Updated: Jan 11
There are so many things to love about the beautiful city of Alkmaar. It is really like a mini-Amsterdam: a fairy tale town loaded with history (along with cute shops, cozy cafes and restaurants galore). Located only 2.4 km from the mill, it is easily accessible. It is also perfectly situated a 40 minute train ride away from Amsterdam and 15 minutes by car to the famous dunes and North Sea.
I love this article I found in The New York Times about Alkmaar. Although it was written awhile ago, it is still very accurate.
DAY OUT: THE NETHERLANDS
Alkmaar: A Dutch City That Still Likes to Speak Dutch
By Bruce Bawer
AMSTERDAM is many wonderful things -- the cosmopolitan gateway to Europe, a living repository of glorious Dutch art, architecture and cultural treasures -- but it's not exactly an immersion course in contemporary Dutch life. Indeed, in a city where about half the population is foreign and where you might imagine that English is the official language, ordinary natives can be lost in the shuffle, overshadowed by the spectacle of street-corner drug peddlers (few of them Dutch) or scantily clad women (also non-Dutch) posing in crimson-flooded windows.
Fortunately, a healthy dose of more typically Dutch life is close at hand. In the sandy, marshy lowlands of the North Holland peninsula, a half hour by train north of Amsterdam, lies Alkmaar, a municipality with just under 100,000 inhabitants that last year celebrated its 750th anniversary. In 1573, it was the first Dutch city liberated from the Spanish, an event that set the Netherlands on the road to the golden age of the Dutch Republic. Today, this old trading center is known primarily for its soccer team, AZ, and its weekly cheese market (actually an elaborate simulation served up for tourists); for me, however, it's a place that can balance out some of the misleading notions about the Netherlands that Amsterdam can, alas, nurture.
Trains from Amsterdam to Alkmaar (11.90 euros round trip, or $14.52 at $1.22 to the euro) are frequent. Ten minutes out, you're gliding across rolling meadows broken by yard-wide, algae-green canals and lines of trees out of a painting by Albert Cuyp. Sheep and cattle graze; at track side, men and women work communal gardens.
And then -- in no time at all -- you're in Alkmaar. A 10-minute walk from the station brings you to Grote Sint Laurenskerk, an imposing 15th-century church in the Brabant-Gothic style (like French Gothic, but with a more ornate exterior) that marks one end of the main thoroughfare, Langestraat. Now a pedestrian-only shopping street, it has many of the chain stores that are found along Kalverstraat, its counterpart in Amsterdam, as well as convivial cafes with names like Bacchus (No.12) and de Nachtegaal (the Nightingale, No.100).
But Langestraat can feel less like Kalverstraat -- that roiling sea of heterogeneous humanity -- than like a Dutch version of Bedford Falls in "It's a Wonderful Life." One recent Saturday, a man and his little boy moseyed along lapping at ice-cream cones, while a mother marched her brood from one clothing outlet to another.
Enhancing the quaint small-town feel was a huge street organ (a fading Dutch tradition); its proprietor shoved it up and down the pavement as it tooted "Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye" and "Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue." (I recalled this fondly the next day when, at a family-filled restaurant in Amsterdam, I went bug-eyed at the obscene rap lyrics blaring from loudspeakers.)
I love the splendor of Amsterdam. But I also love Alkmaar's low-key, old-fashioned -- dare I say corny? -- charm. I savor the little touches of Dutch culture: you buy a magazine, and the cashier briskly rolls it up and slides a rubber band over it; you order fries, and they ask you, "Ketchup or mayonnaise?" In Amsterdam, one sometimes glimpses my favorite only-in-the-Netherlands spectacle: a dad or mom chauffeuring two moppets on a bicycle, one riding fore, the other aft. But in Alkmaar this sight is ubiquitous. I love Alkmaar's immaculate streets; at street crossings, with no traffic in sight, even visibly restless teenagers wait for the light to change.
I also love the feeling of safety. To live in Amsterdam these days is to be gloomily aware that the Netherlands is suffering from formidable, and deepening, urban problems; strolling around Alkmaar, you'd hardly know it.
