Friday, 25 February 2011

Our own Elfstedentocht: Stop # 4 Dokkum

(si prefieres leer ésto en español, sigue este enlace)
One of the Frisian cities that I intend to visit again next spring or summer is the town of Dokkum, which is the northernmost city in the Netherlands and one of oldest towns in the Elfstedentocht - the famous long-distance skating race that takes place in eleven cities in the province of Friesland. 

Closely linked to the city of Dokkum is the name of a saint: Boniface, or as he is known in Dutch, St. Bonifatius. He was a missionary who propagated Christianity in the Frankish Empire and reached what is today the Dutch province of Friesland. It was here in Dokkum in the year 754 where St. Bonifatius suffered martyrdom at the hands of the local inhabitants. 
Today,  spread throughout the city, there are reminders of this historical figure, such as the neo-Gothic church of St. Bonifatius -one of the seven that architect Pierre Kuypers built in Friesland. Also, in the outskirts of the town, you can find St. Bonifatiuskapel and well, which is said to have healing powers.
St. Boniface's Church, built in the 1870s by P. Cuypers.

St. Bonifatius chapel and well, in the outskirts of Dokkum.
The mitre in the middle of this square represents the path followed by St. Bonifatius during his mission in Friesland.

In this well-preserved fortified town, the rich past is still visible. Dokkum had until the 18th century a direct connection to the sea and was for a long time an important harbour.
At the Grootdiep, the former harbour of the city and gateway to the sea, we can still today see the Admiraliteitshuis, vestige of a time when the Admiralty of Groningen and Friesland was housed here and whose purpose was to protect ocean trade. In 1963 the building was converted into a regional museum showing mainly popular regional art, collections of ceramics and textiles from the Golden Age and a very interesting exhibition about St. Boniface, his work and life.

The Admiralty Wharf at Dokkum.

Another interesting building that one should not miss while walking around Dokkum is the exceptional Town Hall, which dates from 1610 and was restored and extended or renewed in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Dokkum old Stadhuis is situated in the Kleindiep, which is also the turning point of the Elfstedentocht race.

At the local Tourist Information Office or VVV (address and website below) you can find different walking routes which will take you along the most important sights; but you can of course just walk around on your own, rambling along the canals and cute winding lanes or over the bolwerk, which was the old bastion of the city.
The Hope mill, dating from 1849.
Kids from Dokkum meeting for a chat on a Sunday afternoon.

A lady tending her garden in Dokkum.
Dokkum is also an ideal place to explore the area around this part of the country as well. Northeast Friesland is characterised by charming villages built on man-made mounds - the terp (mound) villages. To the south of the city begins the Frisian Woodland with its special landscape of half-open vistas crisscrossed by hedgerows and to the north and west, the wide open sea mudflats and the Lauwersmeer National Park, a unique area that offers both, protection for the natural habitat and plenty of opportunities for enjoying contact wih nature and water.

The Kleindiep canal or gateway with a view of the Zeldenrust mill.

Pretty houses by the canal in the city of Dokkum.

You can find my posts about three other Frisian cities here:
Stop # 1: Leeuwaarden
Stop #2: Harlingen

Stop #3: IJlst

Useful addresses:

Tourist information (for maps, routes, etc.)
Regio VVV Lauwersland
Op de Fetze 13
9101 Dokkum

Bonifatius Chapel and well (for information on visiting times, etc.)
Bronlaan 12, 9101 VS Dokkum - Phone nr.:06 – 109 14 645

Museum Dokkum (Het Admiraliteitshuis)
Diepswal 27, 9101 Dokkum - Phone nr.: 0519 - 293134

Monday, 7 February 2011

Of Dutch weddings, herring and (bad) first impressions....

(si prefieres leer esta entrada en español, por favor sigue este enlace)

A few days ago Argentinean blogger Ana O'Reilly, author of A pinch of this, a dash of that came up with the idea of having a "weddings around the world" blog series. When she contacted me with the suggestion of posting simultaneously about this topic, I thought it was a good opportunity for me to write about my first experience with party-making in the Netherlands just a very short time after arriving in the country. 

Please, visit Ana's blog entry to read all about her and her Welsh husband Sean's wedding in Argentina. 
Also taking part in this series is American blogger Katie, author of  "Seashells and Sunflowers" You can read her story about her first Argentinean wedding party in her post: "Party 'Til the Crack of Dawn"

 I was still in expat baby diapers, so to speak, in terms of knowledge of the Dutch culture and way of life, when my husband came home from work one day, with the news that we had been invited to a wedding - his colleague Bas was getting married and the party was to be held in a restaurant just outside Zwolle. This was very exciting news! A party! The chance to dress up, get my hair done, wear a lovely evening dress which I hadn't had much chance to show off back in Argentina, and an opportunity to have nice food and dance...! I couldn't wait.

Our wedding day in Argentina, back in 2003.
A week or so before the wedding, my husband found my long strappy turquoise dress beautifully displayed on our bed and myself standing there admiring it. Was I going to make an impression, or what!With a look of surprise on his face, he turned to me wondering if, by any chance, I was planning on attending the Academy Awards Ceremony in LA? What did he mean, I asked - it was obvious that with the wedding just a few days away, I was just getting everything ready for the party, and this was the dress I was going to wear ... I still had to choose the shoes to go with it though, make an appointment with the hairdresser,  (painful affair back then, painful affair still today) pick my accessoires...
Next, when my husband opened his mouth again, my hopes of a red carpet moment at a Dutch wedding were cruelly crushed: people in Holland, he explained, or at least people in this part of Holland, did not dress up that much for a wedding but rather use normal everyday clothes; still smart, but nothing like that dress I was planning on wearing!

