With the peloton completing Stage 1 in Utrecht, the Tour assumes its first leader in the maillot jaune and we, as spectators in person or via telecast, are finally heading towards Paris. Stage 2 is a monster stage that travels clear across the Netherlands, from Utrecht through Rotterdam and onto the windy Zeeland coast where the Delta Works and the famed Oosterscheldekering keep the region above water. The stage is proof that this fascinating country is much more than wooden shoes, windmills, tulips, hard to pronounce places, or cheese. These may be clichés, but cheese is no joke.
My wife and I love cheese. It is by far our favorite mold. That’s why I am particularly excited about this stage. And we are not even celebrating one of the more than 300 French cheese varieties … yet. No, this is Gouda land and it’s not only a delight for the palate, but a great way to experience the backcountry of Holland. So many tourists stay in the cities during a visit to the Netherlands, and particularly Amsterdam. But if you’ve been in Utrecht for a few days of this years’ Grand Départ, it’s time to get out of your comfort zone and see the road less traveled.
The town of Gouda is a mere 36 km. west of Utrecht. The peloton will be there in no time, so take a morning train to this town of only 70,000 residents. Its famed cheese market only occurs on Thursdays, so you will have to wait for a few days to get this experience. But this tourist attraction is just that and not worth a special trip. Don’t worry though, a walking tour, either self-guided or docent-led, will show all you need to see, including the cheese market. No, focus your attention on the surrounding area, which has something better and more authentic to offer. Save your energy for a bicycle ride into the countryside for the real deal … great cheese and the cows they come from.
Modern cheese making is what you came to Gouda to experience. What better way to accomplish this than to visit a local cheese farm … or seven if you really wish. In fact, twelve cheese farms surround Gouda – to the east and south. The peloton will even ride past two of these, the Kaasboerderij (Cheese) t’Klooster and de TweeHoeven farms along the N228. Unfortunately, the cheese farms are not open on Sundays, so be sure to stay the night in Gouda after the Tour and head into the countryside on Monday morning. This detour is well-worth the time.
If you’re like me, the Tour has you craving a ride of your own by Stage 2. So rent a bike at almost any train station, hotel, or local bike shop and start out on your own cycling adventure. This is Holland after all, which means that bikes are plentiful. For adventure and cheese lovers, the city’s tourism agency has put together a 42 km. (26 miles) self-guided bike route called the “Cow-Cheese-Route”. This ambitious tour rides past 7 of the 12 local cheese farms. It is an epic trip could very well take an entire day if done right, meaning leisurely and tasting often. If something a little shorter is preferred, however, just mark out your own route. BUT be sure not to miss the Kaasboerderij Jongenhoeve farm, which does offer guided tours and a small shop to taste the goods.
Kaasboerderij Jongenhoeve is a family cheese farm in the small village of Benedenberg. If you can, take a detour though along the beautiful Vlist River. After riding through Haastrecht, the road soon becomes one-way as it follows the river. Make sure to take your time and smell the flowers, take in the river, and walk around gazing at a few of the characteristic windmills. Yes, there are windmills! If you get hungry, stop at the Kaasboerderij Vlist farm on the Oost Vlisterdik. As you ride, or even watch the Tour stage, the innumerable canals that appear to carve up the landscape like little slices of cheese become abundantly noticeable. These are the famous canals of Holland. Ok, they may not be “canals” in the same sense as those in the larger cities, but these are nonetheless canals used for irrigation. They are also a fact of reality because much of the country lies below sea level. For example, while the town of Gouda is situated 3 meters (10 feet) above sea level, all of the surrounding cheese farms lie below sea level, some as much as 3 meters. The canals, therefore, are reminders and illustrations of this fact. Water is a part of the cultural heritage of Holland as the people have necessarily overcome the natural forces of the sea to preserve their own existence. As a result, there is a strong tie to and protection of the land, including an ingenuity to reclaim land wherever possible. Just as with “cheese and crackers”, cheese tasting around Gouda is a means to consume the beauty of the Dutch countryside. So enjoy, take your time, and sample all that the Dutch countryside has to offer … cheese and all.