Alkmaar is a beautiful old city of around 100,000 people, about 60km (or 30 minutes on the train) outside Amsterdam (north). The city has many canals and monuments and is known as the cheese city of the Netherlands.
And the people are called cheese heads.
Alkmaar has many medieval buildings that are still intact, most notably the windmill and the tall tower of the Grote (or Sint Laurenskerk) which has become a popular wedding venue. There is the beautiful old centre with plenty of monuments, nice shopping areas, cozy terraces, cafes and restaurants covering all price ranges.
For us though, it was the home of Michel and Sonja, a Dutch couple that we met and shared our Boodle Fight with back in the Philippines, so many months earlier.
Knowing we were coming to Amsterdam we organised to catch up with them, which we did in Amsterdam on our first day. During a wander and a chat they mentioned that on the weekend, their home town (Alkmaar) would host the Kaeskoppenstad (this will require a fairly detailed explanation – but more to follow).
So we hopped a train and headed to Alkmaar. Now Sonja was stuck at work (in the local Ice Cream shop) and worked until 6 pm. But Michel, Jill and I wandered the town and saw the sights until we found ourselves in the heart of town at an ice cream shop, by the canal, with a line 20 deep and out the door. So we waved at Sonja and sat by the canal drinking coffee and eating ice cream, having met the owner and her husband. The fun bit about this was the bell in the canal that allowed boats to have service without having to get out and join the queue.
OK so about Kaeskoppenstad – During the 1500s the Spanish controlled the area and the Dutch locals resisted. This resulted in the 80 years war between the Spanish Empire and some random groups within the Habsburg, Netherlands. The siege of Alkmaar (1573) was a critical turning point in the war as Alkmaar was the first city to withstand a siege by the Spanish army. This gave rise to the expression Bij Alkmaar begint de victorie (“Victory begins at Alkmaar”). The burghers of Alkmaar held off the Spanish, for six weeks, with boiling tar and burning branches from their city walls.
To celebrate this every year the Kaeskoppenstad takes place. The official blurb says it “takes you on an unforgettable journey into the history of the city of Alkmaar. During the weekend the people dress up and reflect on what life would have been like back in sixteenth century shortly after the liberation of Alkmaar in 1573”. During the event, hundreds of volunteers and actors dress up and show what life in the city was like 450 years ago. And we were here at the right time.
The place was buzzing, there were people everywhere and the atmosphere was fantastic. While it was a huge festival, it had not turned into a big commercial rip-off. There were a few places selling some basics, but for the most part it was about the dress up and the celebration.
Back to the ice cream. As we had our ice cream the owner’s husband (Fons) had a little boat that he was using to restock their tiny ice cream stall inside the festival. He had hand-built a well (that housed a chest freezer) and they were selling ice creams out of this. So Fons spent his day doing laps of the canals in his little boat, topping up the stall of things that they ran out of (ice cream, napkins etc).
As they were locals, they did not think that they (and we by extension) should have to pay the 4 euro admission to the festival. So we hopped on Fons’ boat and did a restock lap and then got ferried in and dropped off at the well, inside the gates.
The bridges over the canals in Alkmaar are short, some of them very short, in fact only a few feet above the waterline. So as we did our lap, Jill and Michel were forced to duck down and at times almost laying flat to get under the bridges. While at the same time, I ended up sitting on the floor of the boat.
From here we wandered and explored all of the silliness that took place. This included lepers, apothecaries, magicians, laundry, medieval toilets, a wooden submarine, health care, a casino. And what turned out to be our favourite was the human slot machine. This is 3 people side by side with a basket of fruit on their lap and at the appropriate time, they all pull out a random piece of fruit. If they match, you win a prize (a piece of cheese).
After we had done our lap we headed back to Michel and Sonja’s place for a beer and a chat, while Sonja kept slaving away with an ice cream line that never seemed to get smaller. About half an hour after the festival finished, Michael called Fons to see if he needed a hand in dismantling the well (which he did). So we wandered back and spent the next 30 mins or so pulling down and packing away the well.
Sonja finished work as we were finishing this, so back to their place for dinner and more chatting. All had gone swimmingly and a great day was had by all (even Sonja who had worked all day – I guess loving your job makes it easy). However comment was passed as to the bell by the canal. Apparently after a long day working in a busy place, the sound of the bell wore a little thin and mildly annoyed some people.
Sonja dropped us at the train station for our ride back to Amsterdam. Unfortunately, this is where the wheels fell off.
Due to a fault at Amsterdam Central, no trains could enter. So we were stopped about 16km outside of Amsterdam while we waited. When our train started, it was heading in the wrong direction (no announcements in English). So we got off at the next station, got a train back to where we had just left, and walked to a bus stop (to find 3 train loads of people all trying to get a bus to Central). No extra buses were put on, and train tickets were not valid on the bus.
After the crush of missing the first bus, we got on the next bus that we could taking us in the general direction of Amsterdam. From here we found a different train that took us nearer to our hotel and walked back from as close as we could reasonably muster. We finally got home around midnight, with a story to tell.