This article first appeared in the Sunday Times SA
Did you really say Friesland?
Tell an Amsterdammer that you’re headed to Friesland and watch their eyes widen in surprise. Time and again. You’d be forgiven for rethinking your vacation choice but stay the course because once you’ve been there you’ll clock the trip as one of your most memorable yet.
Friesland- one of Holland’s best kept secrets!
Situated in the chilly north of Holland, Friesland is a little under the tourist radar and it really shouldn’t be. Among other things it’s an intriguing alternative to those wanting to ease up on Amsterdam, one of several European cities battling over-tourism. Drive from the capital and in under two hours you’re in bucolic surroundings – lush pastures, wooden farmhouses, vintage windmills and waterways so numerous that Frisians joke they have more words for bodies of water than bread. True story. Since time immemorial, the Dutch have battled and prevailed over their watery flatlands, successfully converting uninhabitable marshes into terra firma through innovative feats of engineering. And like the rest of their compatriots, Frisians love a good float and today sloops, barges, yachts, row boats and canoes are as common as bicycles are in the ‘Dam. Citizens are clearly winning at life and for the outsider looking in, their little universe feels a lot like utopia.
Quaint towns and the Eleven ‘Cities’ marked by historical significance, not their size
Quirky elements of Friesland
Friesland, aka Frisia or Fryslân, the northernmost of The Netherlands’ twelve provinces, is quirky for a number of reasons. There’s a provincial flag emblazoned with red heart- shaped waterlilies, a unique language, and the biggest drawcard of all, the Eleven Cities of Leeuwarden, Sneek, Ijlst, Sloten, Stavoren, Hindeloopen, Franeker, Workum, Bolsward, Harlingen and Dokkum. With populations that range from 715 in Sloten to just under 100 000 in Leeuwarden, they are called cities for their historical significance rather than their size and structure.
Leeuwarden, the premier City, was named in 2018 as the Cultural Capital of Europe and The Lonely Planet’s third favourite destination in its Best of Europe list for the same year. Who even knew? It’s also where the famous Elfstedentocht originated, a leisure skating tour that was launched in 1909. The event can only take place if the ice is fifteen centimetres thick and because of global warming, it has eluded Friesland since 1997.
The 11Fountains, a cultural ‘Elfstedentocht’
The 11Fountains project, conceived as a type of cultural ‘Elfstedentocht’, has been celebrated as a new type of heritage and a novel way to showcase the region. Eleven contemporary art works by eleven international artists installed in eleven historic cities, pleasing not only to tourists but to residents who were consulted during the development process. Anna Tilroe, the curator and brains behind the concept, briefed creatives to come up with designs that would shed new light on forgotten historical aspects of a city using water as the central theme. Each tells a unique story and promotes the mienskip (community) that is so evident and tangible in this part of the land. The unveilings took place in May 2018 and the 11Fountains breathed new life into their locations and boosted tourism beautifully – a smart PR move by Team Friesland and a small compensation to the tradition-bound populace who have most likely forever forfeited the original Elfstedentocht to climate change.
With her Fountain, Cornelia Parker, a visual artist from Britain, aimed to ‘liberate’ the heraldic lions on the façade of the Waaggebouw (weigh house) in Workum. The De Woeste Leeuwen (Rampant Lions), carved out of accoya by a local artist, shows the big cats standing comically upright, paws raised, with water spurting from their claws. Chinese artist Shen Yuan was inspired by the myth surrounding Hindeloopen’s coat of arms. His ‘tree of life’ with its exotic birds spouting water and the stag antlers alongside, symbolises the life force and wisdom. In Bolsward, De Vleermuis (The Bat) is a bronze masterpiece in front of the magnificently restored Medieval Broerekerk on Broereplein, sculpted by Paris-based Belgian artist Johan Creten. In certain folklore the creature represents wealth, community, rebirth, the role of the individual in community, and the ecological environment. Stairs up the back of the bat invite people of all ages to climb up and lie between its wings. In Sneek, the man on the rotating golden globe with the Horn of Plenty throws back to Fortuna, the goddess of good luck and the patroness of cities, families and population groups. Water pours from the horn, symbolising the flow of fortune and asks who will profit from it and how long it will last?
Aesthetically, each City has strong similarities with standout features that mark individuality through customs, cuisine, architecture and those famous founts, and one of the best ways to view and explore them is from the water. Hire a boat – you don’t even need a licence for smaller craft – and then stop and start as you please, not forgetting the other towns and hamlets that lie on routes in between. Wherever you go the tourist offering ranks high, with museums, heritage sites, cathedrals, memorials, Jenever tastings, galleries, water sports, outdoor markets and speciality stores.
Friesland is sold as a place where rich history is embraced by modern culture and where tranquillity is a state of mind. Slip it into your European itinerary and discover a place that’s literally a world apart.