Willem has started a project at work that requires him to travel to Leeuwarden–almost 2 hours north of Haarlem, in the province of Friesland–every Monday. I had never been that far north in the Netherlands, so this past Monday I decided to hitch a ride with Willem in the morning and explore the city while he was at work.
I read up on Leeuwarden before we left to figure out what I wanted to do there. I found out that it is a pretty interesting city, despite not exactly being a tourist hotspot. It is the capital of Friesland, a Dutch province with a fierce identity, including its own language (West Frisian). Friesland (or Fryslân in the local language) is the only province of the Netherlands with two recognized official languages. As soon as you pass into Friesland on the drive north from Amsterdam, you will see road signs posted in both Dutch and Frysian, with the Dutch often secondary to the local language.
Leeuwarden is also famous for its role in the Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities Tour), a traditional 200km ice skating race that takes place over 24 hours along the canals linking eleven Frysian cities. I have mentioned my interest in the Elfstedentocht once before, when I visited Heerenveen (also in Friesland) to watch speed skating, but it is such an amazing event, I think it is worth describing a little more in depth here…especially since Leeuwarden plays a starring role! The race only happens in years where the canals freeze over with ice to a thickness of at least 15 centimeters. Every winter, the entire country of the Netherlands keeps a close eye on the canals around Leeuwarden, praying for them to freeze over to an acceptable thickness. If the ice is deemed suitable, the race is announced by a committee of representatives from each of the eleven cities, and within 48 hours the competition begins. The finishing point of the race is a canal near Leeuwarden called the Bonkevaart, and winners of the race become Dutch national heroes.
In the summertime though, Leeuwarden is just like any other Dutch city. The center of the city is built around a network of canals, with centuries-old houses lining narrow streets.
We arrived in Leeuwarden around 9am, and I parted ways with Willem for the day. I planned to find the tourist office first, to get a map and decide the best route to take around the city. Unfortunately, in what was to become a theme for the day, the tourist office was closed. I had forgotten a very important fact about the Netherlands: Everything is closed on Mondays!
As strange as it sounds, this is not a joke. Almost every museum, public monument, shop, store, or anything else that a tourist would want to see, is closed on Mondays in the Netherlands. If you’re lucky, some places open in the afternoon, but nothing is open before around 1pm. How could I (and even Willem!) have forgotten this Dutch habit of extending your weekend as far as possible before going back to work?
However it happened, I now had an entire day in Leeuwarden with nothing to see or do. I decided to wander the city exactly as I would have on a different day, except today I would have to be happy with admiring the outsides of all those museums and monuments. Travel is about adapting, right?
I walked towards the old center from Willem’s office, making my way to the Waagplein. I bought a croissant and spent some time sitting on the pretty square, watching people walking or biking on their way to work (where they were going will remain a mystery, since nothing was OPEN).
I then walked west along the Nieuwestad to the parks and gardens that line the ring of canals around the center. The Prinsentuin (Prince’s Garden) was so beautiful that I had to stop there.
The park was originally built in 1648 as a private park for Prince Willem Frederik of Nassau, but was opened to the public in 1795. I found a park bench along the canal and sat in the sun reading a book for over an hour before moving on.
Over the next few hours, I walked past all of the most famous sites and museums in Leeuwarden: the De Oldehove Tower, the acclaimed Keramiek (Ceramics) Museum, the Jewish Quarter, the Fries Museum, and the Verzets (Dutch Resistance) Museum. I found out that the last two are closed for renovation, so I wouldn’t have been able to see them anyway.
If De Oldehove looks like it is crooked in my picture, that’s because it is. In fact, the tower leans more than the leaning tower of Pisa in Italy! The Oldehove was originally designed as a church tower. Construction began in 1529, but during construction the tower began to lean. All efforts to correct the lean failed, and work on the tower was stopped for safety reasons in 1532. Funnily enough, the church that was connected to the tower was demolished, but the tower remained standing. For all the worries about safety, De Oldehove has outlasted everything around it!
After I got tired of walking, I spent the majority of the rest of the day working on my laptop and reading in the local library (boring, I know) until Willem finished with work. Leeuwarden is a pretty city, but it is small. Unless you have things planned to keep you occupied, you will exhaust your options fast. So learn from my mistakes- don’t try to do anything in the Netherlands on a Monday!