Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Bringing on the cheese in Alkmaar

Alkmaar's cheese market and weigh house are seen from a bridge over the
Luttik Ourdorp canal.

We step off the train from Amsterdam and have no trouble finding our way to the old center of the Alkmaar. It's Friday and thousands of visitors pour into town to enjoy the festivities surrounding the weekly cheese market.

A woman dressed in traditional Dutch style sells cheese to tourists
at the cheese market in Alkmaar.

Alkmaar's first public cheese market took place in 1622, although cheese has been weighed in this Dutch town since 1365. The market is open to the public Friday mornings from April through September.

Customers can taste before buying cheese at the market
in Alkmaar.

At 10 a.m. the cheese inspection begins. A sampler extracts a piece from the center of huge wheels of cheese. Tasting, tapping and smelling ensue. Then, carriers load barrows (kind of like bobsleds with handles on the ends) with 120 kilos of cheese and rhythmically jog off to the Waaggebouw where the cheese is weighed on large, centuries-old scales. The proceedings are overseen by the head of the Cheese Carriers Guild — the "cheese father." The cheese is then taken away by each "veem" or forwarding company, who toss the cheese into the trucks.

Wheels of cheese are literally tossed onto a truck
in Alkmaar.

Since I don't like crowds, we leave the market and spend the next few hours exploring this thousand-year-old village. We have some difficulty finding Alkmaar's tourist office (called the VVV in the Netherlands), located in the Waagplein, so for much of our morning here, we are map-less. Fortunately, Alkmaar's charms are obvious.

Wooden shoes are on sale at the weekly market in Alkmaar.

I fortify myself for sightseeing with a breakfast of savory Dutch pancakes stuffed with Beemster cheese, made locally, of course. Canals wind through the village, crossed by bridges that beg me to stop and take pictures. Ornate façades mark the former homes of merchants — the upper crust of Alkmaar society when the town was a thriving trading destination. Today, the town has a healthy shopping area along Langestraat and Laat streets. along with dozens of restaurants and cafes. There's even a miniature "red light district" down one side street.

A small barge laden with cheese floats down a canal in Alkmaar.

This ornate building in Alkmaar likely was once the home of a wealth merchant.

We arrive at a large church just before an organ concert begins and decide to give our feet a rest for a bit and enjoy the music. Grote Sint Laurenskerk, or Grote Kerk, was built in the 15th to 16th centuries on a site of a couple of older churches dating back as far as the year 600. Until 1572 the church was Roman-Catholic, but became Protestant after the Reformation and remained so until 1996. Now it is a multi-purpose facility. The church's decor is simple, but its two organs are the building's main attractions. The smaller one, built in 1511, is the oldest playable organ in the Netherlands. The "Great Organ" was built by Van Hagerbeer and his sons in 1640. Its case was designed by architect Jacob van Campen, who also designed the Royal Palace in Amsterdam. The case has shutters which can be closed to reveal a painting of David and Goliath by Alkmaar artist Caesar van Everdingen.

The "Great Organ" at Grote Kerk in Alkmaar

After getting our culture on at the classical music concert, we head out to find Molen van Piet, Alkmaar's last old-style windmill. Unfortunately, like most windmills around here, it is not open to the public.

Molen van Piet in Alkmaar

By early afternoon, we are back on the train to Amsterdam where, after several days of rain, the skies are clearing.

The tower of Alkmaar's weigh house (Waaggebouw)
dominates the village's skyline.

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