Published: 12/01/2018 11:17 - Updated: 12/01/2018 12:20

Part 2: Leeuwarden - Capital of culture 2018 and home to Marta Hari.

Written byRon Smith, travel writer

In Part 1, I explained that it is easy to get to Leeuwarden (KLM flights from Aberdeen or Inverness and train from Amsterdam's Schiphol airport) and you are in the capital of the Friesland region of the Netherlands. The whole region does not have a great population, but have 11 cities the smallest of which has around 500 people, but they have the right to be called a city and are proud of it.

The wonderful Art Deco pharmacy in Leeuwarden
The wonderful Art Deco pharmacy in Leeuwarden

Read part 1 of Ron Smith's Leeuwarden story

In the town - sorry city - of Leeuwarden I stayed at the Post Plaza hotel. This is central, superb, and is what was the central post office buildings. How times have changed. The impressive post office building would have been the pride and joy at one time, now it is an upmarket hotel. Opposite are typical buildings from olden days, with ceramic tile ornamentation. Just around the corner is the wonderful art deco Pharmacie, looking unchanged from when it was built. The city centre has managed to retain small shops, with no empty ones. No doubt there are big supermarkets on the perimeter of the city, but the centre has all that you could want. Another striking building is the square red brick weigh house on the canal side. Today you can have a cup of tea in the cafe there, it is in a wide area of cobbles that sees occasional shows and stalls.

The centre of the city has canals running through it. These, in olden days, were of course the sewers and with not a fast flow of water, as it is all so flat, it became pretty smelly. The council decided to sort this out, and the waterways became clean (although the canals still look pretty brown to me) To demonstrate the new clean water, a bath was installed in a canal. This is an oblong structure, just like a mini swimming pool, and there is a statue of a man in the bath. At regular intervals the bath fills with canal water, and then empties again. This is a very unusual sculpture!

Another converted old building is the erstwhile prison, the Blokhuispoort. At the time of my visit (October 2017) the imposing twin turreted facade was shrouded in scaffolding as it is being converted into a hostel (sleep in a prison cell!!) and will also form part of the cultural centre for the 2018 European Capital of Culture.

Leeuwarden gained the European Capital of Culture status by its innovative plans and ideas that are "bottom up" - local people are involved with ideas and themes for their areas. As part of the events each city will have a fountain. This feels natural for them. They are expert water engineers, and have lived with controlling water and building and maintaining dykes for many generations. International competition brought many designs from water architects all over the world, and these were picked by the cities according to what they liked. They are all around 3 metres high. Some are rather fanciful, and needed explaining to me, others are very attractive, and one or two rather puzzling. It would be interesting to drive around the eleven cities and see them all working in 2018. My favourite is for the town - sorry - city, of Ijlst. Lovely name, no spelling mistake - there are few vowels! It is a Japanese designer's vision of what looks like a posy of flowers, and each flower is one of the typical meadow flowers of the region, that are now in danger of dying out. This chimes with the Frieslanders' concern for their environment, including the black tailed Godwit. This bird used to be as common as sparrows, but again is dying out. This bird is being used as a symbol of what needs to be done to protect endangered species.

The weigh house by the canal dock
The weigh house by the canal dock

There are many other events planned and it will really make this region a place to visit in 2018. The Giants of Royal Deluxe will be there in August. These are massive puppets each one being two or three times life sized. The plan is that the city centre of Leeuwarden, within the canal ring, will be closed off during one night and these massive monster sized human figures brought in. In the morning, they will walk through the streets, and in the evening, disappear in the night to leave the city empty. This will be logistically difficult to achieve, there has to be access for the emergency services, and bus services will be chaotic, and I cannot imagine the Dutch going without bicycles! There are many more bicycles than people in the Netherlands, and a high proportion of journeys into the city centre - the majority of journeys - are by bicycle.

