Friesland might just be the most unique province in The Netherlands. The Frisians speak their own language, have their own traditions and four out of five Wadden Islands are considered Frisian soil. Trot Op! drove all the way up north, spent the weekend in and around Leeuwarden and went looking for the best things to do.
Frisians are a special people. Not only do they speak their own completely unique language, but according to all sorts of studies they feel happier, freer, healthier and even safer than the rest of the Dutch population. This creates an interesting paradox, because at the same time people in Friesland earn less money, are less educated and on top of that they’re much uglier (just joking: you guys are stunning). But why is life over there such a treat? Is it the fresh air? Does the wide open space make the Frisian heart beat faster? Is it the breeze blowing off the Wadden Sea, ever so softly touching everything with its salty kiss? Who knows, but it remains a striking mystery. To give the rest of humanity the opportunity to share in their happiness and, if necessary, to come and look for the answer to this question, the local tourist office started the Come Recharge in Friesland campaign this winter. In doing so, they invite everyone to come for a visit to clear their heads and recharge their batteries. Well, they didn’t have to tell me twice, so last weekend I drove all the way to the rugged north of the Netherlands, to surrender to the beautiful reality of being Frisian for three days. It giet oan!
Recharge your batteries in Friesland: 8 great Frisian activities to try out this winter
I used to know Friesland almost exclusively from two very specific things. Around the year 2000, a duo called Twarres suddenly appeared out of thin air. Armed with very bad haircuts and their one hit wonder Wêr Bisto, they stormed the charts singing Frisian. Of course, we in Flanders didn’t understand a single word of that song, but the video of them sadly looking out over the sea from their gran’s couch, was played for months and months on our local MTV (remember MTV?). Of course I also knew the Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities Trail): an immensely popular skating competition on natural ice, passing through all eleven Frisian cities over a 200 km long trail of canals and streams. The event only takes place when the ice stays thick enough long enough, which isn’t very often. The last one was organised in 1997, when I was still failing math in early high school. Given the current circumstances, this could well have been the last one until the next ice age. Fortunately, there’s plenty to do in Friesland apart from ice skating. Its capital Leeuwarden is a cosy town and has a historic city centre with multiple pretty little canals running through it, there are several national parks to visit and four of the five Dutch Wadden Islands are part of the province (which is why they are commonly called the Frisian Islands in English). This time I decided to recharge my batteries on the mainland (you can read my article on the islands here). This proved to be a good idea, with plenty of opportunities to do just that. Here are my eight favourites.
1. A Guide to Leeuwarden: a walk through the Frisian capital
In 2018, Leeuwarden was chosen as the European Capital of Culture. This came with loads of temporary events and a number of permanent projects you can still see and visit today. We took a tour of the city with A Guide to Leeuwarden: a group of guides who’ve been organizing free walking tours on an almost daily basis for ten years now (you’re supposed to give them a tip at the end of course). Our walk started at the Oldehove. This is a plump church tower, more crooked than the one in Pisa*. Not only that: the building is warped as well. An architectural achievement to be proud of, that could’ve been avoided if the subsoil had been looked at before starting construction. Next we took to the old town: walking along the canals, through all kinds of hidden city gardens and through the main shopping and pub streets. Along the way we passed quite some street art (most of the murals are also a remnant of 2018). There’s a surprising number of museums to visit in Leeuwarden as well, including three real top draws. Fries Museum is the largest and gives an in-depth look at the region, the culture and its language (the Frisian Resistance Museum is also located in this building). Natuurmuseum Fryslân is a modern natural history museum with a unique “underwater” safari and Princessehof is a beautiful historic building home to an extensive ceramics museum.
*The church tower of Miedum – also in Friesland – leans even more and is officially the most crooked tower in the whole of the Netherlands.
