New York may be The Big Apple, and we live in an era of Big Data, but Gouda must be in the running for the title of The Big Cheese.
Bill Bryson once observed that tourists must feel disappointed when, emerging from the depths of London’s Underground, they first viewed Swiss Cottage. Only then discovering that there were no ski chalets constructed from Swiss cheese. As my train approached Gouda, I felt sure that I would be greeted by the sight of people picnicking in the streets on bits of cheese they had sliced from buildings. I must do something about my imagination.
While Gouda has given the world a renowned cheese, the good people of Gouda are remarkably restrained about pushing cheese-related merchandise on cliché overloaded tourists. Given the number of giant wooden clogs I’ve encountered in the last six weeks I fully expected an onslaught of cheesy nonsense. I was to be disappointed. It wasn’t until I went into the tourist information office that I was confronted with cheesy hard sell.
Mind you, this is the building with a mural of half naked, toga-wearing men weighing cheese over the entrance. I did wonder if I was about to be introduced to some cheese-themed sex party…just toss your car keys into the hollowed-out Gouda and collect some clogs on the way upstairs. Notably absent from the mural of cheese weighing are women; it was the women who traditionally made the cheese, after all.
For a dose of cheesy kitsch you need to visit on Thursday morning when the traditional cheese market is held in the central square. This event has been going on for centuries, and people wear traditional clothing and big rounds of wax-coated cheese fill the square.
Gouda, like Delft, is an archetypal Dutch town. There are lovely canals lined with beautiful historic buildings and a large central square with a delightfully overwrought City Hall at its centre; there are good cafes and restaurants, and there are even a couple of fabulous windmills for added authenticity. Gouda isn’t as picturesque or polished as Delft, it feels a little ‘grittier’, but walking its quiet streets in the early Sunday morning sunlight was wonderful.
Reading about Gouda’s history, I felt fortunate that there was a town to explore. Destroyed by fire in the 14th and 15th Centuries; the population was decimated by repeated outbreaks of plague, which occurred with unnerving regularity until the end of the 17th Century; it has been occupied by invading armies (although escaped serious damage during the Second World War); from the mid-18th Century onwards its economy slowly collapsed until, by the 19th Century, it had become one of the poorest cities in the country.
That trend has been reversed and today the town has a prosperous feel. Periods of economic success – built on trade in linen, clay tobacco pipes and cheese – have bequeathed the city a wealth of fabulous architecture. The extraordinary Stadhuis (City Hall), the nearby Waag (the cheese weighing building) and the glorious (but closed when I was there) St. Janskerk (St. John’s Church) are just the highlights of a very attractive city.
Cheese had a lot to do with reversing the economic fortunes of Gouda. Some 60% of all Dutch cheese production is made up of the city’s yellow, slightly sweet, nutty flavoured namesake – which explains why it turns up almost every time you order any food with cheese in it. The variety which has been aged for a year or more, known as Old Dutch (or as one menu enticingly put it “very old cheese”), has crunchy crystallised bits and is delicious.
Gouda’s history is writ large, and as I wandered around the town I came across several sites which were associated with the great 16th Century Dutch thinker and religious reformer, Erasmus. Although he is most associated with Rotterdam, Gouda was Erasmus’s home for many years. Although a Catholic priest, Erasmus was critical of abuses within the church and his humanist writings were influential in the Protestant Reformation.
Unlike other Reformation leaders like Martin Luther, Erasmus never rejected the leadership of the Pope and remained within the Catholic church. However, the result of his thinking can be seen in the stained glass windows of St. Janskerk. These scenes from the Bible made it more accessible, without the need for priests to interpret for people. It is supposed to be a magnificent stained glass window, a shame then that the church wasn’t open.