GOUDA, a pretty little place some 25km 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.
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. 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. It's mercilessly milked by tour operators, who herd their crowds into this scene every week – but don't let this put you off a visit to the town, since Gouda's charms lie elsewhere, especially in the splendid stained-glass windows of St Janskerk (Mon– Sat: March– Oct 9am–5pm; Nov– Feb 10am–4pm; 2.50), just south of the Markt. The church was founded in the thirteenth century, but the present structure mostly dates from the second half of the sixteenth century, when it was rebuilt following a dreadful fire.
Slap-bang in the middle of the Markt, the Stadhuis is an elegant Gothic structure whose soaring stonework, with its spiky towers and cheerful dormer windows, dates from 1450. Nearby, on the north side of the square, is the Waag, a tidy seventeenth-century building adorned by a detailed relief of cheese-weighing and now holding a moderately interesting Kaaswaag (Cheese Weigh House museum; April– Oct Tues, Wed & Fri– Sun 1–5pm, Thurs 10am–5pm; 2.50).