2. De Blokhuispoort: fun for the whole family in prison
For a long time, Leeuwarden was home to the largest and most strict prison in the country. This prison complex was not hidden in some forgotten corner of town, but stood practically glued to the city centre. It was a monstrous building with large halls in which the prisoners could perform their forced labour of choice. This is all in the past now, because apparently the last crime in Holland was solved in 2017. As a result, the entire site suddenly stood empty and after a while it was turned into a cultural business centre. Since then, you’ll find dozens of small businesses in the prison corridors, as well as a public library and several restaurants. The nicest part of Blokhuisport is the H-wing, were all kinds of small shops and creative workshops are housed in the former cells. The Alibi Hostel is also here, located on the first floor. Here you can rent yourself an authentic cell at a reasonable rate. It has all the amenities it used to have, minus the buffed sex offender spooning you. The common room is surprisingly cosy. This project is a wonderful way to convert what was essentially an ugly stain in the cityscape into a cultural attraction. www.blokhuispoort.nl
3. 11fountains: a new fountain for every Frisian city
Photos by Yob Rooks (bottom right) and Lydia Annema
Another relic of 2018 are the eleven fountains that were made by eleven international artists, one in every city part of the Elfstedentocht. The project is called 11fountains and a number of big names worked on it, of which Jaume Plensa (who had a major exhibition in Mons this summer) is probably the best known. The fountains are quite diverse in appearance and often surprising: from the serene heads of Plensa in Leeuwarden, a massive carp in Stavoren, a human tower in Sloten and an ice fountain in Dokkum to two absolutely hilarious lions in Workum and a life-size whale in the harbour of Harlingen. Some statues encourage you to climb or draw onto them, while others can be walked through. If you like a challenge, you can visit all of them in one go on your bicycle, and thus complete your own Elfstedentocht without having to freeze your nuts off. According to the promo talk, this project made Friesland the largest sculpture garden in Europe, but we in Flanders take that with a grain of salt. My own Antwerp has a nice statue in front of the city hall, Brussels has Manneken Pis, and Bruges, Mechelen and Ghent probably have some statues of their own somewhere as well. This of course makes for a much bigger area already. Ah, another client who won’t have me back now. Nicely done. www.11fountains.nl
4. De Tocht: a musical spectacle about the Elfstedentocht
Unless we’re talking about the original Jesus Christ Superstar – which absolutely rocks – you couldn’t possibly call me a musical fan. When I was told I’d spend my first night in Friesland watching a two-hour music spectacle about the Elfstedentocht, all I could do was to quietly accept my fate. When the first five minutes seemed filled with an almost nauseating cheerfulness, I kept sinking deeper into my chair, arms crossed and with my grimmest war face on display. This became a wise lesson on the prejudices I still hold sometimes, because half an hour later I was completely on board. The competition only serves as the setting for this musical. Everything revolves around a group of five friends who came together after 26 years to complete their first race together. It’s a story about friendship, loss and acceptance, and at times things get quite emotional. Of course, the spectacle itself contributes to this. The actors/singers are supported by dozens of extras on skates – some of which are phenomenal athletes – who move on a rotating ice floor of 2000m2. Some of the dialogues are partly spoken in Frisian, but because the other actors answer in Dutch, you can always figure out what they’re saying. In the background, atmospheric and technologically impressive images full of landmarks from the eleven cities are projected. For anyone who actually participated in the race in person, this is most likely extremely nostalgic. For us ignorant little Belgians, De Tocht is simply a beautiful show – which they’ll probably keep performing for years to come.
