off from work) so we could catch a train to Amsterdam before the crowds got too terrible, and so we could be in the Jordaan in time to find some treasures from the vrijmarkt.  It was rough getting up that early, but at least now the days have lengthened enough that it was daylight outside.  On the way to the train station in Haarlem we saw the first people setting up their stalls for the vrijmarkt, but we didn’t stop. We were on a mission to Amsterdam!


Marking their territory for the Queen’s Day vrijmarkt

The trains were running smoothly, and we made it to Amsterdam Centraal with no problems before 8am.  There was no public transport, so we walked to the Jordaan with coins burning holes in our pockets, ready for some haggling at the vrijmarkt.  It was fascinating to see how the whole business worked.  Enterprising Dutch citizens had marked their “spots” on the pavement outside their houses and shops with tape or signs in the days prior to Queen’s Day. There is a kind of unspoken honor code that you respect the tape marked out on the street and do not steal someone’s spot.  Willem said he had read stories in the Dutch news about people fighting over the best locations on the bridges, but everything we saw was perfectly civilized.


Willem checking out some vrijmarkt wares

We spent the next few hours meandering along the streets of the Jordaan and along the canals, looking through the goods.  Our biggest problem was that Willem and I are both obsessed with books, but we quickly agreed that we would have a miserable day if we actually bought all of them and were forced to carry our body weight in paper for the rest of the day.  Willem couldn’t resist though when he found an amazing, complete set of Russian literature–all for only 5 euros! My reaction was something along the lines of, “Good luck carrying those all day, buddy”.  We later bought a backpack from a girl for 3 euros, so the load turned out to be manageable.

Around 10am we started getting hungry and began looking for a place to sit down and have a snack.  We realized we were quite close to Dam Square, where Queen Beatrix was supposed to officially abdicate at that exact time.  So we decided to walk in that direction and see how close we could get.  We arrived just in time!  We ended up right next to the Royal Palace, but we were around the side of the building slightly and thus could not see the balcony where the royal family was expected to appear.  We could see a giant screen though, so we got to witness Queen Beatrix signing the abdication papers!  And we were there in crowd when the royal family walked out onto the balcony.


The crowd in Dam Square


On the big screen in Dam Square: Queen Beatrix, (now) King Willem-Alexander, and (now) Queen Maxima sit down to sign the papers


Trying to get the best view


The media flocks to the best location for the perfect shot of the royal family

I did find the adoration slightly odd, in a way that I can’t really put into words.  For me, it was an electric atmosphere just being in a crowd that was witnessing history (likely the only time this event will happen in a generation), but I confess that I really don’t understand the Hollywood-style celebrity worship of the royal family.  It was strange to see them in person, because it is easy to forget that these people are real when the only time they are seen is generally on TV or from a distance.

We decided not to wait in the Dam Square for the investiture of Willem-Alexander, which would be happening in a few hours at the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church).  Instead, we made our way south to the Vondelpark.  The neighborhood directly surrounding the park is gorgeous, with massive (we’re talking many millions of euros) houses.  We wandered around the vrijmarkt in that neighborhood before entering the park.  It is interesting how universally little the amounts of STUFF everyone was selling.  Even the people selling their wares out of these huge Amsterdam McMansions only had a blanket or two laid out with things to sell.  Either these people own nothing, or they are very stingy with their yard sales!  If yard sales in the U.S. were limited to a few blankets laid out on the sidewalk, the blankets would have piles six feet high!


The beautiful Vondelpark

The Vondelpark, it turned out, was where everyone brings their children for family-friendly Queen’s Day activities away from the drunken hordes on the canals.  It was a nice atmosphere, with children getting in on the vrijmarkt action, selling everything from their homemade lemonade to Legos and Barbies.  If the Vondelpark is anything to go by, the Dutch are bringing their children up to be quite the savvy entrepreneurs! Another plus to the Vondelpark was that it had some of the only accessible free toilets in the city.  In most places, restaurants and other portable toilet areas were charging 1 EURO to use the bathroom.  It was pure gouging, and ruined a little bit of the experience to know that the shop owners were using the lack of public toilets on such a crowded day to their advantage. I can see why they did it, but it is bad enough having to pay .30 or .50 cents to use public toilets on a normal day.  Paying a euro to use a disgusting port-a-potty or shop bathroom with no toilet paper? No thanks. I’d rather pee in the canal.  It’s no wonder Amsterdam has such a problem with public urination.

We rested in the park for a while, enjoying the green grass and blooming tulips before we headed back towards the city center. I’m pretty sure we walked at least 10km back and forth across Amsterdam over the course of the day. The entire city was festive, which lent the day a really amazing atmosphere (as long as you weren’t desperately looking for a bathroom that didn’t cost more than the drink you were holding).  There were smiles and dancing on every street corner, and the sunshine certainly didn’t hurt the mood.  I only wish we had had a boat to cruise the canals! Below are a few of my favorite pictures from the day. I wonder what this country will do next year to top this for the first King’s Day (Koningsdag) in history!

