It’s one of the world’s most gruelling journeys, the classic ‘Elfstedentocht’ or ‘Eleven cities tour’. When the canals freeze over in Friesland in the northern Netherlands, thousands of brave souls attempt to skate over 130 miles, visiting all eleven towns in one day.
For those of us more interested in landscape, culture and food than in masochism, there’s an easier way to see the province. Wait till the ice melts, then ride round Friesland on a bike. The sign-posted Elfsteden Cycle Route leads us along designated bike paths and quiet country roads. There are comfortable places to stay, eat and rest the buttocks every few kilometres. The countryside is extraordinarily pretty. The eleven towns are varied and interesting. Best of all, Friesland is flat. Anyone with two legs can roll round the circuit in a few leisurely days, with no need for a flash bike, performance-enhancing drugs or an embarrassing lycra outfit.
We could rent bikes at Friesian stations, though we bring ours up on the train from Amsterdam. We’ve also bought bike computers to measure our achievements, because they were on special at the Aldi supermarket, which we now know is 3.828miles from Amsterdam Centraal Station.
After a three-hour train trip, we clunk on to the platform at Leeuwarden and ride 0.026miles out into the street. Where’s the signpost to Sneek, first of those eleven towns? Signs point to Dronrijp, Wytgaerd and Ritzumazijl, but fail to mention Sneek. A taxi driver directs us to the edge of town where we find a sign with a friendly picture of a bike and the magic words, “Sneek 23km”. We’re on our way!
Sneek’s ‘waterpoort’ is crowded with pleasure boats, and star attractions are the skutjes, beautiful flat-bottomed sailing barges. Skutjes used to carry mud along the canals, for reasons unclear to us. In bygone days generations of Friesians were born and died on their skutjes, but they are no longer working boats, which may be just as well. A picture in Sneek’s Maritime Museum shows a husband and wife trudging along a towpath dragging their barge behind them. They don’t seem to be having as much fun as the modern skippers, preparing their skutjes for a week of racing on the Sneek Lake.
Riding on south, we miss a turnoff and are briefly lost again. A friendly lady riding the cycle path in a motorised wheelchair suggests we follow her. We cycle behind her for 1.562miles through wetlands, to a jetty on a narrow waterway. A ferryman appears on the other side and skilfully pilots a raft over to pick us up. Cost of adventure – 80 cents. No doubt about it, Friesland is quaint.
Onwards we ride to Sloten, our first night’s stopover (36,875miles including wetlands detour). It turns out to be one of the prettiest of the eleven towns, with only 750 residents. Most of them are out in the main street, where an egg-throwing competition is in full swing. You make your own fun in a small town, and it sure charms the tourists too.
Next morning we ride towards the North Sea, passing healthy crops of corn and wheat, flocks of swans and black and white Friesian cows dotted along the canals. The cows aren’t quite as rustic and natural as they appear, according to our guidebook. Old breeds are disappearing as Friesian farming becomes hi-tech, and 300,000 Dutch cows were fathered by one bull called Sunny Boy, who was himself grown from a test-tube embryo.
We stop for coffee and appeltaart in Hindeloopen, a mini town, with mini bridges over mini canals. It’s home to a curious private museum. Gouka Bootsma claims to have the world’s largest collection of ice skates; thousands of them, from all periods of history and all parts of the world. ‘In 1965 he began collecting a few painted tiles,’ Mrs Bootsma tells us. ‘He specialised in winter scenes, then moved on to skates. After that,’ she shrugs, ‘things ran out of hand.’
The museum also displays masses of Elfstedentocht memorabilia. Which brings us back to that extraordinary Friesian event. Only fourteen times since 1909 has there been is there enough ice for it to go ahead. When it happens the whole country spends the day glued to the TV. My wife remembers watching Renier Paping win in 1963, when the weather was so appalling that thousands of contestants dropped out suffering snow blindness and frostbite. In 1986 the ‘tocht’ had perhaps its most famous finisher, when a young ‘W.A.van Buren’ turned out to be the current heir to the Dutch throne, Crown Prince Willem Alexander. The last Elfstedentocht was held in 1997, and the way global warming is improving the Dutch climate, it may remain the last.
The wind turns against us as we fight our way along the dyke holding back the Wadden Sea. There’s lots of wind here, driving the occasional old windmill, and rows of modern versions cranking out green power. Nevertheless we seem to be making remarkable progress according to the Aldi bike computers. Then we notice they still tick over at a creditable 4,7miles an hour when we’re stopped for a rest. The pulse from the electric fence along the cycle path is keeping us up to speed.
We reach Sint Annaparochie, where in 1634, the daughter of the mayor of Leeuwarden married a young artist, Rembrandt van Rijn. Needless to say, the old octagonal church on that spot is still a popular wedding venue. ‘But in winters we use the new church down the road,’ says our nice lady guide, ‘with the central heating.’
An unexpected thunderstorm (expect the unexpected in Friesland) forces us to shelter at Hotel Liauwkama near Sexbierum. It’s a beautiful thatched cottage surrounded by a moat, which the Bloem family from Rotterdam restored in 1988. Dinner is a choice of pancakes and spare ribs. ‘The spare ribs are sold out,’ Mrs Bloem tells us. ‘We’ll have the pancakes,’ we say sensibly, and they turn out to be very good.
When the rain clears we ride on to Dokkum, famous for the murder of St Bonifatius there in 754AD. To be honest, we’d never heard of it either, so it can’t be all that famous, but Dokkum is a ‘gezellig’ or ‘cozy’ town nonetheless. Then it’s a 15.653mile cruise with wind behind us along the cycle path down the lovely Dokkum Ee, a wide canal with those skutjes sliding along it and Sunny Boy’s grand-daughters grazing on its banks.
All too soon we’re back at Leeuwarden Station, with smiles on our faces, 154.358miles on our computers and our rear ends a little firmer. A trip around Friesland is highly recommended.
Bicycle Touring Holland – Katherine Widing 2005
For more detailed maps, photos and accommodation options, written in Dutch but mostly self-explanatory, see…
Elfstedenroute by Diederik Monch
pub. Buijten and Schipperheijn, Amsterdam 2006