Cheese with Everything

The Dutch love their cheese and nowhere was this more evident than in Alkmaar.

We dropped the van at a campsite on the outskirts of the the city, where the owner clearly knew the rules and put us next to another Westy, then cycled along well maintained cycle routes into the centre.

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It’s a medieval city, pretty and very lively. Narrow lanes bustle with people and the canal side cafes are full with shoppers and tourists.

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In the centre is a large market square, the Waagplein. Each Friday during the spring and summer it hosts a very special cheese market. It’s not a real cheese market in that you can’t actually buy the cheeses, but a tourist attraction showing how cheese was traded in days of old. It is an incredibly popular show and draws great crowds to the city. Cheeses are graded and weighed, transported on two man sleds. Barges bring the cheeses into market and traders exchange special handshakes to agree on a price. All the while the quality inspectors sample the produce, although in this show they share that role with the eager crowd.

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The market is a fun spectacle and it’s not really a problem that the cheeses are not for sale as Alkmaar has many cheese shops (and unsurprisingly a cheese museum). On Cheese Market Day, real cheese market stalls set up around the perimeter. Both shops and market stalls encourage you to ‘try before you buy’ the many different variations of cow, sheep and goat cheeses. Trying to decide which cheeses to buy is hard, but delicious work. Who knew that cheese and cumin was such a wonderful combination? Of course, if you tire of cheese (if that is indeed possible?) there are always alternatives, such as the chips with mayo or the pancakes…

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Venice of the North

Time for an admission of guilt. We broke Westfalia Law.

We pulled into the campsite on the outskirts of Giethoorn and found a nice little spot surrounded by bushes, not that we are antisocial or anything, it just looked like a nice spot and was furthest from the road. Fully settled in we wandered in the direction of the town and it was only then that we noticed them, a pair of Westfalias, next to each other as per Westfalia Law. We were criminals, outcasts. With our heads hung in shame we avoided eye contact and carried on towards town.

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Included in the international version of Monopoly, Giethoorn is also known as the Venice of the North, although they are not alone in laying a claim on that title. The older part of the village is car free, navigable only by canal or path. The narrow paths shared between pedestrians and cyclists and so tight is it in places that it’s a surprise not to see lifeguards on duty, ready to pluck a soggy cyclist or a floundering pedestrian from the depths.

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It’s clearly a popular place because it was the first time the VVV had charged us for a map, a map we could easily have lived without really – it’s a small place and easy to find your way around. Various canal boats tried to tempt us with cruises along the canals, but we opted to walk despite the dark clouds threatening rain.

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It was a pleasant afternoon’s wander around the canals, crossing the many bridges and being accosted by over confident ducks. We stopped for a coffee in a cafe that juts out into the adjacent lake and watched people pootle past in their boats for a while.

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We timed our return badly and got caught in the rain. Our only option was to shelter in a bar, a bar which was rather ironically decorated in car number plates.

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Heavens Above

In Franeker there is a planetarium. Many towns and cities have a planetarium and they’re very interesting places, showing us the heavens above and instilling the desire to be an astronaut in many a small child.

Franeker’s planetarium is different, more special. It’s the oldest functioning planetarium in the world. That it was constructed by a man who worked as a wool carder, turning bundles of fleece into workable yarns, makes it all the more remarkable.

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Back in 1770’s the general populous where having a bit of a panic. Many believed that a great conjunction of the stars would result in a heavenly star crash, a collision that would throw the Earth from its orbit and into a fiery death plunge towards the sun. It was a worry.

Eise Eisiger didn’t believe this would be the case and set out to show that come the 8th of May 1774, they’d be a few oohs and ahhs, but other than that, life would continue as normal. The model of the solar system that he created in his Franeker living room is absolutely fantastic and it’s not just for show, the collection of cogs, gears, levers and pendulums is incredibly accurate, with the planets orbiting the sun in real time.

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His model finishes at Saturn, which can be forgiven as this was the furthest of the planets known at the time. He didn’t stop at the planets though, adding various other chronological and astrological displays.

For all this genius, Eisiger didn’t foresee just how long his planetarium would remain in use and the date display does require a new set of years to be added every now and then.

