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.