I was shocked! Did these people know what they were missing? What of looking smashing, what of all the excitement of finding the right dress, what of all the glamour and glitter?
In hindsight now, after years of living in the Netherlands and learning how practical Dutch people are, I can say they are indeed missing a lot, but not in a bad way. They certainly do not go through all the fuss and stress of finding the perfect Cindirella dress and shoes to match, and they definetely probably don't  throw away an entire month's salary on a single night for a wedding that is not even their own nor their sister's nor probably even their best friend's.

Guests who are not directly related to the couple, normally wear informal clothes to a wedding.
On the day of the wedding, I still made an effort to look my best, of course, even if I was not going to look as if I had just stepped down from a Milan catwalk. I had a quick lunch and started preparing early, since the wedding reception was to begin at 8 pm - a strange time to start a wedding party, in my clueless, non-Dutch opinion.
In Argentina, even if it is now becoming more and more popular to celebrate weddings in the morning and having parties during the day, the norm still is to have the ceremony at around 9 or even 10pm (like my own wedding); therefore, parties don't generally start until 11pm or midnight and they last until the following morning.

Upon arriving at the party, I left my coat in the cloakroom and walked right into the restaurant, eager to start my first Dutch wedding experience. So eager was I, that I blindly walked past the bride and bridegroom at the entrance where they were lined up, together with their direct family, to welcome guests to the party. Surely ignoring them completely, was not exactly the way to make a good first impression, was it?
My excuse of course, was that this line-up procedure was a total novelty for me. In Argentina the guests arrive  first at the party and are served  amuse-bouches and some kind of bubbly wine or cocktails while they wait for the happy couple to make their grand entrance.After this, the party can begin.

Our friends' wedding ceremony, held in the Burgerzaal of the City Hall in Zwolle.
After this first moment of embarrassment, I relaxed and started enjoying the atmosphere of the party. Nice music: check. People chatting merrily and having a good time: check. Food: .... food? Oh, no need to be alarmed; here was a waiter offering ... coffee! Coffee? That was rather unusual, I thought. Coffee before dinner? I drank my coffee and waited... and then waited some more.

Meanwhile, I was introduced to some of my husband's colleagues and I had a chance to talk a bit to most of them. There was a band playing live music which I thought was a brilliant idea and is not so habitual in my own country. Many of the guests were singing along, while in the centre of the room, a group of women were dancing on their own - that is, without partners. My husband doesn't like dancing, so I looked at them with a bit of envy, for I was dancing in my head all the time. I considered walking up to the group myself and joining in, but I wasn't sure what the right thing to do was in these circumstances and after my first blunder with the hosts plus family line-up, I was afraid of making yet another mistake.

Arriving at the place where the wedding ceremony was to be held.
 After eight years living here in the Netherlands and having attended enough weddings by now, I still find it odd that in this part of the Netherlands, it is mostly older couples with an obvious ballroom dancing background or women that dance at weddings or parties in general, while the men stay apart drinking beer and talking.
At a wedding I attended last year, I decided to ask a (Dutch) friend, why this was the case and he replied that indeed, men usually prefer to step outside (weather permitting) to smoke, drink and talk for the duration of the party, while the women inside dance on their own. He also pointed out that he normally only asks someone to dance when he goes to discos or clubs while on holidays abroad, but never in the Netherlands.

Back at the party and some time afterwards, the waiter came back with pretty snacks and my face must have lighted up at the sight of the food. I was so hungry by now, that I could have taken the whole tray that he was carrying and gobble all that food at once. Instead, I picked some sort of crostini that tasted very good, and waited ...

When later (a lot later, actually) the waiter showed up again with the second round of snacks, I said no, for I didn't want to eat too many snacks - I wanted to wait for dinner. My husband instantly saw what I was doing and, in a whisper, he warned me that .... dear Lord, I could not believe what I was hearing, there was not going to be any dinner!

After doing some research aftewards and asking around, I found out that here in the Netherlands, it is customary to invite only family and close friends to a wedding dinner and then have a party with friends and acquaintances. But how was I supposed to know this? In Argentina wedding parties usually include a three-course dinner, a buffet sweet table with different sorts of cakes and desserts and because the merriment lasts until the following morning, it is also usual to offer a "breakfast" of either pizzas or -the most common choice- a flambée whole.... leg of beef! Think "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" to get the picture....

Snacks it was to be, then! And they did look appetising, so even if I was not going to get a full meal as I had expected, I was going to enjoy the party food. More talking and more females-only dancing was done, before the third round of snacks came along. By now I was nearly starving because I hadn't had anything to eat since my quick lunch hours before the party. I quickly scanned the pretty hors d'ouvre on the tray and I picked one without thinking too much of what it was made of.

The minute I bit into it I knew that I was going to regret it. Unlucky choice of snack I had made! The gelatinous, soapy texture of the thing in my mouth told me that I had taken a bite of the one Dutch delicacy I had been avoiding to eat since arriving in the country: hollandse nieuwe, which is actually ... raw herring!

A hollandse nieuwe snack, that is, the first young herring of the season. Photo credit: Jerulobe for Wikipedia.
At that moment, someone addressed me or included me in the conversation with an intonation which meant I was expected to answer. How could I, when I was still trying to figure out what to do with the rubbery piece of fish I had in my mouth? I was not going to swallow it, that was for sure. I managed to give a quick answer trying hard not to gag in the guy's face (that would not have been very red carpet moment!) and  rushed to the Ladies' room with the intention of getting rid of the ... newly discovered delicacy. 

Needless to say, I was forced to spend much of the rest of the evening visiting the same Ladies' room time and time again, because despite drinking gallons of water, cola and other beverages, I did not succeed in washing out the taste of the bit of raw fish from my mouth.

So much for having fun and enjoying my first Dutch wedding...Like Groucho Marx once said, I had "a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn't it."