Tulips Galore: The Famous Dutch Flower Fields

Tulip Fields

Aerial view of tulip fields in the Netherlands

It is finally spring here in my little corner of the Netherlands, and it’s about time!  Normally by the time my birthday rolls around I’ve already broken out the sundresses and shorts, but this year my birthday came and went and I was still bundled in my peacoat and scarf for trips to the grocery store.  So when I awoke last weekend to sun streaming through the windows and a balmy breeze outside, Willem and I decided it was the perfect time to do one of the ultimate Dutch tourist cliches- a drive through the Dutch tulip fields.


A painting of the fabled Semper Augustus, the most expensive tulip sold during the “Tulip mania” of the 17th century

Chance are, if you ask someone outside the Netherlands to describe things that are typically Dutch, you will receive one of three answers: Windmills, cheese, and tulips. And as much as the Dutch hate these cliches, they ring surprisingly true.  Tulips have been an important part of the Dutch economy and culture for hundreds of years.  In the early 1600s, there was even a “Tulip mania” (known as one of the first economic bubbles), where a single coveted tulip sold for as much as a house! Today, the Netherlands still supplies the majority of the tulip bulbs sold around the world. Embarrassingly for Willem, he had never seen the flowers that make his own country famous around the world. In my mind, this made our weekend excursion even more necessary. Flower fields or bust!

We started in Haarlem and drove towards Lisse, a town that exists almost solely due to the bulb trade.  Lisse is also home to the famous Keukenhof gardens.  The gardens are home to the largest display of tulips in the world, with a kaleidoscope of colorful flowers blanketing over 70 acres of land.  The gardens are open only eight weeks each year, from March-May, but receive over 800,000 visitors during that short window of time–100,000 visitors per day! However, the high entrance cost (as well as the acres of buses stretching as far as the eye could see in the parking lot) deterred us from going inside.


Tour buses at the Keukenhof

We’re not really tour bus kind of people.  We decided we would have a better time exploring the farmer’s fields at our leisure than fighting crowds of tourists in the gardens.

A few minutes outside of the gardens by car, we saw the first fields.  They were an explosion of yellow and purple.  We parked the car and walked into the field.  The first thing I noticed was the powerful scent of the flowers.  I’m not talking about a whiff of floral upon the breeze. No, this was an assault on the senses.  It almost felt as if you could swim through the air, or bottle up some floral perfume simply by reaching out and grabbing the scented air.  This is not a place for someone with hay fever!

Upon closer inspection, we saw that the flowers in this field were not tulips, but rather daffodils and hyacinths.  I didn’t mind, because daffodils just happen to be my favorite flower.


After Willem got tired of playing paparazzi taking pictures of me frolicking among the daffodils, we jumped back in the car in search of the real deal.  When we got near, they were impossible to miss.  The fields we found were full of bright red, yellow, and mixed-color tulips.  The red tulips were definitely my favorite out of the bunch.


Frolicking in the sun amongst the fields of daffodils!

Photos of the fields don’t do these flowers justice (at least not my point-and-shoot camera).  They were such a saturated red color that it almost hurt to stare at them for too long.  You could almost imagine that someone took a giant paintbrush and splashed primary colors all over the flat Dutch landscape.  It was wonderful being outside in the sun, wandering the rows of flowers, and breathing in the fresh, flower-scented air after so many gray, windy, and rainy days this winter.  Who wouldn’t be cheered up by such tangible signs of warmer days to come?

Below are some of my photos of the tulips.  If you can believe it, the tulips this year are nowhere near as colorful as normal due to the longer-than-normal cold weather.  Many of the tulips are blooming weeks behind schedule, so the rainbow of colors seen in the aerial photo at the beginning of this post likely won’t happen this year.  If this is what the fields look like in an off year, then the rainbow of flowers seen on a good year must defy imagination!

Want to see the tulips for yourself?  Peak blooming is typically mid-late April, although this varies from year-to-year.  The website of the Keukenhof has a wealth of information on the subject, and the Netherlands forums on Tripadvisor are updated constantly during the year with information about the state of the flower fields for those planning to visit. Many Dutch citizens may not have seen the fields in their own country (*cough cough* Willem), but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth a visit!  For a trip to the Netherlands in the spring, the famous Dutch tulip fields are definitely a must-see!


Everyone should sit in a field of flowers at least once in their lifetime…

Why Everyone Should Experience Carnival in the Netherlands

Everyone has heard of the legendary Rio Carnival, where silicone-enhanced Brazilian beauties dance the samba clad in a blinding array of sequins.  You have probably also heard of Mardi Gras in New Orleans (with festivities of the Bourbon Street drinkin’, boob flashin’, bead throwin’ variety), and maybe even Carnevale in Venice, famous for its masquerades.  Chances are, however, that you have never experienced the particularly Dutch spin on this popular celebration.

