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Alkmaar Cheese Market

Alkmaar cheese market photo

ABOVE: Costumes are de rigueur at the weekly Alkmaar Cheese Market. INSET BELOW: A cheese expert takes a core sample, and cheeses await weighing at the Waag (which also houses the Alkmaar Tourist Office and the Dutch Cheese Museum)

photoWhat do you call a group of dairy longshoremen who put on white uniforms, don straw hats with colored ribbons, and carry wheels of cheese to and from a 14th Century weighhouse on wooden barrows suspended from their shoulders?

In Alkmaar, they're referred to as "cheese porters" (or the Dutch equivalent), and members of their various guilds have been helping to bring cheese buyers and sellers together for at least 600 years.

Today's Alkmaar Cheese Market is more show than substance, if only because Dutch cheesemaking has been a mass-market industrial operation since the 1960s. In The Cheese Primer, Steven Jenkins says of Edam and Gouda cheese:

"These days the manufacture of both cheeses is on such a vast scale that their individual merits have become completely blurred and they are now virtually interchangeable. The cheeses for export share identical, uncomplicated recipes, save the fact that Edam is made from partially skimmed milk whereas Gouda is always made from whole milk. Their minimal aging periods of about two months under identical conditions further serve to negate any detectable differences between them."

photoSo much for tradition. Still, the Alkmaar Cheese Market remains a popular tourist spectacle, even if the real wheeling and dealing takes place among the big cheeses at the corporate level. And there's plenty to do in Alkmaar after you've watched the cheese porters do their Friday-morning ballet at the Waag, or weighhouse. (For descriptions of museums, the great 18th Century organ in the Laurenskerk, and other Aalkmar attractions, see the Web links below.)

Cheese Market: Where and when

The Alkmaar Cheese Market takes place in Alkmaar's main square every Friday at 10 a.m., from early April to early September. Tour groups arrive early, so try to be there between 9:00 and 9:30 a.m.--especially if you're intent on photographing the action.

How to Reach Alkmaar

Alkmaar is just over half an hour from Amsterdam Central Station by intercity train. For more information, see the Netherland Railways journey planner in English.

By car, Alkmaar is 37.6 km or 23.5 miles from Amsterdam. For road directions, pick up a good map and go over it with your hotel concierge.

Another option is a group sightseeing tour, which you can book through a travel agency or your hotel.

Web links:

Alkmaar Holland cheese auction

ABOVE: A cheese buyer and seller exchange a High Five.

General tourist information

VVV Alkmaar
The official Alkmaar tourism site has up-to-date visitor information, events listings, and more in Dutch and English. Also see The Alkmaar Cheese Market pages.

For information on other towns and sights "between Northsea and IJsselmeer," visit Peninsula Holland.

Museums and attractions

Dutch Cheese Museum
The Alkmaar Weighhouse dates back to the 14th Century. Today it houses a museum of antique dairy equipment, along with displays that show traditional and modern cheesemaking techniques.

Alkmaar Municipal Museum
The town's historical museum is located in a 17th Century militia armory. Paintings make up the bulk of the collection, but the attic rooms show how Dutch children lived, learned, and played in 1900. (The Stedelijkmuseum is daily except Mondays, Christmas, New Year's Day, and the King's Day in late April.)

National Beer Museum "de Boom"
A former brewery houses this museum, where you can see exhibits about the history of beer and have a glass in the Proeflokaal
"De Boom". The museum is open Tuesday  through Saturday from 1 - 4 pm; during the Cheese Market season, it opens early, at 10 a.m.

Laurenskerk Organ
If you prefer church music to cheese, forget the Kaasmarkt: Alkmaar's renowned Hagerbeer/Schnitger organ in the Laurenskerk is the city's premier attraction, at least for visitors who enjoy world-class keyboard music. For more information on the church, visit the Dutch-language Grote Sint Laurenskerk Web site. Organ concerts usually take place on Fridays during the Cheese Market season.

Alkmaar Canal Cruises
Forty-minute boat tours depart from the Mient, near the Cheese Market, from April through October. The schedule depends on the season and weather, with hourly or half-hourly departures from 11 a.m. daily (May - September) or Monday through Saturday (April and October).

Shopping

Jos Steeman Alkmaar
After you've bought a pallet's worth of cheese or other goods, turn to this packing, shipping, and air-cargo company for help in getting your purchase home.

World Sex Guide: Alkmaar
And you thought there wasn't anything to buy in Alkmaar except cheese and candy.

If you're headed for Amsterdam, also see:

Amsterdam Web Guide europeforvisitors.com
Our 29-page Web guide has links to Amsterdam hotels, apartments, restaurants, museums, coffeehouses, entertainment listings, local transportation information, and more.

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Photo (c) iStockphoto.com/Arosoft

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