Beyond Amsterdam

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. 

Alkmaar Kaasmarkt

The Waag (Weighing House) in Alkmaar

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.

Carry cheese 1

Colorful cheese carriers lugging 96 kg (210 pounds) of cheese

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.

Polder windmill

The North Holland Polder Lands

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.

Hoorn Houses 2

Hoorn’s Golden Age Seaport and Gabled Architecture

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.

Dunes and Beach 3

A tranquil day on the North Sea

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.

Ijmuiden Lock and ship

Cargo vessel at IJmuiden lock (world’s largest sea lock under construction)

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.

Texel lighhouse

Lighthouse at Texel and Northernmost Point in North Holland Province

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.

Es riding in dunes

Esther riding through the dunes

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.

Bike Bells

Bike Bells


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.

14 thoughts on “Beyond Amsterdam

  1. Joe, you guys have been busy covering a lot of ground. Great idea to buy second hand bikes, it is the ideal way of exploring this corner of the world. I remember seeing the large yellow rings of cheese in Amsterdam, although it might have been a different type of cheese. I do love the Dutch cheese called “Edan” and often buy it in the UK. It is quite incredible how they have managed to claim so much land from the sea and keep the sea levels contained with the construction of huge sea locks, it is impressive.

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    • You have a very good understanding of the Netherlands, Gilda. From their cheese to their waterworks, it is a unique and impressive country. We originally thought we would rent bikes for a month at a time, but after evaluating costs, it was more economical to just purchase a couple of used bikes from a local bike shop. As you know, cycling is definitely the way to get around in this small province. I read that there are more bikes than people in the Netherlands! The cycling infrastructure is well-designed, extensive, and fully utilized.

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    • Yes indeed, Marty. The big city of Amsterdam is fun and exciting, but the tranquility of the more rural ares of the province has been a big relief from the crowds and to our blood pressures. The island of Texel is especially quiet, natural, and pastoral. Given your interest in linguistics, you may find it interesting that Texel is pronounced “Tessel” by the locals. For me, that is an easy one compared to that confusing capital IJ sound. – Joe

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  2. What a wonderful trip! I can’t wait to visit the Netherlands again, and this time, I want to see more than just Amsterdam (as nice as that city is.) The country side looks beautiful, and those towns are certainly worth exploring.

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    • Sounds like a great plan, Ann. Like you, Amsterdam was the only place in the Netherlands that I knew before this month. With its prominent airport and famous sights, it is a natural gateway to the country. Since the country is small and the trains, buses, and bike paths are so efficient, it is remarkably easy to get out of the big city. As I have experienced, and tried to detail in this post, going beyond Amsterdam is well worth the limited effort, and has given me a whole new level of understanding of the Dutch way of life.

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    • You got that right, Christi! In the desiccated high desert where I come from, any livestock that has the bad luck to be grazing out there, has to continually wander in search of a few blades of brown wilted grass. Here, like I imagine it to be in your adopted state of Minnesota, the cows actually eat so much lush green grass that they have to lie down for most of the day. Utterly astonishing!

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    • There is a lot to laugh about here, Dave. The cheese market included a lot of cheesy humor. The Dutch are really tall and frugal, which is an obvious thing to laugh at. I also think the Dutch language sounds funny. They love to make really long words out of smaller words. They also ask a lot of frank and direct questions. I can only imagine how much fun they are making of me.

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  3. Joe, you can’t go wrong spending time anywhere in the Netherlands, and you’ve chosen well. We rented an apartment in Amsterdam for 3 months, and were able to get to lots of “off the path” places that tourists usually miss. In my corporate days I spent lots of time here (N. Sea Exploration), so I know it pretty well. In addition to lovely villages and countryside and a deep, rich history, the Dutch people as a whole are about as nice and helpful as you could hope. Given the size and population of the country, they have no inflated image of their position in the EU, and they just try to get along. Enjoy your time there. ~James

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    • Many thanks, James. So far, we have really enjoyed our travels in the Netherlands and our interactions with the Dutch people. We thought hard about staying in Amsterdam for a month. In the end, we chose to rent a place in Alkmaar to be outside the big city and more centrally located in the province of North Holland. From here, it has been easy to reach all parts of the province by bike, bus, or rail. Since you worked in the Netherlands and spent three months here, we hope to find some of your footprints, still untrampled, away from the tourist trail. ~Joe

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