It would be dismissive to think of Gouda only as a cheese town – not that there is anything wrong with that. It is also the spiritual home of stroopwafels: the devilishly tasty, sugar rush-inducing syrup waffles pioneered in Gouda to become the national tooth-rotting treat of choice. All things being equal, Gouda could easily have ended up being called Stroopwafel and, I suspect, has been shortchanged purely because Stroopwafel is harder to pronounce and doesn’t fit onto the front of t-shirts.
I think I might commission some ‘I ♡ Stroopwafel’ and ‘My family went to Stroopwafel and all I got was this t-shirt’ merchandise to sell in Gouda’s main square when I next visit. Proof, were it needed, of what it is possible to achieve with an overactive imagination fuelled by too many shots of Nespresso. In truth, the stroopwafel wasn’t invented until the early 19th Century, long after Gouda got its name…but they were invented in Gouda.
Gouda, the town, received its name not from a cheese but from a man, or rather the family name of a man, who then donated his name to a cheese. In the Middle Ages the Van der Goude family controlled this area and built a castle to prove it. Gouda castle protected trade along the River Gouwe and the surrounding canals, but hasn’t survived into the 21st Century. Gouda became a city in 1272, further increasing its importance and spurring more development and growth, including some of the remaining canals which still criss-cross the city.
Like most of the Netherlands, Gouda was a barely habitable swamp until it was drained and settled from early in the 12th Century. Using windmills to pump the water, the engineering which went into this is astounding. The construction of a canal and a new port with trade links to France and Belgium changed Gouda’s fortunes. Suddenly ships were passing through the town, which thrived on the taxes the ships had to pay. It is also rumoured that Gouda’s authorities would deliberately delay ships in the town, forcing the stranded sailors to spend their money in the local shops and bars.
The ships brought commerce and merchandise from other parts of Europe, making Gouda a cosmopolitan town. Unfortunately for Gouda, success also brought resentment, particularly of the imposition of taxes on trade. There were regular outbreaks of violence between Gouda and other towns, which started to construct their own canals to end Gouda’s monopoly. Once the inevitable happened, Gouda’s fortunes waxed and waned. The city went through centuries of economic ups and downs, until things got so bad that the name Gouda became synonymous with poverty.
You wouldn’t notice that today. The historic centre is packed to the point of cliché with beautiful buildings, winding alleyways and picturesque canals. Wandering around and absorbing the peaceful atmosphere is a joy. Perhaps the most endearing thing in Gouda is the wondrous Stadhuis (City Hall).
Walking around this outlandish building I noticed several people looking up at one of the walls. Curious, I joined my fellow building gazers just as a mechanical puppet show started. It is difficult not to like a town with a mechanical puppet show. Oddly, it pops out of the side of the Stadhuis two minutes after the clock strikes the hour rather than as an accompaniment to the clock. The whole mechanism is modern but looks like it belongs to another era, perhaps because it is a Medieval scene appropriate to the age of the building.
Built in 1440s, the Stadhuis is constructed in the Late Gothic style and came into use in 1450. It is hard to tell today, but originally access to the building was from a canal which ran in front of the building. If this isn’t enough too make want to visit it, the grand entrance stairway was constructed in 1603 by the town sculptor, the gloriously named Gregorius Cool. Today the Stadhuis continues to be a meeting place, and has become a popular wedding venue. Over five hundred couples get married here every year.