Amsterdam is an open-minded and enchanting capital city, popular tourist destination, and natural debarkation point for a visit to the Netherlands. With its international airport and many river cruise itineraries, it is often the first and only place in the Netherlands that a tourist sees. Like so many others, Amsterdam was also my first and only impression of the country, until now.
After getting reacquainted with this impressive city for a few days, we moved beyond Amsterdam, and settled for a month in Alkmaar in the province of North Holland. Here, we rented a small apartment, bought a couple of second-hand bikes, and set out to explore Alkmaar and the surrounding countryside.
Alkmaar is an attractive and traditional city best-known for its weekly cheese market. The oldest and largest in the Netherlands, the exchange re-enacts an actual 17th century cheese auction. At this popular event, we looked on as large yellow wheels of cheese were tested, weighed, and transferred by boat, wagon, and funny-looking human carriers.
It was quickly apparent that we were in cheese country, when we first rode into the polder lands east of Alkmaar. These agricultural plots lie below sea level and are watered by raised canals crisscrossing the sunken fields. Formerly drained by windmills, the polders now nourish the cheese-making cows, sheep, and goats, all gorging themselves on the sweet green grass.
Heading over to the east coast of North Holland, we encountered the vast freshwater IJsselmeer Bay and the historic town of Hoorn. In the well-preserved town center, we admired its long-standing architecture and the influential old-world seaport that prospered during the 17th century Dutch Golden Age.
Back over on the west coast of North Holland, a short bike ride from Alkmaar carried us to the mercurial North Sea. Here, the wide sandy beaches are fringed by grass-covered dunes rising from the otherwise flat and recessed landscape. Climbing these hilly dunes has been the only time in North Holland that we have required our bike’s lowest gears.
Changing gears altogether, we took the train to IJmuiden to explore the southern end of the province. In this industrial area, we walked along the hard-working North Sea Canal, visited the heaving Tata Steel plant, and observed the ongoing construction of the world’s largest sea lock.
Finally, to complete our introduction of the four geographic corners of the province of North Holland, we traveled north to the island of Texel. Part of the West Frisian island chain, the well-drained sandy soils of Texel support agriculture and a coastline of dunes and offshore shoals. At low tide, the shallow Wadden Sea retreats to reveal a broad expanse of beaches and an intricate complex of exposed sand bars and channels.
In the small province of North Holland, the compass needle has guided us through deep green polders, quaint historic towns, massive industrial operations, and long sandy beaches fringed by windswept dunes. Amidst the smoke stacks, happy cows, and yellow wheels of cheese, we have seen a more characteristic Netherlands, outside the big city, beyond Amsterdam.
Blogger’s Note: The Dutch names IJsselmeer and IJmuiden contain the capitalized IJ combination, which is pronounced “eye-ee” and is treated as a single letter.