North Holland is windmill country, a landscape that inspired generations of Dutch masters as well as decades of paint by numbers sets.
It’s easy to see why on a day excursion from Avalon Waterways’ new port stop in the historic port of Enkhuizen on the Zuider Zee. Few river cruises ever stop in this part of Holland, that’s also the heart of tulip country, and now Avalon is adding it to several of its itineraries.
For our morning tour, we’re taking a leisurely trip along winding roads through picturesque fields of tulips in contrasting colors that stretch as far as the eye can see. It’s hard to imagine all this lush farm land was formerly a lake bed and is actually below sea level.
Avalon timed our visit on board the Avalon Vista to be able to experience a special event that happens only on Fridays in the spring and summer: the cheese auction in Alkmaar, Holland, a ritual that dates back to the 1500s.
Our group arrived by bus and filtered into the town square from one of Alkmaar’s ancient narrow lanes just as the opening bell rang at 10 a.m., just as it has since the market first opened in the 1500s. The cheese may not be sharp, but your elbows need to be if you want to get a good view of the auction action. We hadn’t expected the crowds the show attracts: thousands of tourists who got there ahead of us lined the square 10 deep. Rather than trying to hunt for a break in the crowd, the best way to move to the front is to stake out a place on the outside of the pack and keep moving forward as people in front move out.
The show is popular for good reason. The market action is like an opera played out on a square as big as a city block, filled with stacks of hundreds of heavy orange rounds of Gouda cheese that each weigh 25 pounds. The action has a long and busy cast of characters and a convoluted plot. Inspectors in lab coats go through a ritual that involves taking a small plug of cheese from one of the rounds in each stack, stretching the cheese and sampling its taste and texture to give it a grade.
Then the haggling begins as a buyer in a tan coat and seller dressed in white face off and start slapping each other’s hands each time they make a bid or counter offer. It makes rock paper scissors seem simple as the bidding can go on for several minutes until a handshake seals a price they can both accept. All this may seem like a lot of effort, but when you’re buying cheese by the wagon load a difference of a cent or two a pound can be significant.
Deal made, teams of cheese porters wearing white outfits and straw hats with colorful ribbons that identify their guild team burst out into a sing song as they tote the cheeses to the weigh scales while girls wering blue and white dresses and starched white caps cheer on the action. It’s all overseen by a “cheese father” who carries a black cane with a silver tip, who mediates disputes.
There’s also a guy carrying a big black “purse” to hold the money. Now days of course, they could use computers to make payments, but the scales in the market date back to the 1600s and the wooden wagons that haul the cheese to waiting trucks and boats are as ancient as the windmills as well. After all, why mess with a tradition that draws such enthusiastic crowds?
After a hot morning watching people running in circles carrying huge weights on their shoulders, and sampling tangy cheeses, you can build up a thirst. That’s probablly why a beer museum just up the street is a popular attraction as well. It’s in a working brewery that dates back to the 17th century and the tour demonstrates how beer is brewed.
But the highlight is the bar, that has 86 Dutch beers on tap. That’s my kind of museum.