Thirty kilometres west of Leeuwarden and just north of the Afsluitdijk, Harlingen, is a more compelling stop than nearby Franeker. An ancient and salty old port that serves as the ferry terminus for the islands of Terschelling and Vlieland, it’s something of a centre for traditional Dutch sailing barges, a number of which are usually moored in the harbour. It was a naval base from the seventeenth century onwards, and abuts the Vliestroom channel, once the easiest way for shipping to pass from the North Sea through the shallows that surround the Frisian islands and on into the Zuider Zee. Before trade moved west, this was the country’s lifeline, where cereals, fish and other foodstuffs were brought in from the Baltic to feed the expanding Dutch cities, and it was also once a centre for the ceramics industry. Its historic importance is reflected in a fine old centre of sixteenth- to eighteenth-century houses, sandwiched between the pretty Noorderhaven and the more functional Zuiderhaven canals. However, Harlingen is too busy to be a twee tourist town: there’s a fishing fleet, a small container depot and a shipbuilding yard.
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