Have I mentioned that the Netherlands is one of my favorite countries in Europe? 

I like it more and more every time we go there.  After visiting 36 European countries, I think I’d still choose the Netherlands as the country I’d live in if I was going to live in Europe permanently.

Our latest visit took place over the long Memorial Day weekend and we spent 4 nights in the city of Leiden.  We spent only one day exploring Leiden itself and used it as a base for visiting other locations on the remaining days.

We stayed at an Ibis hotel right across from the central train station.  Ibis hotels are part of the Accor chain and we have stayed in several of their other brands including Mercure, Novotel and Sofitel.  Our experience has been that Accor hotels are usually centrally located, clean and convenient with helpful and friendly staff.  Oh, and free Wi-Fi!  The Ibis in Leiden was no exception.  Another bonus was that we drove to Leiden and the Ibis has a parking lot behind it.  Parking can be difficult in the Netherlands so that was a definite plus. (All opinions posted here are our own. We did not receive anything from the Ibis or Accor chain of hotels for saying we liked their hotel.)

We arrived in Leiden late Thursday night, checked into the hotel and crashed for the night.

We got up Friday morning and drove to the town of Alkmaar, a little less than an hour away. 

Because parking and driving can be a hassle in the Netherlands, they make it easy for you to take public transportation.  We parked in a no-fee lot just outside of town.  Not only was it free to park, but there is a machine in the lot where you can obtain a free round-trip bus ticket to use for up to 5 people.  We got our ticket and hopped on the bus.

We actually didn’t really know where to get off and thought we’d just go to the train station and figure things out from there.  Well, one of the things I love about the Netherlands is how nice and friendly everyone is.  After just a couple of stops, a woman getting off the bus asked if we were going to the cheese market (we were) and told us to get off where she was getting off.  She then pointed us in the right direction.  I guess it was obvious that we were tourists.

So, as I just mentioned, the reason for our visit to Alkmaar was to go to the cheese market.

Yes, those are giant wheels of cheese behind the Dutch girl.  Mmmmm, cheese.  

The cheese market in Alkmaar takes place every Friday from April through September.  It’s basically a reenactment for tourists of how the cheese markets were traditionally held hundreds of years ago, but if you don’t mind doing cheesy touristy things (we don’t and yes, pun intended) it’s an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.  Plus the town of Alkmaar is worth a visit on its own.

The proceedings are explained in 4 languages: Dutch, English, German and French.  It was one woman doing the whole presentation so she’s fluent in at least 4 languages, which always makes me feel kind stupid.

These two guys were showing how they used to test the cheese at the market.

The guy in the white coat was sort of tapping on the wheels of cheese.  I guess good cheese has a certain sound and feel to it.  The other guy use that little tool in his hand to bore into the cheese and take samples. 

Speaking of samples, yes – they handed out samples at the market!

Mmmmm, cheese.  

These two guys were two of many who were showing how the cheese was bought, weighed and delivered.

Once the cheese was thumped, smelled and tasted and the buyer made a purchase, these guys would load the cheese up onto that sleigh-looking thing.  They’d put the leather straps on their shoulders and run (yes, they really ran) to the Weighing House to weigh the cheese.  Once the weight was confirmed for accurate pricing, they’d run the cheese over to the buyer’s wagon or whatever other vehicle (sometimes a boat on the canal) was being used to load the cheese up for transporting.

You can see in the photo that the cheese is labeled as Gouda.  That was the specialty at the market the day we went.  Apparently it was extra special that day because it was the first batch of cheese made from cows who were milked after eating grass and stuff outside vs. cows who were eating grains and stuff inside all winter. 

A few lucky people even got rides on the cheese sleigh!

Oh, and those guys carrying the cheese actually belong to the Cheese Carrier Guild.  It’s supposedly the oldest trade guild in the world still in existence.

The tourist information (TI) office was located in the Weighing House, as was the Dutch Cheese Museum.  After watching the market presentation for a whilewe went into the TI to pick up a walking tour map.

That guy was in there cutting the cheese.

Yes, we’re juvenile. You could taste cheese here too and it was yummy.  Mmmmm, cheese.

In addition to the Dutch Cheese Museum, Alkmaar also has a Beer Museum and a Beatles Museum.  The Beatles connection is that John Lennon’s first guitar was made in Alkmaar.  We didn’t go into any of the museums but if you’re into beer, cheese and/or The Beatles then Alkmaar might interest you.

Another thing I like about the Netherlands is they have the best French fries ever (sorry, Belgium!).

