An old market town lying at the heart of an agricultural district, Leeuwarden was formed from the amalgamation of three terpen that originally stood on an expanse of water known as the Middelzee. Later it was the residence of the powerful Frisian Stadholders, who vied with those of Holland for control of the United Provinces. These days it’s Friesland’s capital, a university town with a laidback provincial air, its centre a haphazard blend of modern glass and traditional gabled terraces overlooking canals. It perhaps lacks the concentrated historic charm of many other Dutch towns, but it’s an amiable old place, with a couple of decent museums. Its most appealing feature is its compact and eminently strollable old centre, almost entirely surrounded and dissected by water. Leeuwarden is a real student town too, so it has a bit of life about it, not to mention a decent array of good-value places to eat and drink.
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Leeuwarden’s most famous daughter, Mata Hari (1876–1917) was born Gertrud Zelle. Hari became a renowned “exotic” dancer after an early but unsuccessful marriage to a Dutch army officer. Although the Netherlands was neutral during World War I, Hari seems to have accepted a German bribe to spy for the kaiser. The French intelligence service soon got wind of the bribe – partly because she was also supposed to be working for them – and she was subsequently arrested, tried and shot. What she actually did remains a matter of some debate, but in retrospect it seems likely that she acted as a double agent, gathering information for the Allies while giving snippets to the Germans. Whatever the truth, there’s a small statue commemorating her at her partially clad best on Over de Kelders, erected on the hundredth anniversary of her birth in 1976.