The 11 cities of Friesland very occasionally host a grueling 200 kilometre skating race – if it freezes for what seems like ever. You can also travel the famous route by bike, by boat, by horse… however you like. Fansels! (That’s Friesian for ‘are you kidding?’)
1. Dokkum (the only one of the 11 without a different name in Friesian)
In olden times Dutch school children were taught that ‘Bonifacius was killed in Dokkum’. Bonifacius, or Winfrid of Wynith, was an 8th century Anglo-Saxon missionary who went around converting barbarians to Christianity very successfully until he met his match in the Friesians who killed him for his pains. The town has done very well out of Bonifatius ever since and you can even do a Bonifatius route. Dokkum has some beautiful historic buildings and boasts the oldest weekly market in the country.
2. IJlst (Drylts)
A place of pilgrimage for true skating fanatics: here stood the famous Nooitgedagt factory which made the wooden skates that still sees many a pensioner glide elegantly over the ice, hands on his or her back. Van geslacht op geslacht: Nooitgedagt was its slogan: from generation to generation: Nooitgedagt. And how true that was. Oh, the days of trying to tie the strings of these heirlooms as tightly as possible around your shoes with frozen fingers only to find yourself standing next to your skates seconds later. Again. Nooitgedagt no longer exists but one of the factory buildings is still standing and houses a museum .
3. Workum (Warkum)
Workum is home to the popular Jopie Huisman museum. Huisman was a self-taught artist who specialised in the realistic depiction of workmen’s tools and dress. The town’s annual ‘strontrace’ or ‘shit race’ is a reconstruction of the journey made by sailing ships transporting manure to the bulb country in the province of Zuid-Holland. The arrival of artificial manure stopped the Friesians from turning muck into brass but the old sailing ships – no motors allowed – are still a splendid sight to see.
4. Leeuwarden (Ljouwert)
Leeuwarden boasts the country’s ‘most underestimated’ city centre, according to its tourist website. ‘Most avoided’ it certainly was, for a time at least. Through an architectural fault the prestigious Achmea tower (114 metres) was shedding bits of its concrete cladding like dandruff thereby endangering the lives of shoppers and drinkers alike. There seems to be a bit of a tradition going on in the city as far a flawed buildings are concerned. Leeuwarden’s flagship building the Oldehove, which dates from 1529, was listing in the swampy soil as it was built and ended up crooked as a result.
5. Franeker (Frjentsjer)
Franeker hosts the most important annual kaats competition (see also six Dutch sports) in Friesland called the P.C. (the letters stand for Permanent Committee, the body that started organised kaatsen in 1854). The Eise Eisinga planetarium is also worth a visit. Eise Eisinga carded wool for a living like his father but was seriously clever and built the planetarium to show that the 1774 convergence of several planets would not result in the end of the world as some apocalyptic scaremongers would have people believe. Of course, he was right and his planetarium, the oldest working planetarium in the world, is still here to prove it.
6. Harlingen (Harns)
Its strategic position on the WaddenSea secured Harlingen’s future as a prosperous trading city. It is also said that its early orientation on outside trading partners, Amsterdam among them, accounts for its uneasy relationship with the other 10 elfsteden towns. The Friesian language, for instance, is barely spoken in Harlingen. The town has many historical buildings and if you should decide to stay the night you can do so in the local light house or, alternatively and excitingly, dangling from a 17 metre high crane in the harbour. Fansels again.
7. Hindeloopen (Hylpen)
Hindeloopen is another port town. Its peak came in the early seventeenth century but, unlike its much bigger neighbour to the north, it is now content to be just a cute tourist destination. The Hindeloopen painting style – flowers and curly cues on a white, green, red or blue background – is the town’s main claim to fame. The people of Hindeloopen couldn’t get enough of it and covered absolutely every piece of furniture in it. The Hindeloopen Museum has lots of examples and more Hindeloopen history – including skating – besides.
8. Bolsward (Boalsert)
Boslward is where weary skaters and cyclists stop for a pick-me-up. It is home to Sonnema Berenburg and Friesian micro brewery Us Heit (which makes a special Elfsteden beer and also produces a single malt whisky). Bolsward was built on three terps, or man-made mounds, which can still be seen provided you have not been on a guided tour of the two aforementioned tourist attractions and which case you will see terps everywhere. The Sint Martini Church stands on the oldest one which, along with its fellows, was made sometime BC which makes Bolsward one of the country’s oldest cities in the Netherlands.
9. Sneek (Snits)
Sneek is famous for its annual water sports festival the Sneekweek when thousands of people converge upon the city and a jolly time is had by all. The symbol of Sneek is its 15th century Waterpoort or Water gate, built to prevent access to the city by water. More things watery are explained in the Fries Scheepvaart Museum in the Kleinzand, a canal on which the wealthy traders of the 17th and 18th centuries built their homes. Also in Kleinzand stands the house of the Weduwe Joustra (the widow Joustra) who, upon her husband’s death in 1864, started a distillery to make the alcoholic herbal drink Beerenburg (with two ee’s because the widow’s descendants own the name. The other producers have to make do with a single e, see Sonnema Berenburg in Bolsward)
10. Sloten (Sleat)
Sloten thinks big when it comes to being small: with about 760 inhabitants it prides itself on being the smallest city of the country. Its ambition doesn’t stop there: it would also like to be recognised as the smallest city in the world. This means it takes about five minutes to ‘do’ Sloten which is not good for tourist revenue. The last Saturday in June, however, makes up for this. Sloten’s annual ‘vrijmarkt’ or free market, the Simpelsneon, or Onion Saturday, attracts bargain hunters from far and wide. The market has nothing to do with onions but refers to the shape of the old town.
11. Stavoren (Starum)
Stavoren, Friesland’s oldest town, is well-known for its water sports facilities, but those who are into less strenuous activities will be pleased to know that they can visit the town’s ‘orchid farm’. There is a Malaysian garden, a Taiwanese garden and a butterfly valley. The Friesians have a thing with size as we have seen in Sloten: both the tropical garden and the butterfly valley are the biggest in Europe. Stavoren is famous for the story of the ‘Vrouwtje van Stavoren’ (the little woman of Stavoren), a rich merchant’s widow who sent one of her ships to find the most valuable thing in the world. The ship came back loaded with grain. The woman angrily ordered the grain to be dumped into the sea. Warned that such extravagance might end in poverty she threw a gold ring into the sea and said she would no more be poor than the ring would find its way back to her. Then one day the kitchen maid brought her the ring which had been found in the belly of a fish. The widow, needless to say, lost all her money and died in poverty. Stavoren has honoured the greedy thing with a statue.