This post is the opposite of all the other stories in many ways: it is not about exploring new places, but about sharing the old. And it is not for my mum, but for all my foreign friends. It is about my home region: the North-West of Holland (or the Netherlands – see video below). I do not see why travelling home should not count as travelling, and why home should be less interesting than any other place.
Lets’ start with Alkmaar. This is not where I am from, and if you are taking a day out of Amsterdam I recommend you go to Bergen aan Zee rather than the city, but, it has a good story anyway.
Alkmaar was granted city rights in 1254, and it is well-known for enduring a harsh siege by the Spanish in 1573, during the Eighty Years’ War (yes I did pay attention in school). The people managed to get a message for help out of the city, and William of Orange gave the order open the floodgates of the dykes and flood the region. You have to appreciate Dutch geography. It was a turning point in the whole war, and called for the expression “Victory begins at Alkmaar”. The day the siege ended, October 8, is still celebrated annually.
Nowadays, Alkmaar is most famous for its cheesemarket. Not many of these are still going; I am pretty sure there’s only four or five left. The cheesemarket in Alkmaar was introduced around the end of the 16th century or start of the 17th century. It takes place at the Waagplein (“weighing square”), between April and September. Today it is primarily a tourist attraction though. I think, although I have never been, Gouda is the most authentic one that remains.
One of the things I never realised I would miss about Holland is the food. We are not particularly well-known for our mouthwatering and exotic cuisine. Most Dutch food consists of potatoes mashed together with some sort of vegetable. But I do miss proper dark syrup on thick pancakes, I miss being able to buy crispy, crusty brown bread in the supermarket, and I miss the selection of delicious and affordable cheese any Dutch store will have.
First, I have to talk about mayonnaise a little. What we eat in Holland has a very different flavour for mayonaise traditionally provided in other countries (such as the UK). It is not easy to explain this difference. I took to Google, but accurate descriptions are lacking. Plus there is a big debate going on whether to call this substance mayonaise or ‘frietsaus’ to begin with. Anyway – what we eat is thick, very creamy, and a little sweet. It is not thin, vinegary-y or sour. Oh it is not healthy; you should not get a diet version, like diet-coke. It is nearly impossible to find the exact ingredients online however, so you will just have to go to Holland and try it.
There is another funny thing: ‘vla’. To the English (and others?) ‘vla’ might look a little bit like custard. In Dutch, the word first turns up in the 13th century. Originally it was used to indicate a large, flat biscuit/pastry, but in Holland this was either topped or filled, and eventually the Dutch just referred to this filling, which they then ate without any pastry involved. We have it for dessert quite a lot, like a less healthy version of yoghurt. Or, since we are comparing to yoghurt anyway… it can also be eaten for breakfast. Why not.
P.S. The Netherlands does struggle with overweight people. But because everyone cycles everywhere it is not as bad as the UK just yet.
On the subject of cycling everywhere: I was told that my local dyke had undergone some sort of astounding transformation, so we decided to cycle over and have a look. The ‘Hondsbossche Zeewering‘ (haha have fun saying it out loud) is the 5.5 km long structure that makes sure my house can exist below sea-level while my village experiences less flooding than the average British town.
In 1421 the St Elizabeth’s Flood washed over most of the Netherlands. It was one of the worst floods in history. Some villages were swallowed whole, and it is estimated around 10 000 people lost their lives. We re-claimed some of the land of course, but the dunes kept eroding and moving back, and by the 16th century a new plan was called for. A new line of defence consisting of poles and dams was constructed against the water. An extra dyke was added too: a ‘sleeper’ dyke. This kind of dyke does not normally face water, but serves as a backup if a “front-line” dyke in front of it breaks. And just for good measure, the sleeping dyke got a back-up dyke too, known as the ‘dreamer’ dyke. However, the main dyke was once again swept away in the 1570 All Saints’ Flood. The whole island of ‘Bosch’ disappeared, several towns ‘drowned’, and a whole lot of farmland vanished. Thanks to the back-up dykes though, the rest of the country kept its feet dry. But, was difficult to maintain the poles and dams, and the coastline began moving eastward again.
Serious measures resulted in what I see as a dyke fortress. The current construction has been there since the 1880s but it is constantly getting renewed, heightened, etc. Including this year. Twenty million (yes 20 million) cubic meters of sand were sprayed onto the dyke in 2015, adding about 400 football-fields of land to the coast. It should withstand storms of the very worst category (occurring only once every 10 000 years). Not to mention the sand is a very environmentally friendly solution. It created beautiful dunes, grass and plants. It is good for the wildlife, it is nice for the tourists. It is a seriously incredibly sight to behold.