By the Seaside, Not By the Sea

We were parked outside Roadhouse Checkpoint Charlie in the middle of the Houtribdijk, a 27 kilometre long dam that crossed what was once the Zuiderzee. Mrs TomTom was adamant that we were floating in the water and was being quite insistent that we got back on the N302 before Davey Jones claimed us for the locker.

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Our visit to the Zuiderzeemusem had taught us that in years gone by, life around the Zuiderzee had been a harsh one. Storms and flooding would reek havoc on the coastal communities. Rising sea levels and erosion of the peaty soil combined to make matters worse.

In 1932 the Afsluitdijk was completed, a 32 kilometre long dyke that cut the Zuiderzee off from the North Sea. The resulting lagoon was renamed IJsselmeer, Lake Ijssel. The dyke served to protect the communities that lived along its shores, although it killed off the fishing industry. In 1975 the more southerly Houtribdijk was completed and this was where we now sat. To the north east of us was the IJsselmeer and to the southwest the newly created Markermeer.

Both have roads crossing them and we thought it would be fun to cross them both, and take in some of the lovely old villages along the way. The guide book listed a few places that looked interesting. We wouldn’t have time for them all so we picked a couple at random.

Volendam was nice enough but very touristy with far too many trinket shops. In many ways it was like a little seaside town, except these days it’s lakeside. Like many popular places in the Netherlands, Volendam had a cheese shop masquerading as a museum. Cheese is incredibly important to the Dutch, eating considerably more than the european average. And it’s not surprising, their cheeses are excellent, not at all like the rubbery Dutch cheeses from the local supermarket at home. We stayed for the demonstration that was being run for a visiting bus tour and learned a little about cheese production. We may have purchased one or two cheeses as well. Possibly more.

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Markem was pretty too and much quieter. It was also mostly closed. We found a restaurant for lunch that offered views over the little harbour and braved an outside table despite the dark clouds on the horizon. Entertained by the sparrows who were trading cuteness for breadcrumbs, we watched the sky darken and thought about where to head next.

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With rain forecast for the next few days we were looking for something with a roof. With a destination in mind we headed north to cross the Afsluitdijk.

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The Kindness of Strangers

By another miracle of not really planning anything, our arrival in Enkhuizen coincided with a weekend of ‘open houses’, allowing access to buildings not usually open to the public.

We parked in the large marina carpark and negotiated with the machine for a camping ticket for the weekend before heading off to explore. It seemed a prosperous place, kris crossed by many canals and it was boats formed the lifeblood of the town. Large Dutch barges lined the marina and beautifully maintained steam tugs were moored on more protected quays. Modern yachts and motorboats filled all the remaining space on the water.

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We joined the queue heading into an unusual looking building. We weren’t sure what it was, but it had a nice clock tower and the bells were ringing in the belfry. Following the crowd up the narrow staircase we were rewarded with a cramped concert performed on the most unlikely looking of musical instruments. Ropes ran in all directions, linking keys to bells, all under control of a solitary musician. He played his contraption with gusto, earning a round of applause after each energetic rendition.

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During our afternoon’s wanderings we’d gained a couple of neighbours. The carpark had been busy with camper vans and motorhomes when we’d arrived, but there were more now and our quiet corner was not so quiet any more. On one side, another Westfalia (as is written in Westfalia law) and on the other an unusual and old Mercedes, inhabited by a hirsute old boy and his grandkids.

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He wondered if we might have some matches, he’d come away for the weekend without any, explaining that it was his late wife who’d always taken care of such things, but now forgetting things just added to the adventure.

We gave him a spare box of matches and chatted for a while, taking the opportunity to ask about the nearby Zuiderzeemuseum, a large open air museum on the far side of the bay dedicated to recording life around the Zuiderzee (the southern sea) in bygone times. He was incredibly enthusiastic about it, often taking his grandkids to visit the place.

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Later that evening, as we cooked our dinner there was a knock at the window. Our new friend was stood there with plates of freshly cooked pizzas for us. There was no question about it, what we had on the stove could be reheated after our visit to the museum tomorrow.

He was right about the museum, it was definitely worth visiting and we spent the whole day wandering around a world that no longer exists.

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