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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 between 10 a.m and 3 p.m., from late March until early September. In recent years, there's also been an evening cheese market on Tuesdays.

Tour groups arrive early, so try to be at the market 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

Alkmaar Cheese Market
Learn about the cheeses, the market, and the town (including dates and times for the Cheese Market itself).

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

For information on other towns and sights between the North Sea and IJsselmeer, visit the VVV Heart of North 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.

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."

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 Grote Kerk Alkmaar Web site and see the agenda pages for news of free "Kaasmarkt orgelconcert" performances.

Alkmaar Canal Cruises
Boat tours of 45 minutes depart from the Mient, near the Cheese Market, from April through October. (You'll need to duck down to clear the 22 bridges along the route.) The exact schedule depends on the season and weather.

Shopping

Boom
This shop at Huigbrouwerstraat 3 has been family-owned since 1835. and the current proprietor--a lady named Bernadette--has run the store since 1982. She and her staff offer clogs, brushes, and other traditional Dutch items here and at a stall in the Cheese Market where you can take a photo in a giant pair of wooden shoes. (Boom also ships to addresses worldwide.)

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

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

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.