Gouda, a pretty little place some 20km northeast of Rotterdam, is everything you’d expect of a Dutch country town, with its ring of quiet canals encircling ancient buildings set amid a tangle of narrow lanes and alleys. More surprisingly, its Markt is the largest in the Netherlands, a wide and airy piazza that remains an attractive reminder of the town’s prominence as a centre of the medieval cloth trade, and later of its success in the manufacture of cheeses and that old Dutch favourite, the clay pipe. The weekly cheese market held here is mercilessly milked by tour operators who herd their crowds here – but don’t let this put you off, since Gouda’s charms lie elsewhere, especially in the splendid stained-glass windows of St Janskerk, and the winsome jumble of old canal-side buildings along Westhaven which rambles off towards the old Tolhuis (toll house) beside the Hollandsche IJssel River, on the southern edge of the town centre.
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Gouda’s main claim to fame is its cheese market, held on the Markt every Thursday morning (10am–12.30pm) from the middle of June to late August. Traditionally, a thousand or so local farmers brought their home-produced cheeses here to be weighed, tested and graded for moisture, smell and taste. These details were marked on the cheeses and formed the basis for negotiation between buyer and seller, the exact price confirmed by an elaborate code of handclaps. Today, however, the cheese market is a shadow of its former self, comprising a few locals in traditional dress standing outside the Waag with their cheeses, all surrounded by modern, open-air stands.