Until the early twentieth century, the north of the Netherlands was a remote area, a distinct region of small provincial towns far removed from the mainstream life of the Randstad. Yet, in 1932, the opening of the Afsluitdijk, a 30-kilometre-long sea wall bridging the mouth of the Zuider Zee, changed the orientation of the country once and for all: the Zuider Zee, once a corridor for great trading ships, became the freshwater IJsselmeer and the cultural gap between the north and west narrowed almost immediately.
One of the three northern provinces, Friesland, is a deservedly popular tourist stopover, with its cluster of dune-swept islands, a likeable capital in Leeuwarden, and a chain of eleven immaculate, history-steeped “cities” (villages really), each with a distinct charm: Harlingen is noted for its splendid merchant houses; Hindeloopen, with its cobbled streets and pin-neat canals, encapsulates the antique prettiness of the region;while Makkum was a centre of tile manufacture and is still known for ceramics and its role as a sailing centre. As for the islands, each is barely more than an elongated sandbank, parts of which can be reached by indulging in wadlopen, hearty walks along (or ankle-deep in) the mud flats that flank the islands to the south. In the north stretches kilometre after kilometre of hourglass-fine sandy beach and a network of cycleways. Like much of the Netherlands, the scenery of the mainland is predominantly green, bisected by canals and dotted with black-and-white cattle – Friesians, of course – and pitch-black Frisian horses. Breaking the pancake-flat monotony of the landscape, sleek wind turbines make the most of the strong westerlies, a modern counterpart to the last working windmills in the area.
East of Friesland, the province of Groningen has comparatively few attractions, but the university town of Groningen more than makes up for this with a vibrant ambience, contemporary fashions, range of affordable bars and restaurants, a growing international performance-art festival and the best nightlife in the region. It’s also home to the Groninger Museum, a striking and controversial vision of urban architecture and art, and a definite highlight of the region.
South of Groningen lies Drenthe, little more than a barren moor for much of its history. During the nineteenth century, the face of the province was changed by the founding of peat colonies, whose labourers drained the land and dug the peat to expose the subsoil below. As a result, parts of Drenthe are given over to prosperous farmland, with agriculture the dominant industry. Sparsely . and the least visited of the Dutch provinces, Drenthe is now popular with home-grown tourists, who are drawn by its quiet natural beauty, swathes of wood, wide cycling paths and abundant walking trails, although many come here to visit Drenthe’s most original feature – its hunebeds, or megalithic tombs.Read More
Friesland: a land apart?
Friesland: a land apart?
A region that prospered during the sixteenth-century heyday of the Zuider Zee trade, Friesland is focused around eleven historic cities and seven lakes, the latter symbolized by the seven red hearts on the region’s flag, which proudly flutters in many a back garden. Friesland once occupied a much larger chunk of the north and, in the eighth century, Charlemagne recognized three parts: West Frisia, equivalent to today’s West Friesland, across the IJsselmeer; Central Frisia, today’s Friesland; and East Frisia, now Groningen province. From earliest times, much of the region was prey to inundation by the sea and the inhabitants built their settlements on artificial mounds (terpen) in a frequently forlorn attempt to escape the watery depths. It was a tough existence, but over the centuries the Frisians finessed their skills, extending their settlements by means of a complex network of dykes. You can still see what’s left of some of the mounds around the area, though in large settlements they’re mostly obscured. Always a maverick among Dutch provinces, the area that is now Friesland proper remained independent of the rest of Holland until it was absorbed into the Habsburg Empire by Charles V in 1523.
Since the construction of the Afsluitdijk, Friesland has relied on holidaymakers drawn to its rich history, picturesque lakes and immaculate villages to replace the trading routes and fishing industries of yesteryear. Grand old farmhouses define the region: their thatched roofs slope almost to the ground and are crowned with ûleboerden, white gables in the form of a double swan once used as a deterrent to evil spirits. Boating is one way of getting around and Friesland is also an ideal province to visit by bicycle. The best loop, which takes in all of the Eleven Towns, follows the 220-kilometre-long route of the Elfstedentocht, a marathon ice-skating race held during winters cold enough for the canals to freeze over. Most tourist offices stock maps and guides for cycling, in-line skating, driving or sailing the route all year round.
Finally, the Frisians have several unusual sports and traditions that can still raise eyebrows in the rest of the country. Using a large pole to jump over wet obstacles was once a necessity in the Frisian countryside, but the Frisians turned it into a sport: fierljeppen. Today Frisian and Dutch pole jumpers compete during the annual Frisian championships held in Winsum, on the second Saturday of August.
Skûtjesilen, a fourteen-day sailing race held throughout Friesland in July or August, is another regional oddity. Skûtjes are large cargo vessels, but they went out of use after World War II and are now only used for contests and recreational purposes: the tourist office in Sneek can give information on where to see the races. Last but not least is kaatsen, a Frisian version of tennis, with over 2000 contests held every year. Instead of a racket a kaatser uses a handmade glove to hit the handmade ball; a team of kaatsers comprises three players. There’s a small museum devoted to kaatsen in Franeker.
The Elfstedentocht (“Eleven Towns Race”) is Friesland’s biggest spectacle, a gruelling ice-skating marathon around Friesland that dates back to 1890, when one Pim Muller, a local sports journalist, skated his way around the eleven official towns of the province, simply to see whether it was possible. It was, and twenty years later the first official Elfstedentocht was launched, contested by 22 skaters. Weather – and ice – permitting, it has taken place just fifteen times in the last hundred years, most recently in 1997, attracting skaters from all over the world.
The race is organized by the Eleven Towns Association, of which you must be a member to take part; the high level of interest in the race means that membership is very difficult to obtain. The route, which measures about 200km in total, takes in all the main centres of Friesland, starting in Leeuwarden in the town’s Expo Centre, from where the racers sprint – skates in hand – 1500m to the point where they get onto the ice. The first stop after this is Sneek, after which the race takes in Hindeloopen and the other old Zuider Zee towns, plus Dokkum in the north of the province, before finishing back in Leeuwarden. The event is broadcast live on national TV, the route lined with spectators. Of the 17,000 or so people who take part, usually no more than three hundred are professional skaters. Casualties are inevitably numerous; the worst year was 1963, when 10,000 skaters took part and only seventy finished, the rest beaten by the fierce winds, extreme cold and snowdrifts along the way. Generally, however, something like three-quarters of the competitors make it to the finishing line.
If you’re not around for the race itself, the route makes a popular bike ride and is signposted by the ANWB as one of their national cycling routes; four or five days will allow enough time to sightsee as well as cycle.