North Holland’s medieval cheese capital
TEXT: ANDREW BERGMAN | PHOTOS: ED VAN DE POL – ALKMAAR MARKETING
Ever since Alkmaar was relieved by William of Orange from the Spanish siege in 1573 (a pivotal point in the 80 Years’ War which would embolden the Dutch rebellion against Habsburg domination and ultimately lead to the ‘birth’ of the Netherlands), the call “Victory begins at Alkmaar” has resounded on the streets of this historic walled city in the province of North Holland.
Though settled around the 9th century, Alkmaar was first granted city rights in 1254 by Count William II. To this day, the city has managed to beautifully preserve its medieval character. The original bastioned walls and surrounding moat run through public parkland, impeccably landscaped in the Dutch horticultural tradition, and can still be traversed almost entirely on foot, by bicycle (for hire at the Central Station), in a hired electric sloop, or as part of a scenic cruise in an open boat, which also follows a meandering route through the city’s picturesque canals.
Over the last four centuries, Alkmaar has become a hub for the world-renowned North Holland cheese industry, with its epicentre at the Waag weighing station, housed in a former church with an imposing tower complete with carillon.
Explore the historic cheese market
The famous cheese market takes place on the adjacent Waagplein (square) and is held from 10am to 1pm every Friday, from April to September. Following traditions traceable to the late-1500s, teams from the Cheese Bearers Guild, wearing distinctive straw hats, sling barrows carrying up to 130 kilogrammes (287 pounds) of cheese and trot from the square (where the cheese is graded by experts and sold by consensual ‘Dutch auction’) to the giant scales (where they are certified by the Waagmeester, a custodian of the officially sanctioned standard weights). This makes Friday the best but also busiest day to visit Alkmaar, as the cheese theme spills over into stalls and markets in the old city. If weather permits and you’re lucky enough to find a spot, there’s always the option of watching the spectacle from the many terraces that line the square.
Should the cheese market leave you hungry for more, the Cheese Museum (housed on the second and third floor of the Waag building and open year-round) is a great place to learn about the history of cheese and the process of cheesemaking. The museum opened in 1983 and attracts upwards of 35,000 visitors annually. There are also plenty of opportunities to buy cheese at one of the nearby specialist cheese vendors.
Those who prefer less of a throng can admire Alkmaar’s rich history and picturesque architecture while enjoying a scenic canal cruise. There are even special cheese cruises departing from Waagplein on market day.
A pleasant shopping city
Alkmaar is renowned for its variety of shopping opportunities and has been ranked among the top ten Dutch shopping cities. The entire centre is a relaxed pedestrian zone, and there is ample parking within easy walking distance. The railway station is served by regular, reliable local and intercity train services. Shops where local farmers buy unvarnished Dutch clogs rub shoulders with top Dutch and international brands.
The main Langestraat shopping street runs past the ornate city hall, where heraldic lions emblazon the Alkmaar coat of arms depicting a castle in homage to its fortified past. At the western end of the street stands the imposing 15th-century Great, or St. Lawrence Church. It offers daily tours, routinely hosts music events and serves as a venue for temporary art and photo exhibitions. During the Friday cheese market, recitals on the renowned 17th-century organ can be heard at midday. Streets teeming with boutiques, specialist shops and small coffee houses link Langestraat with the parallel Laat and Gedempte Nieuwesloot. The city’s colourful weekly market is held on Gedempte Nieuwesloot and Hofplein, on Saturdays from 9am to 5pm.
To get the most out of a shopping trip to Alkmaar, visit the VVV Tourist Office and ask about one of the several themed shopping routes, such as the cheese route or the sustainable shopping route.
More than just cheese
Adding to Alkmaar’s significance as a trading centre, in the 1820s, part of the city’s former moat was incorporated into the Noordhollandsch Kanaal (North Holland Canal), giving it a place of prominence – as well as a still intact toll tower – on this important inland waterway linking Amsterdam with Den Helder and the bountiful surrounding farmland.
Those interested in learning more about the history of beer can visit the National Beer Museum, the Boom. Housed in an original brewery dating back to the 17th century, the museum shows artefacts, machinery and memorabilia tracing 200 years of Dutch brewing tradition. A visit can be rounded off with a sampling of some of the beers on offer at the museum’s tasting cellar, Proeflokaal De Boom.
Located just over half an hour’s drive or train ride from Amsterdam, Alkmaar offers an authentic Dutch experience. The visitor-friendly city is far less crowded than some better-trodden destinations in the Netherlands. Though there are a few small hotels in the city, the surrounding villages and popular beach resorts Egmond aan Zee and Bergen aan Zee offer everything from B&Bs to bungalow parks.
COMMEMORATING 450 YEARS OF LIBERATION
Marking 450 years since the city’s relief from the Spanish siege, which forever gave it pride of place in the history of the Netherlands, Alkmaar will be holding a programme of commemorative events until 8 October, when the anniversary year will culminate with the unveiling of a new stained-glass window in the Great, or St. Lawrence church. The Night of the Alckmaer Proms, billed as “a musical journey through time, from the late-16th century to the present”, will feature local and national artists.
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