Although we didn’t get fries (Friet in Dutch) from this stand because we’d already had lunch, check out the sign.  You can get a KILO of fries at this place for 12 Euro!  That’s 2.2 POUNDS of fries.  Mmmmm, fries.

Of course Alkmaar has canals like most places in the Netherlands.

Take a closer look at that house.  Notice the red curtains?  That row of houses is in Alkmaar’s Red Light District.

The building you see across the canal here is the Weighing House where the cheese gets weighed.

This guy was brave enough to let himself be photographed standing in a giant pair of clogs.

This building was a synagogue from 1808 to 1942.

Before that, from 1581 to 1595, it was the home of Cornelis Drebbel.  Among other things, he invented both the mercury thermometer and the first navigable submarine.

Here you see the courtyard of a former almshouse.

Almshouses were charitable housing units that were available to the elderly, widowed, poor and/or sick who usually lived there free of charge.  In exchange they normally had to adhere to strict rules.  For example, residents of some almshouses had to agree to be celibate.  Almshouses were very common in the Netherlands and in fact we did an entire walking tour of them during our visit to Utrecht.  (LINK) Many of them are now private residences, but some still serve as charitable housing. Anyone can walk into the courtyards if the gate is open but they do ask you to be considerate of the residents.

Of course no town in the Netherlands would be complete without a windmill.

That one is called the Mill of Piet, named after the Piet family.  There was originally a wooden mill on this site, but it was replaced by this stone mill in 1769.  It served as a grain mill.

Here you see one of the oldest stone houses in Alkmaar.

It dates from 1540.  You can see the window on the left has a shutter on the bottom of it.  This used to serve as sort of a shelf in houses like this.  Merchants would sell their wares from their homes and display them on these shelves. 

Our next stop was the Great St. Lawrence Church. 

I thought that was an odd little picture to display in a church but hey, it’s the Netherlands.  Anything goes.  Actually, the church does not function as a church anymore, so it’s okay.  The building now hosts things like concerts and art exhibitions.

The church was originally built between 1470 and around 1520.  I wish we’d had more time in Alkmaar to visit it.  There was a brochure with 28 different things to check out in the church, but honestly by the time we got there I wasn’t in the mood to spend another hour looking for all 28 things.

When we first picked up the brochure, we sat down to take a look at it.

See all those empty seats around Sean?  There were many, many more just like them in the immediate vicinity.  We do not know that couple sitting next to Sean.  Of all the rows upon rows upon rows of empty seats, they chose to sit right next to him.  He smiled for the photo but a second before that, the look on his face was one of utter disbelief.  It doesn’t even surprise me anymore.  I just assume that wherever we sit or stand, the next humans to come along will sit or stand right next to us regardless of how much other empty space there is.  It must be our magnetic personalities.

One of the biggest  attraction in the church is this organ.

Apparently they hold organ competitions in the church and players come from all over the world to compete.

There are about 1,700 gravestones in the church.

I thought it was cool that this one, which looks like it dates from 1627, has a windmill on it.

This is what’s known as a clerestory window.

Clerestory windows are high windows in church walls that are above the roofline of lower aisles.  These clerestory windows, measuring 22 meters (over 72 feet), are the highest in mainland Europe.

Here you see the stairway of the City Hall.

The building is not open to visitors, but it has an interesting little history.  See those two windows on either side of the little door at ground level?  Prisoners used to be housed behind those windows, with those on death row behind the window on the left.  Public executions took place twice a year behind City Hall and children got an hour off school for the special occasion.  When I was a kid I would have loved an hour off school, but probably not if it meant I had to watch people being hanged and decapitated and things along those lines.  The Netherlands did away with the death penalty in 1870.

Of course we had to stop in a cheese store before leaving Alkmaar.

Mmmmm.  Cheese.

This display was outside the cheese store.

It’s supposed to represent one of the Cheese Carriers you saw earlier, but Sean said it just looked like a guy doing something pervy to a pile o’ cheese.  Well, that’s not what he said exactly but you can use your imagination.

Before leaving town we had an early dinner and I, of course, had a pizza.

I was very impressed that I got my own little pizza cutter with it.  Yes, it’s the small things in life that impress me.  (There was a plant on the table, so what you’re seeing on the right side of the pizza cutter is the reflection of the plant.)

One thing that surprised me about Alkmaar is that it is not twinned with any cities in Wisconsin.  People in Alkmaar are sometimes referred to as cheese heads because at one point they wore helmets for defensive purposes.  The helmets were actually cheese molds.  Cheese heads is also a term for Wisconsinites but alas, Alkmaar is not twinned with any of their cities.

Check back soon for posts about the rest of our long weekend in the Leiden area.

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