Alkmaar is a Grand Dame of a city at 750 years old, with 100,000 inhabitants, and is known as the Netherlands Cheese City. It can be reached in just over half an hour from Amsterdam Central Station by intercity train.
The main attraction is the cheese market which starts at 10.00am until 12.30pm from the first Friday in April until the first Friday in September. During this time the market place is full of enormous cheeses being bought and sold, a yearly occurrence that has been going on for the last 600 years.
The cheeses are sold by a method called, ‘handjeklap’ (literally ‘hand clap’), a traditional selling method in the Netherlands amongst farmers where the seller and the buyer clap each other on the palm of the hand, whilst speaking a secret language. This means that they are in the middle of ‘doing business’. When the clapping stops it means that one has decided that the transaction is finished. The cheeses are then removed after weighing in the ‘Waag’ (the Weigh House), by ‘cheese porters’. Dressed in white uniforms and straw hats with coloured ribbons, these men are members of a 400 year old Cheese Carriers Guild. They use ‘berries’, a sort of sleigh contraption which helps to lift the heavy cheeses by the use of a strap system round the shoulders of the bearers. The cheese museum can be found in the Waaggebouw (Waag building) a 14th century building, which has all the information about dairy production.
From the historical point of view Alkmaar has about 400 monuments including the 16th century Town Hall and the Grote St. Laurenskerk. The latter is built in the Brabant-Gothic style (like French Gothic, but with a more ornate exterior) and contains a world famous organ. There is also a Dutch Renaissance house, as well as numerous other churches, small estates and buildings with marvelous facades some being a couple of hundred years old and dating back to 1573, when Alkmaar became the first city in the Netherlands to beat the Spanish army.
Being the largest city in the region Alkmaar is popular as the social centre and offers a broad diversity of restaurants, cafés, theatres and museums.
© Alison Day
First published in the Connections magazine #11 Spring 2006,