Back in the big cheese, exploring Gouda

The last time I visited Gouda I’d been living in the Netherlands for less than six weeks. It’s taken nearly four years to revisit this picturesque town, but it was worth making the short trip – it’s a 20 minute journey from The Hague – if for no other reason than to visit the glorious interior of the medieval Gothic church, Sint Janskerk, world famous for its truly extraordinary stained glass windows. The seventy-two luminescent 16th century windows are the reason Sint Janskerk is an UNESCO World Heritage site, but it also claims the title of ‘longest church in the Netherlands’.

City Hall, Gouda, Netherlands

City Hall, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Historic centre, Gouda, Netherlands

Historic centre, Gouda, Netherlands

Historic centre, Gouda, Netherlands

Historic centre, Gouda, Netherlands

Cheese, Gouda, Netherlands

Cheese, Gouda, Netherlands

Cheese, Gouda, Netherlands

Cheese, Gouda, Netherlands

When I was last here in 2014 the building was closed, this time Sint Janskerk was not only open, but the winter sun was illuminating the stained glass and the vast interior space of the church. Some of the windows are 20 metres high and represent distinct phases in Dutch history, between Spanish rule and Dutch independence, and between the pre- and post-Reformation Catholic and Protestant churches. In some windows you can see Philip II of Spain, in others William of Orange. Both using the windows for their own propaganda purposes.

There is a fantastic self-guided audio tour of the church – if you visit definitely take the audio tour – which recounts both the history behind the windows and the meaning of the stained glass. Anticipating the beginning of the Second World War, the windows were removed and placed into storage in 1939. Not all of the originals have managed to make it to the 21st century and there are some modern windows, including one celebrating the liberation of the Netherlands in 1945.

We went for a wander around Gouda’s historic streets. It’s a pretty place with plenty of old buildings, including the very ornate town hall, the old cheese weighing building and numerous canals lined with merchant houses. It was Saturday and there was a market in the main square, which was a little disappointing but did at least have several cheese stalls. On a bitterly cold day, we mooched around for a couple of hours through narrow streets and along the town’s canals, until we came across the De Roode Leeuw, the Red Lion windmill, which still produces its own flour.

Ringed by an outer canal, which began life as the town’s defensive moat, the historic part of town isn’t very big and, even with a visit to the town museum, half a day pretty much covers Gouda. We made our way back to the town centre for lunch in one of the restaurants surrounding the main square. Almost every Dutch town has a square like this, and almost every square has a collection of restaurants serving up traditional Dutch fare. In Gouda that included a dish I’d never eaten before, cheese soup. Tasty and warming on a winter’s day.

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Kaaswaag, Gouda, Netherlands

Kaaswaag, Gouda, Netherlands

Historic centre, Gouda, Netherlands

Historic centre, Gouda, Netherlands

Afterwards we popped into the historic Kaaswaag, the cheese weighing building, now the tourist information office and a cheese shop that offer a variety of cheese tastings. We passed up the opportunity to sample yet more Dutch cheese, instead we found another cheese shop, ‘t Kaaswinkeltje, which was serving some weird and wonderful cheeses, including a blue cheese and a black cheese. Call it heresy in this most Dutch of cheese towns, but we left with three different French cheeses.

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.