Friesland isn’t like the rest of the Netherlands. The North Sea has shaped this province’s landscape and history, and the area still retains a strong identity — fiercely independent, friendly, free-thinking and welcoming. As far back as 1300, the Frisians created a free state, away from centralised authority with their own language, laws, and traditions. Though they’ve been part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands for a long time now, the culture and language remains.
And Leeuwarden’s unique culture is finally being recognised as one of two European Capitals of Culture this year. This is the first time ever the title has been given to not just a city, but a surrounding area too, and all 11 cities (some of which are actually little more than villages) in the region are taking part. Each of the arty cities is linked by canal, and there was once a famous ice-skating race between them; climate change means the canal hasn’t frozen enough to hold the race since 1997. For the Capital of Culture, world-renowned artists have been commissioned to build a fountain in each town, to provide another, perhaps more permanent, link.
But the city is more than that, too — it’s fiercely proud of its famous offspring: exotic dancer and double agent Mata Hari, and mind-bending artist MC Escher. Leeuwarden may be small, but it punches above its weight culturally, historically and aesthetically.
Just a few hours from Amsterdam by train, it’s typically Dutch in many ways: dissected by those famous canals, it’s dotted with pretty gabled houses and charming cobbled streets. There’s a tower that leans more than Pisa’s, a prison that’s now a cultural centre, and the winding Kleine Kerkstraat, filled with boutique stores set in beautiful 17th-century golden age buildings. It’s also the historic home of the Nassau family, ancestors of the current Dutch king — a mural near the central square depicts a family tree where it’s possible to trace all the current kings and queens of Europe back to the 18th century reign of Maria Louise, Princess Consort of Orange.
Leeuwarden bears all this lightly, with a good dose of modesty. After buying an ice cream at PUUR Ijs & Chocolate on Kline Kerkstraat, a young woman asks if I’m on holiday. “It’s nice to see people visiting from abroad,” she tells me. “We’ve always had so many connections to the world, but we haven’t been an exciting place. Now we have art, cool places, good food. I always thought I’d move away but now I think I’ll stay.” It’s not the kind of chat you have with people in a big city. But then, this isn’t a big city. It’s a Frisian city. And Friesland isn’t like the rest of the Netherlands.
State of the art
During the Capital of Culture year, the Fries Museum has mounted temporary blockbuster exhibitions about Leeuwarden’s most famous residents: Mata Hari and M.C. Escher (the Escher’s Journey exhibition is on until 28 October). However, there’s a permanent exhibition that explores Friesland’s 11 cities and the region’s quest to find its position in the world.
Past the post
Occupying the old main post and telegraph office, the atmospheric, 82-room Post-Plaza Hotel has lots of charming little touches that hint at the building’s past. Rooms are modern and stylish with antique details: my TV was inside a beautiful ornate wooden wardrobe. Try the French toast made from Frisian sugar bread in the Grand Café, a beautiful airy space with soaring church-like beams.
The Blokhuispoort is a former prison that’s now a cultural centre — and where the planning for the Capital of Culture took place. As well as a hostel, library and the offices of numerous start-ups, there’s a gallery and a whole wing of old cells that have been transformed into little shops where artists sell and exhibit their wares. Book a table at Proefverlof, a buzzy restaurant complete with original prison doors and barred windows overlooking the water.
Dutch is considered the second language in Friesland, with Frisian being the first. In fact, Frisian has much more in common with Scandinavian languages than it does with Dutch.
There’s a pair of giant heads: a boy and a girl facing each other. They’re glowing white, made from a substance that’s luminous in a way that appears otherworldly. It turns out to be polyester resin mixed with marble
dust. Jaume Plensa’s sculpture-cum-fountain is titled ‘Love’ — it’s a towering 23ft structure surrounded by a curtain of mist.
Plensa is one of my favourite artists; his works are huge, figurative and oddly delicate, often transforming public spaces. This one is plonked incongruously outside the main railway station. The more I circumnavigate it, the more it grows on me. “They’re dreaming,” Plensa is quoted as having said on the website for the 11 Fountains. The fountains are dotted across Dutch cities as part of this year’s Capital of Culture programme. “To children, the future is a dream full of promises.”
He was inspired, apparently, when he saw mist blanketing the fields of Friesland. “In Friesland the water comes out of the ground,” Plensa adds. Right now the water is very much coming out of the sky, and the wind is coming out of the east, whipping the rain into my face. I take shelter in a bar just across the way. “What do you think of the fountain?” I enquire tentatively of the two women at the table next to mine. The 11 Fountains project has proved controversial — each commission was given to a world-leading sculptor, and some felt local artists should have been involved — so I’m not sure how this conversation will go.
“Hmph,” says one woman. “I like it,” says the other. “People will come and see it. They’ll come for that and they’ll probably stay for other things.” It’s a good point. “Do you think it should have been made by a local artist?” I ask. The first woman nods. “But it’s probably more interesting for people that it’s this. It’s not really for me. I like some of the others more.”
I pick a few to visit outside Leeuwarden during the weekend, driving past flat fields, windmills and Friesian horses to tiny, pretty towns and windswept harbours. Everywhere I go, people want to talk to me about the fountains — what I think of them, what they think of them, what I think of Friesland. Children just want to get in them and play. It’s a great way to explore the region, but my mind keeps returning to the Plensa and its eerie, beautiful glow. A dream full of promises, he said, and there’s so much promise here.
Fly to Groningen with FlyBe from London Southend, from where it’s a 35 minute journey by express train to Leeuwarden. Or take a train (2h10m) from Amsterdam Schipol Airport.
Published in the October 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)