Our perfect plan to explore the area around Gouda was first derailed by my nightmare the night before, which was not caused by an undigested crumb of cheese, a la Charles Dickens. It was the sort of nightmare that wakes you up in a sweaty panic and makes it impossible to fall asleep without having another one. Therefore, we slept in and woke unrested and unsettled, and unfortunately unprepared for a day of adventuring, but we stubbornly forged ahead anyway, determined to turn the day around.
What we had in mind was a bike ride around Gouda's countryside, conveniently called the KoeKaasRoute (Cow Cheese Route). Yes, Gouda is where Gouda cheese is made, but it's not pronounced "Goo-da" like we say it in Canada, it's more like "How-da," with a little saliva sound at the beginning. Sounds delicious, I know! The KoeKaasRoute starts in Gouda's town centre and takes you past idyllic farms, nature reserves and historic sites. We think the full route is about 45 km, so a perfect day ride with farm tours and cheese samples along the way.
Our first mistake was leaving too late. The second was bringing our own bikes with us. We are pretty adept with The Netherlands' transit system which normally blows us away with its awesomeness, but not everything can be perfect all of the time. Getting our bike supplements onto our transit card at Haarlem Station was a breeze, and getting our bikes up to the platform and onto the train was easy enough with a little muscle behind it. Full bikes are accomodated but not particularly encouraged on the trains despite, or perhaps because of, the country's cycling culture. Folding bikes ride free, while regular bikes require a 6€ supplement valid all day. It is, of course, easier to rent bikes from the train station using your OV Chipkaart transit card than to lug your bike from point A to B to C. Note to self.
Another mistake we should have learned from already is do not trust Google maps to plan your route correctly or efficiently! We took the train from Haarlem to Den Haag and switched to the train bound for Venlo, which apparently would take us to Gouda. But on that train, we realized we were going the wrong direction so we got off at Rotterdam and then onto a train bound for Gouda. Neither Den Haag nor Rotterdam nor Gouda had bicycle friendly stairs. We witnessed a local almost wipe out taking her bike down the stairs in a steep groove that looked more suitable for drainage than navigating with a bike. It really doesn't seem hard to intall a safe bike rail into the stairs, but I suppose the Dutch are smarter than us and just use the elevator.
Once in Gouda, we deliberated how to proceed. We didn't actually know the route although we had seen a pdf pamphlet online (in Dutch) with a rather undetailed map. We had read the route and detailed maps could be procured at the VVV visitors information centre in Gouda Centrum, but because we were running late, we were reluctant to make our way through the Saturday market square.
Our desired direction would take us through there anyway, so we made a pit stop at the VVV where we were given the Dutch pamphlet and nothing else, not even a "start in that direction." The map looks very pretty, with little cheese saucers and other points of interest all over it, but it has no street names or even identifiable roads or intersections. It is essentially useless for anyone unfamiliar with the area, no matter how tantilizing it appears to be. But after consulting Google maps, Brian figured he had the way out of town, so off we rode.
The ride was beautiful. It was 30°C, sunny and calm. The scenery was quite different that what we have explored thus far, but quintessentially Dutch farmland and small towns.
We soon found ourselves in Haastrecht, a town that wasn't on our KoeKassRoute route. Not sure how we got there, we regrouped and set out in search of our elusive trail. Although local bike routes are signed, we saw nothing for the KoeKassRoute. We managed to get ourselves onto the route, just in time to pass the first dairy farm, MooiMekkerland. It was closed for the day so we continued on, aiming to get to the next one, Kaasboerderij Schep.
Kassboederij Schep was given the Gouden Kaasplak Trofee Boerenkaas Cum Laude (Golden Slice of Cheese Farm Cheese Trophy) in 2010. The tastiest farm cheese in The Netherlands! We arrived just as a large tour was completed, but were told another tour bus would be arriving in an hour and we could join that tour. We bought some ice cream from the shop and had a little picnic while we waited.
The farm is run by Jaap Schep and Rianne de Wit. It's obviously a family affair with their children aged 10 and 7, but they also have three full time and three part time employees. They have over 460 dairy cattle and heifers, make farm cheese from the milk, and run the tours for visitors. To us city-folk, it's remarkable that they can achieve so much with so few people!
At the designated tour time, we joined the tour bus load of 40 people here as part of a cruise. We secretly, selfishly wished that we could have had a private tour – it was frustrating that the cruisers had earbuds that allowed them to hear what the guide was saying at all times and we couldn't stick close enough to hear what was being said. But we enjoyed the look at the farm and the cows, especially the cute young ones. We even found a Nougat doppelganger.
We got a crash course on the making of cheese, being walked through the process as cheese was being made, and then back to the giftshop where fresh cheese could be tasted and purchased. Yum!
It now being six p.m., we had another gander at our map and decided to take the short loop back to Gouda. We were regretting our late start because we would have loved to spend more time on the beautiful trail, but were mindful of the likelyhood of getting lost. We thought all was good, until we ended up back in Stolwijk, somewhere near the beginning of the route, and then into Haastrecht again, somehow back the way we came rather than on the loop we should have been on. We managed to do this by following the bike trail signs to Gouda. Don't ask us how, we still don't know!
By this time we were heat-stricken, without water, I had to pee and Brian was frustrated by trying to wayfind without any competent tools. We were rather disagreeable to each other but made it back into Gouda Centrum in one sweaty piece and ducked onto the Koeien en Kaas (Cow and Cheese) patio for dinner, drinks and a nice bathroom. It was too fancy for us in our rag-tag state, but we ordered a few delicious starters to share. Breaking some bread together helped get us back to our normal, cheerful selves and we carefully planned the train route back home to avoid any more hiccups.
Gouda itself is very picturesque, and doubtless we'll be back to explore the town. We'd like to figure out the KoeKaasRoute too, because the small piece of it we completed was worth all the anguish of getting there and back. We'll let you know if we solve the mysterious map so that you too can enjoy this scenic and delicious part of The Netherlands.