Saturday, August 7, 2010

Whine and Cheese: A Brief Visit to the Alkmaar Market

Ok, so things don’t always go according to plan. I broke one of my cardinal rules for traveling with children: avoid all places where the kids are forced to stand still.

In my defense, I had no way of knowing. It all started out with the best of intentions....

The city of Alkmaar is famous for cheese.

On Friday mornings during the summer, this medieval city holds a traditional cheese market. There has been a cheese market here on this square just like this one every summer since 1693.

In the market square, 28 tons of farm cheese wheels are laid out in front of the Waag, the weighing house. Buyer, seller, and exporter meet to inspect and taste the cheese. A group of lab coat clad gentlemen, the inspectors, core random wheels of cheese and assess it for taste, texture, color, and fat content. This is good work if you can get it.

The whole transaction is done in the tradtional Dutch style; the buyer and seller even rhythmically slap hands to negotiate the price of the cheese.

The very best part is the cheese porters. These twenty-eight men carry the cheese to and from the weigh house on beautiful colored curved stretchers. Wearing special uniforms of white with colored hats representing their guild, they run with a special loping gate to accommodate the weight of the cheese and the shape of the stretcher. The whole plein is a flurry of movement and color: the bright yellow cheese, the men in white with their colored hats, and the colored stretchers all moving among the rows of cheese wheels around the plein.

Ah, yes, certainly worth a visit. But what they don’t tell you about in the guide books is the crushing crowd. News to my ex-pat ears, the Alkmaar Cheese Market is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Holland. The tour busses full of persons from every corner of Europe descended on the Waagplein like locust. We got there early and had a lovely spot at the edge of the square. I had brought a small picnic blanket for the kids to sit on as they watched. We had a backpack full of snacks. But the crush of the crowd became too great. The kids could no longer move. We patiently waited the hour until the market started, but by then the crowd was twelve deep. The children began to whine.

I don’t know about your family, but when the whining starts here things go bad in a hurry. Mom and Dad start by cajoling, move on to bribery, and finish with threats. None of these measures can stop the inevitable descent into anarchy.

After 10 minutes of watching the proceedings, the kids had had enough. We stayed for an additional 30 minutes because I really wanted to see the porters do their porting thing. But at such a cost!

To the joy of the people trying to take pictures over our shoulders, we left the Waagplein and searched for another distraction in the city. It was too late though, the damage had been done. The sulkiest child was unable to pull out of his tail spin of darkness. We had a quick lunch on the edge of a canal and then headed back to the parking garage.

As we drove away, Walt and I considering which babysitters we could hire to watch the kids for the next outing, the sulky one cheered up considerably. When he lamented that he did not get to see the Alkmaar Bier Museum, I started to channel Miss Hannigan from the movie Annie. But my parenting skills are frequently challenged like this. It was time to think more about taking deep breaths.

Today we are laughing about the whole thing (ok, except the sulky one who got a punishment). We wonder what would have happened if we had brought along and released the field mouse we had recently caught in the kitchen. Or maybe a box full of mice?

In any case, we have some great pictures. Today we are off to the zoo: a destination with a much more reliable outcome.


  1. Thanks for your comment on my blog! I decided to come take a look at what you're sharing about too :-) I will add your blog to my list to follow, and I hope you're having a nice week!

  2. Great blog, I've added it to my reading list. I particularly like the idea the best way to travel with kids is to leave them at Grandma's on the way to the Airport!

  3. Hello! Just found your blog from Isabella's (Touch of Dutch) and have to say (having lived 5 years in Philly) that I miss the hell out of Wawa! When we lived in Virginia Beach, they had started to move down south but now that we're in Toledo, no such luck! What I wouldn't give for Wawa mac'n cheese and a pickle! lol

  4. Hello, thanks for visiting my blog. I like the way you describe your outings and have added you to my list of blogs.

  5. We went to Alkmaar last year - daughters came along, son was at daycare. It was fun and boy do I understand the chain of whine - bribe- (throat clearing) threat all too well....God help us

  6. I spent part of a summer in the NL in 1995 and my host family took me to see this as well...completely forgot until now. Wonder where my pictures are?