5. Supaway: collect rubbish from a surfboard
I’d never heard of the term supping, but in Friesland it’s a popular sport. You stand or sit on a surfboard and move around with a paddle – advanced kayaking, so to speak. Even in winter people keep supping in Friesland, but then I’d suggest wearing a wetsuit to keep the hypothermia away. We were invited by the lovely people of Supaway in Grou, to go peddling on a local waterway in an industrial area. We wouldn’t hit the water just for fun, but to participate in their Supclean-up project. Here you get a little grabber, and a bucket tied to your board, and then you can start collecting all kinds of rubbish floating between the reeds along the banks. This is an activity both satisfying and mildly shocking. After a good hour my bucket was filled to the brim and there were still several large pieces of styrofoam and even a full plastic buoy sitting on my surfboard. It’s disturbing how much random garbage is in the water everywhere, especially in an area regularly cleaned out. Apart from that, supping is a relaxing activity and the board is surprisingly stable. To my great disappointment, no one took an unplanned plunge. www.supaway.nl
6. The Eise Eisinga Planetarium: the solar system in your living room
In addition to one of the eleven new statues, Franeker has another unique surprise in store: the oldest working planetarium in the world. It was put together at the end of the eighteenth century by a wool comber called Eise Eisinga (what a musical name). The man built the entire structure into the ceiling of his living room and this took him about seven years. When he was finally finished, an entire miniature solar system was spinning above the casserole on his dining table, powered by a sophisticated cog system you can see in action on the first floor. After more than 200 years, everything is still working properly, all planets are still in the right position in relation to each other and even the lunar cycle is still correctly indicated. The man clearly knew what he was doing. The colourful planetarium room is almost magical to look at, although everything moves so slowly you won’t notice it with the naked eye. In the rest of the house are a lot of old instruments on display, as well as all kinds of experiments and facts about the universe. Nice place, which was added to the Unesco World Heritage List this year. www.eisinga-planetarium.nl
7. Wadloopcentrum Friesland: plod through the mudaesthetically
The Wadden Sea is surprisingly shallow. This not only means ships have to know very well where they’re able to navigate, but also that at low tide whole sections of the seabed are exposed. If you feel like it you can put on a pair of waterproof boots and walk through the mud on the bottom to look for the variety of little creatures living in it. At the right moment, you can even walk from island to island, but you definitely shouldn’t try this on your own. The water can rise again quickly an unexpectedly, and before you know it you’ll be trapped and they’ll have to come and rescue you like some moron. It’s safer to book a walking tour with Wadloopcentrum Friesland. This is an association of guides who know the area through and through. The weather was a bit too dreary during our visit to actually enter the mudflats, so we booked a salt marsh walk in Blije as an alternative. On this tour, you’ll visit the area between the dike and the water: an equally unique landscape that looks different every season. Here and there are some interesting works of art. The Terp fan de Takomst (I assume this is Frisian and not an accumulation of spelling mistakes) is a wooden, circular resting spot, that is somewhat reminiscent of Stonehenge. Further on is the artwork Waiting for High Water: two massive bronze statues overlooking the sea. www.wadlopen.net
8. National Park De Alde Feanen: ride through the swamp on an e-chopper
Another beautiful piece of nature is the De Alde Feanen National Park: a unique place that was created by centuries of peat excavation. As a result, a great peat bog of about 4.000 hectares lies here now. Imagine it as a green area full of reeds, open water and straight gullies clearly dug by human hands, separated by stretches of land you can reach over little bridges or peddle to in a kayak. This is of course a paradise for birds. It’s home to a colony of a few hundred cormorants, and even sea eagles are sometimes seen here. If you’re really lucky, you might even spot some otters. We rode along the edge of the park on an e-chopper. This is a cross between an electric moped and a step (which I was also able to test in Schouwen-Duiveland) with a wide Harley Davidson handlebar mounted on the front. This looks surprisingly silly – especially when passing cyclists at 25 km/h with Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild blasting through your cell phone speakers, but it gets you from A to B quite easily. This little tour turned out to be the perfect ending to my weekend in Friesland. The e-chopper was already charged before the ride, I felt revitalised only afterwards. www.np-aldefeanen.nl
Hotels in Leeuwarden and further information
In Leeuwarden, we stayed at Hotel Via Via. This place works according to the ‘Just a Room’ principle. You check in online, and then you get an email with a number of sliders you can use to open both the front door and the door of your room. Not your traditional hotel experience, but tip-top nonetheless. The rooms themselves are very spacious and pleasantly furnished. Breakfast was tasty as well. www.hotelviavia.nl
This trip was made possible in collaboration with Visit Friesland. For more information about everything you can do in the province, check: www.friesland.nl. The newsletter about the Recharging in Friesland campaign can be found here: www.friesland.nl/nl/uitgelicht/opfriesen.
Fancy some other Dutch trips? Read my blog posts about Schouwen-Duiveland, Brabant, Cycling in Amsterdam, Strange Museums in Amsterdam, South Limburg, Eindhoven, Utrecht, Flevoland, Haarlem or the Wadden Islands (apparently I’ve been there a few times in the past year).