The unusual man in a bath sculpture in Leeuwarden
The unusual man in a bath sculpture in Leeuwarden
Considering the huge competition for the title it is testimony to the way that they have gone about it, the involvement at grass roots level, and the imaginative programme of events that have lead to their success. Their slogan is "dare to dream, dare to act, dare to be different" and that is just what they are doing. European actors, writers, and dancers feature in various places and times throughout the year. There will be a film festival. One of the most interesting events will be in the city of Drachten. This is the birthplace of the Dada movement, and of Piet Mondrian's remarkable bold style of painting using only horizontal and vertical black lines and the four primary colours. The artist Maurits Cornelius Escher was also born in Leeuwarden, and his fantastic paintings that change from one design to another, or one direction to others, will also feature in an exhibition. Opera, night time theatre, including in a working prison, jazz, seven thousand young musicians in Sneek, and my favourite to see, cheese wheel rolling races, are just a sample of what is going to happen.
The “Four Pelicans” small theatre, Leeuwarden
The “Four Pelicans” small theatre, Leeuwarden

With the lack of stones for walls, fields are usually separated by ditches or canals. Traditionally, farmers would get from one to another by carrying a long pole and leap vaulting across. This is now another traditional national sport. There will be dragon boat racing. There will be a major exhibition about ceramics in the Museum of Ceramics in Leeuwarden. There are also dancing classes where you can learn to dance the seductive routines of Mart Hari!!!! The number and variety of events is staggering.

Friesland is also a good place to visit and explore at any time. The railway system connects many of the towns and cities and they all have something interesting to offer. There is also a cycling route (of course, being flat, cycling is easy to do) connecting all eleven cities - and if you feel fit enough, you can cycle the 250 kms stopping in various cities as you go round. Also, you can do this journey all the way by canal boat! In days gone by, when winters were colder and the canals froze over, it was also an endurance ice skating tournament to do the tour of the eleven cities by skating! From Leeuwarden it is a short train ride to Harlingen. This is Friesland's major port. From here you can catch a ferry to one of the off islands, Terschelling. These islands are very interesting places, sparsely populated, low lying, sheltering behind hedges and never far from the sea. They are also great places to go bird watching, as the birds stop off on the islands for a breather on their migratory journeys. Harlingen will also have the "tall ships" sailing ships call there in 2018 as part of the water culture of Friesland.

The leaning church tower of Leeuwarden
The leaning church tower of Leeuwarden

 

The Friesland people are officially the tallest people in Europe. It is not often that you will see any fat people ether. This has been variously put down to cycling everywhere all the time, the diet, or I have even heard it said that it is because their land is so flat, they have to keep stretching up to see where they are going, looking for landmarks. Certainly, when I was waiting to cross a road by the railway station, there was me and two other pedestrians waiting for the green man sign, next to us were 22 cyclists waiting for the green cycle sign - which lit up first, letting them clear the road before we humble pedestrians were allowed to cross.

There is also a Friesland language. I thought that this would be a dialect of normal Dutch - but not so. It is similar to medieval English! This language is officially recognised and receives money from the EU to promote it and its culture. The Friesland national anthem De Alde Friezen translates as "the ancient Friesians". They have their own flag, based on the shape the original Friesian islands (today some belong to Denmark, some to Germany). Some dozens of villages in the north are built on "terps" which means raised mounds, to protect them from the sea. As you can imagine, sea, ships and shipbuilding and equipment were always, and still are, important industries here, as well as the traditional agriculture of cows and potatoes.

The Friesland people are confident in their culture and place in the world. Over the centuries they have fought and won many battles against the sea and invaders from the east. They are proud to continue to use their own language and continue their strong traditions and culture. They even gave me a "Frysk Paspoart" - a Friesian passport! It contains details of the country, food specialties, facts and figures, and of course the national anthem.

This area of the Netherlands is easy for us to get to, is full of unique character, and well worth a visit. It is easy to see how the judges would have been persuaded that Leuwarden and all the other cities of Friesland, will justifiably merit the title of European Capital of Culture for 2018. It will be good to go there. For more information, the excellent Dutch tourist office can provide full details.

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