The Dutch incarnation of carnival (or “Vastenavond”) is traditionally only celebrated in the Catholic regions of the country, and especially in the southern provinces of Noord-Brabant and Limburg.  Protestant influences in the rest of the country mean that major cities like Amsterdam and The Hague do not celebrate carnival.  Living in Tilburg (and having a significant other who hails from another carnival-crazed city of the Netherlands), I had the good fortune to be located in the heart of carnival country.  Here are a few of the many reasons why I think everyone should experience carnival in the Netherlands:

The 2013 Prince of Carnival parties with his Kingdom of Fools in Neede, The Netherlands

The 2013 Prince of Carnival parties with his Kingdom of Fools in Neede, The Netherlands

  • It is a non-stop party.  Dutch carnival officially runs from the Sunday through Tuesday that immediately precedes the first day of Lent (Ash Wednesday).  The Dutch never turn down an excuse for more beer and tent parties though, so many places begin the celebrations as early as Thursday or Friday.  On Sunday, the town mayor hands over the keys to the city to the previously-crowned Prince of Carnival.  For three days, the prince technically “rules” over his “Kingdom of Fools” and can even issue proclamations valid during the carnival season.
  • Towns change their names.  During the three days of carnival, the town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch (which, incidentally, is also the town where the first recorded mention of Dutch carnival celebrations took place in 1385) changes its name to “Oeteldonk”, meaning “Frog Hill.”  The town of Breda becomes “Kielegat”, and Eindhoven becomes “Lampegat.”  This particular tradition may be completely unnecessary, but how can you NOT get in the silly spirit of carnival when you are running around a place referred to as “Oeteldonk?”
  • Crazy costumes.  Carnival in the Netherlands is essentially one major costume party. This is the Dutch equivalent to Halloween, and everyone participates.
    Lindsay Lohan and her non-sexy costume would not be an outcast at a Dutch carnival party!

    Lindsay Lohan and her non-sexy costume would not be an outcast at a Dutch carnival party!

    For Dutch people though, carnival costumes are NOT all about sex appeal.  This may come as a surprise to Americans, since Halloween in the U.S. is often considered the one day of the year when a girl can wear whatever sexy attire she wants without being labeled “slutty.”  Sorry guys, no Playboy bunny costumes to be seen here.  Instead, the goal is to dress as wacky as possible, preferably with obnoxious neon colors and crazy wigs.  If you like to dress in character, Dutch carnival is definitely for you.

  • Carnival is for everyone.  One of the nicest aspects of carnival in the Netherlands is that everyone participates.  In other places around the world, carnival is definitely a celebration for young, drunk revelers.  Not in the Netherlands.  There is, of course, a fair share of those young partiers, but young people by no means hold a monopoly on carnival fun.  It is not unusual to see an 8 year-old in a bar, or a 60 year-old couple dressed as pirates drinking beers in a tent next to a group of teens in bunny suits.
  • Parades.  The centerpiece of carnival is each town’s carnival parade (optocht).  Groups spend thousands of hours over the course of several months creating elaborate parade floats that are then driven through the city, led by the Prince of Carnival. A prize is awarded to the best float of the day. These floats are definitely a sight to behold.  My boyfriend happens to belong to one of the float-building associations in his hometown of Neede, so I was lucky enough to see this carnival tradition from behind the scenes (and walk along with the Hansel and Gretel themed float on the parade route!).
    Group Beter! in front of its 2013 carnival float

    Group Beter! in front of its 2013 carnival float

    All dressed up as Hansel and Gretel for Carnival 2013

    All dressed up as Hansel and Gretel for Carnival 2013

    One of the elaborate floats from the 2013 carnival parade

    One of the elaborate floats from the 2013 carnival parade

  • Carnival music.  In addition to crazy costumes, carnival in the Netherlands is also known for its ridiculous carnival songs–think lots of accordion sounds accompanied by terribly bad (yet easy to sing-a-long) lyrics.  How bad, you say? Well, at one party I attended the DJ played a carnival cover version of “Sex on Fire” by Kings of Leon, only during the chorus line “your sex is on fiiiiiiiiiire,” the Dutch lyrics were changed to something along the lines of “have sex with a baaaaaald man”.  Other even worse songs included titles like, “I have a horn on my jetski” (Ik heb een toet-toet-toeter op mijn waterscooter) and “Fat girls have pretty names” (Dikke meisjes hebben mooie namen). Deep stuff. For the three days of carnival, though, no one cares about the lyrics.  The music, like everything else, is just there to brighten the silly mood.  And that it does. If you’re interested in hearing some of this musical gold, below is one of the most popular carnival songs from this year’s festivities:


  • Get off the beaten path.  Most visitors to the Netherlands only see the major cities- some never make it outside Amsterdam.  Carnival presents the perfect opportunity to visit some of the less-popular tourist regions of the Netherlands while they are at their best.  And since each town celebrates carnival in its own unique way, with its own prince, its own parade, and its own flag, you really can’t go wrong.

It may not be the be-all and end-all of your bucket list, but if you’re in the Netherlands in February and are looking for one heck of a party, then you can’t miss Dutch carnival.