A view from the streets of Gouda

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.

Stroopwafels have a peculiar effect on people, Gouda, Netherlands

Stroopwafels have a peculiar effect on people, Gouda, Netherlands

Stroopwafel, Gouda, Netherlands ©manouknailpolish

Stroopwafel, Gouda, Netherlands ©manouknailpolish

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.

Canal and buildings, Gouda, Netherlands

Canal and buildings, Gouda, Netherlands

Canal and buildings, Gouda, Netherlands

Canal and buildings, Gouda, Netherlands

Canal and buildings, Gouda, Netherlands

Canal and buildings, Gouda, Netherlands

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.

Canal and buildings, Gouda, Netherlands

Canal and buildings, Gouda, Netherlands

Doorway from 1614, Gouda, Netherlands

Doorway from 1614, Gouda, Netherlands

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.

Molen 't Slot windmill, Gouda, Netherlands

Molen ‘t Slot windmill, Gouda, Netherlands

Molen de Roode Leeuw windmill, Gouda, Netherlands

Molen de Roode Leeuw windmill, Gouda, Netherlands

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.

Stadhuis, Gouda, Netherlands

Stadhuis, Gouda, Netherlands

Clock, Stadhuis, Gouda, Netherlands

Clock, Stadhuis, Gouda, Netherlands

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).

Stadhuis, Gouda, Netherlands

Stadhuis, Gouda, Netherlands

Statue made by Gregorius Cool, Stadhuis, Gouda, Netherlands

Statue made by Gregorius Cool, Stadhuis, Gouda, Netherlands

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.

Mechanical people, Stadhuis, Gouda, Netherlands

Mechanical people, Stadhuis, Gouda, Netherlands

Mechanical people, Stadhuis, Gouda, Netherlands

Mechanical people, Stadhuis, Gouda, Netherlands

Mechanical people, Stadhuis, Gouda, Netherlands

Mechanical people, Stadhuis, Gouda, Netherlands

Mechanical people, Stadhuis, Gouda, Netherlands

Mechanical people, Stadhuis, Gouda, Netherlands

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.

A visit to the big cheese, Gouda

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.

Statue of a woman with a Gouda cheese, Gouda, Netherlands

Statue of a woman with a Gouda cheese, Gouda, Netherlands

Rounds of Gouda cheese, Gouda, Netherlands

Rounds of Gouda cheese, Gouda, Netherlands

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.

Rounds of Gouda cheese, Gouda, Netherlands

Rounds of Gouda cheese, Gouda, Netherlands

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.

Mural of cheese weighing on the Waag, Gouda, Netherlands

Mural of cheese weighing on the Waag, Gouda, Netherlands

Rounds of Gouda cheese in Waag, the old cheese weighing building, Gouda, Netherlands

Rounds of Gouda cheese in Waag, the old cheese weighing building, Gouda, Netherlands

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.

Molen 't Slot, Gouda, Netherlands

Molen ‘t Slot, Gouda, Netherlands

Street, Gouda, Netherlands

Street, Gouda, Netherlands

Canal, Gouda, Netherlands

Canal, Gouda, Netherlands

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.

Stadhuis or City Hall, Gouda, Netherlands

Stadhuis or City Hall, Gouda, Netherlands

Stadhuis or City Hall, Gouda, Netherlands

Stadhuis or City Hall, Gouda, Netherlands

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.

Plaque to Erasmus, Gouda, Netherlands

Plaque to Erasmus, Gouda, Netherlands

Street, Gouda, Netherlands

Street, Gouda, Netherlands

Canal, Gouda, Netherlands

Canal, Gouda, Netherlands

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.

Statue Statue entitled Jack Ass by the suitably named Gijs Assmann, Gouda, Netherlands Jack Ass by the hilariously named Gijs Assmann, Gouda, Netherlands

Statue entitled Jack Ass by the suitably named Gijs Assmann, Gouda, Netherlands

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.