Yet it's no Mayberry, either. Wander a bit beyond Langestraat and you'll find an inviting maze of narrow, cobbled lanes, one of which -- the seven-foot-wide (I've measured) Magalenenstraat -- is packed with elegant little boutiques that wouldn't seem out of place on the Champs-Élysées. On Achterstraat, the high walls of one airy emporium are covered, library-like, with shelves -- tightly packed not with books but with big cylinders of yellow cheese. Yet another tiny passageway, Fnidsen, boasts the elegant Twin Arts (No.87) and Lifestyle (No.89), both crowded with high-end furniture and decorative items.
The Dutch are top-notch at street markets, and on Nieuwesloot there's a bustling one, where vendors hawk bargain-price items ranging from fish to underwear to CD's. A square called Waagplein is lined with sidewalk cafes, where patrons sip coffee and snack on broodjes (sandwiches on rolls) to the sound of church bells. In Amsterdam, such cafes swarm with tourists and chic local residents; in Alkmaar, the weekend diners are mostly families -- some with tots, others with teenagers -- enjoying a leisurely lunch. (To be sure, this being a Dutch city, even family-friendly Alkmaar has a red-light district -- a long block called Achterdam that parents will want to steer clear of. Mark your maps!)
A guaranteed highlight for youngsters is the popular and recently renovated Hoornse Vaart swimming complex (Hertog Aalbrechtweg 4). A five-minute bus ride from downtown along a scenic canal -- and past a couple of photogenic windmills -- it has an Olympic-size swimming pool, a large wave pool (wonderful fun) and a children's pool (with toddler-scale water slides). Easily the most congenial -- and immaculate -- place of its kind I've ever seen (you'll seek in vain a single bit of graffiti or chipped tile), it overlooks a beautiful lawn and an inviting open-air pool, which is, of course, closed in winter. (Admission is 3.75 euros for adults; 2.50 euros for those under 18.)
Want a taste of residential life? Saunter out of the center city along Kennemerstraatweg, a major artery where you'll pass few pedestrians but hundreds of cyclists, many of them families pedaling to town together. After ambling by a handsome windmill -- Piet's Mill, built in 1769 -- make a left and start meandering. You'll find yourself exploring a pretty neighborhood of neat, one-lane brick roads and cozy brick houses, their curtains pulled back (a resilient Dutch tradition) so you can peer in through the spotless picture windows at the uncluttered rooms, gleaming tabletops and meticulously arranged bric-a-brac. (Domestic fastidiousness is a Dutch byword.)
Yes, Alkmaar has immigrants (on a downtown street called Gedempte Nieuwesloot, you'll see kebab shops and signs in Arabic); but compared with multicultural Amsterdam, it feels unmistakably Dutch. Height is part of it: even in the Netherlands -- where the people are the world's tallest -- folks from this region are known for their stature.
Then there's language. In Amsterdam, menus are printed in English and Dutch (sometimes just English); in Alkmaar, they're in Dutch, period. I long ago stopped addressing Amsterdam waiters in my shaky version of their tongue, since they invariably replied in mine; during my recent day in Alkmaar, however, the waitress at a convivial cafe, Prego (Langestraat 12A) actually replied to my English in Dutch, which she continued to speak throughout all our transactions. She plainly did this, I hasten to add, not out of rudeness but out of provincial insecurity; anyone who finds this incident off-putting rather than delightfully atmospheric should rest assured that the last thing to worry about in the Netherlands is finding someone who can speak English. (The 4.95 euro weekly special, by the way, was an appetizing broodje with smoked chicken, walnuts and curry dressing.)
Peter Visser of Henry's Grand Café (Houttil 34) sums up Alkmaar's appeal beautifully. It has, he said, "the character of a small town and the aura of a city." The rising social tensions that already afflict the major Dutch urban areas, however, seem destined, sooner or later, to alter life in places like Alkmaar. Best, then, to catch this town's gentle pleasures while you can.