How incredibly apt, eh, that the one event that might easily win the ‘cheesiest spectacle award’ in Holland involves hundreds of great, big golden-yellow discs of cheese?!
If there’s one thing you often read about the celebrated Cheese Market at Alkmaar (in the north of Holland), it’s this — it gets very, very crowded there. ‘Go early if you want to film the action’; ‘go before the tour buses arrive’; ‘get there before sunrise if you want to see something besides other people’s heads’… But, foolishly, considering ourselves experts in negotiating crowds, we took the advice lightly. And, as a result, we have several pictures of other people’s heads, the square with more than half-the-cheese gone, and two shiny blue-black bruises on my shin. Who ever thought that tall men in quaint costumes, hauling lumps of cheese across a square would draw such a whopping crowd?
The Cheese Market at Alkmaar — a regular event at the Waagplein (weighing square, literally) since 1593 — wasn’t always a touristy spectacle. Traditionally, proper business used to be transacted here, and cheese from the surrounding areas was bought and sold in this venerable, majestic square. Of late though, it’s more of a show that panders to tourists, although, to be fair, it retains all the charming old customs and costumes, besides some pleasant additions, like the Cheesemaids (Dutch girls dressed in traditional costumes to promote the cheese) And so, every Friday, from April to September, the Waagplein plays host to bus and trainloads of tourists, who arrive long before the bell (announcing the opening of the market) is rung!
By the time we arrived — rather shamefully late — much of the almost 30,000 kg of Gouda and Edam cheese, displayed in neat, long rows in the roped-in square, had been sniffed, prodded, weighed, symbolically traded and ceremoniously carted off. But thankfully, since the market goes on until half past 12, there still remained a few hundred discs of cheese, sitting pretty in their protective, shiny rinds. With the stately, towering Waaggebouw (weighing house) as the backdrop, the bustling square, dotted with mounds of golden-yellow cheese, simply begged to be photographed; the trouble was getting past fellow tourists, standing at-least six-deep, all around!
In the midst of all that cheese-n-grandeur, the ‘cheese carriers’, working in tandem, were busy carrying the sold-cheese to the weighing house, and after the official weighing, to the buyer’s truck. In spotless white coordinates and colourful hats, with a brightly-painted wooden barrow suspended between them, each team effortlessly carried 8 of those enormous cheeses all around the square! Obviously, what they did came with practice, plenty of it; and they walked, we were told, with a peculiar rhythm (the ‘dribble’), which, while slightly comical, was actually the only way to ensure the heavy barrow kept still. To say they were big hits is stating it mildly… their progress across the square was eagerly followed by the shutterbugs, and when they took up spectators on the barrow for a turn about the square, they were wildly cheered! Not surprising, is it, that when the carillon musically announced the end of the day’s business/play shortly after noon, it was a very pleased crowd that went home…saying cheese?!
Alkmaar lies to the north of Amsterdam, and can easily be reached by direct trains from the capital city (returns, adults, 2nd class – €12.70; 40 minutes one-way). From Alkmaar train-station, just follow the directions to the ‘Cheese Market’, about 10 minutes by foot; entrance free.
There are also half-day coach trips from Amsterdam (€32). However, if you choose the cheaper train option, you could spend the difference on lovely boat-trips around Alkmaar (€6), feasting on delightfully plump, sugary ‘poffertjes’ (baby pancakes, with toppings, €3.5) and of course, the delectable Cheese (choose from Gouda, Edam, young, old, plain, flavoured…) from the nearby stalls.
The market functions every Friday, from the first one in April, until the first Friday in September, between 10 a.m. and 12.30 a.m.
Each market-day, nearly 2200 cheese-discs (each weighing a hefty 13.5 kilos!) are on display.
And don’t forget, go early, if you want to catch all the action! It’s cheesy, yes, but such delicious fun!