In researching day trips from Amsterdam I considered a few national treasures such as Zaanse Schans for its cluster of windmills and the historic city of Haarlem but decided to take in the centuries old Alkmaar cheese market as it both fit into my schedule and my love of cheese.

One of only a few remaining traditional Dutch Cheese markets, Alkmaar had cheese scales as early as 1365 and began their cheese market on the town square or Waagplein in 1593 . It’s not actually possible to buy cheese at the market itself as it’s a demonstration of how this merchants’ market operated in times gone by however, the demonstration, which takes place in front of the medieval weighing house, is surrounded by many specialized stalls where it is possible to buy all kinds of cheese (and non-cheese) related products.

The walk from Alkmaar Station to the Waagplein is a short 10-minute stroll with sidewalk plaques whetting the appetite for cheese.

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The Waagplein or ‘weighing square’ has been extended several times in the course of two centuries and was enlarged no fewer than eight times before it reached its current dimensions, a very visible reminder of the importance of cheese trade for the city.

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As soon as the market opens, the samplers and traders in their white coats go to work inspecting the cheese which is more involved than checking its exterior. Cheese is knocked on and a special cheese scoop used to obtain a piece, which is then crumbled between the fingers and smelled. And, naturally, it is tasted to assess the relation between taste, and the percentages of fat and moisture. After the cheese has been cut, the number of holes – also known as eyes – are inspected. The holes in cheese are caused by non-harmful lactic acid bacteria during the maturing of the cheese. A perfect cheese has eyes that are evenly spread throughout. A cheese without eyes, known as a blind cheese, is considered to be of inferior quality.


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The wheels of Beemster cheese are transported around the square on wooden racks or barrows which are lifted by a string and leather shoulder harness. Each barrow holds 8 Gouda cheeses of of which weight 12 – 13 kilos. Carrying a heavy barrow (25 kilos) weighing about 130 kilos is not easy so the carriers walk with a special “cheese carriers’dribble”, a particular walking rhythm to make it easier.  The colour of the barrow and carrier hats indicates it’s one of four forwarding companies.


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Once carried to the Waagebouw the cheese is weighed and prices negotiated.

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The Waag building is a Dutch national monument that began its public life in the 14th century as a chapel before being converted to a weighing house in 1583, a role it retains to this day.

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Alkmaar’s tourist office is located in the building and can help with recommended walking tour routes. There’s an excellent Alkmaar city map here.

There are other cheese markets in Hoorn, Edam, Gouda, and Woerden however the Alkmaar Cheese Market is oldest, largest and most famous cheese market in the Netherlands so is well worth a visit.

There are Alkmaar sights to see beyond the cheese market including the De Boom National Beer Museum which is a few short blocks away from the Waagplein. This unique museum is appropriately housed in a former brewery and shows visitors the tools, equipment and machines used in brewing over the past two centuries.

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In the cellar is the Proeflokaal de Boom, or tasting room, where stellar Dutch beer may be sampled in a cozy pub atmosphere. I opted to try the Weizen wheat beer brewed in Wijlre since 1340 by Brand, the Netherlands oldest brewery which is now owned by Dutch global brewing giant Heineken.

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Between the cheese market square and the rail station is the Grote Kerk,a 15th century Protestant church dedicated to Saint Lawrence but now not used for secular services. Maintained as a city landmark a highlight is the soaring organ installed in 1645 and is considered one of the most important and beautiful organs in the world.

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As everyone cycles in the Netherlands even a smaller city of 100,000 like Alkmaar has a two-tiered bicycle parkade adjacent to the main railway station.

 

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Alkmaar is an easy and direct 35-minute train ride from Amsterdam Centraal Station with day return tickets costing EUR15.20 when  bought at station kiosks. The Alkmaar Cheese Market is held every Friday morning 10 AM – 1 PM and every Tuesday evening from the first Friday in April until the last Friday in September.