Have you ever heard of the Elfstedentocht?
The Elfstedentocht (in English, "eleven cities tour") is a speed ice-skating race which is held in the Dutch province of Friesland during the winter. It is a major sports event in the Netherlands, but it is only held on those years when the weather conditions allow canals and lakes to freeze, forming a natural ice track of approximately 200 kilometres joining eleven cities in this province: Leeuwarden, Sneek, IJlst, Sloten, Stavoren, Hindelopen, Workum, Bolsward, Harlingen, Franeker and Dokkum.
The route of the Marathon of the Eleven Cities in the province of Friesland.
This Marathon of the Eleven Cities has only taken place 15 times since it was officially started in 1909 and the last one took place in 1997. When it will next take place, is anybody's guess, since there are a number of factors that need to combine in order to create the right conditions for the race to be held safely. Ideally, the ice layer needs to have a thickness of 15 cm along the entire 200 km track. During the last decades and as a consequence of global warming, the space of time between races has become longer and longer.
Here, in the archives of Geschiedenis (in English, "history") a channel of the broadcasting network Omroep, you can find videos of the Elfstedentocht so that you can get an idea of what it is all about.
Since living here in the Netherlands, I have never been able to see one of these marathons which has been quite disappointing. That is why last year in the summer, we decided to do our own Elfstedentocht - by car.
The marathon begins and finishes in the capital city of Friesland: Leeuwarden, and that is where we will start this new series in the blog.
Leeuwarden (in Dutch, click to hear pronunciation) or Ljowert (in Fries, the language spoken in this province - click to hear pronunciation) lies about 140 km from Amsterdam. It is the city where the Nassaus (ancestors of the present royal family) resided back in the 16th and 17th century; and it is also the city where Mata Hari, the famous exotic dancer and spy, was born.
A swan, symbol of the province of Friesland, engraved on the façade of the Frisian Academy in Leeuwarden.
Let's take a tour of the city, starting at the Frisian version of the leaning tower of Pisa: the Oldehove.
The Oldehove, the leaning tower of Leeuwarden.
The story goes that in the 16th century, the people of Leeuwarden wanted to have a church tower. This could not be just any church tower: it had to be higher than the Martini tower in the neighbour city of Groningen.
They started building the Oldehove tower in 1529; but once the builders had reached a height of 10 meters, the tower began ostensibly to lean to one side. After several unsuccessful attempts to correct the problem -for the city had to have a tower at all costs- they realised that there was no point carrying on and the construction was halted when the tower had reached a height of 40 m. It is said that the master builder Jacob van Aacken died of sorrow after failing to provide his city with a tower that would rival that of the neighbour town of Groningen.
The beautiful park of Prinsentuin (in English, "princes' garden") was part of a palace garden created in the 17th century for the family of the Nassaus.
Prinsentuin in Leeuwarden.
The Prinsentuin was donated by the stadhouder family (Nassaus) in the early 19th century to the city of Leeuwarden.
Prinsentuin in Leeuwarden.
This park has been open to the public since the end of the 18th century, which makes it the oldest park of this kind in the Netherlands.
Prinsentuin in Leeuwarden.
The Waag ("weighhouse") was the trading centre of the city of Leeuwarden, where cheese and butter were weighed officially and where transactions took place.
De Waag, built around 1590.
The Fries Museum in Leeuwarden is a "must-see" if you are interested in getting to know the best things that the Frisian people have ever created.
The Fries Museum in Leeuwarden.
There you will find permanent art expositions, exhibitions of contemporary art, and style rooms. Within the complex, the Mata Hari museum and the Verzetsmuseum (in English, "museum of the Resistance") are really worth a visit if you want to know more about the famous spy or what life was like during the WWII in Friesland. I will come back to the Fries Museum later, dedicating a full blog entry to it in the future.
Façade of the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden.
If you take a walk around the city centre in Leeuwarden, you are bound to find very interesting architecture and old historic monuments. Let's take a look:
A street in the city centre, the Achmea Tower seen in the background.
The Princessehof, houses the Ceramics Museum in Leeuwarden.
Me posing by a water pump, close to the Grotekerk (in English, "big church")in Leeuwarden.
The "Oranjepoortje", the entrance for the royal family at the Grotekerk.
A quite elegant street in the city centre of Leeuwarden.
Stadhouderlijk Hof Palace (1564), former royal palace now houses a 4-star hotel.
Another street of Leeuwarden.
The shopping centre Zaailand in Leeuwarden.
Leeuwarden is definitely an attractive city from every point of view. It has a lot to offer, with its historic city centre and interesting museums, its many art galleries and antique shops and of course, the active waterways where you can take boat trips and admire the city from a different perspective.
Our Elfestedentocht will continue in a few weeks, this time visiting the city of Sneek.
Some useful links:
* Official site of the association of the Elfstedentocht or "Vereniging De Friesche Elf Steden" where you can find information about the marathon.
* Visit Frysland, tourist information about the province of Friesland, including the eleven cities of the Elfstedentocht.
* More tourist information of the Eleven Cities.
* Official website of the Fries Museum Leeuwarden.