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  • Deborah Allen

Culture or just mouldy bread?


Leeuwarden City of culture 2018

.. I will admit when I first heard that my home town was named as a city of culture I laughed. Well it was more of a snigger actually; my first thought was ‘I’ve seen more culture on mouldy bread.’

My second thought was that I shouldn’t be so negative or cynical.

Well the celebrations will kick off this week and of course I will be going along to see exactly what it is that is being offered from the planners of this year of culture.

I am not saying Leeuwarden this isn’t a nice town it is.

But, since the announcement that this would be a city of culture we have had to endure constant roadworks, the ring road supposed to ease the burden of traffic through the city seems to have done little to ease the main bottlenecks at rush hour times, in fact it now takes three times as long and twice as much fuel to enter or leave Leeuwarden. Yet the council prides itself on being a green city! We now have so many options for which part of the city we want to enter that people who have lived here all their lives are getting lost and ending up on the motorway to Heerenveen or Drachten yet more wasted fuel and higher blood pressure!

The roundabout as you enter the city on the A7 has been rebuilt and is providing much entertainment for locals as they place bets on how soon another car will lose control and plunge into the bicycle tunnels that run underneath it. You see it looks lovely as a piece of design but as a working roundabout its flaws are obvious. Open tunnels running underneath and no side barriers mean that there is nothing to stop any vehicle overshooting the bend, slipping or being pushed over into the tunnel it’s the sort of project where it would seem the health and safety guys simply didn’t get an invite. (since I started writing another car plunged into the cycle tunnel and the council have finally admitted that safety is not optimal, so they have installed a temporary and very ugly concrete safety barrier.)

Of course, it’s not the first daft decision the council have made, the shared space outside the library is a great idea if you are trying to introduce random population control. Its chaos as pedestrians, pedal bikes, mopeds and electric wheelchairs jostle each other in a bid to get to where they are going. You need eyes in the back of your head, in the sides and out on stalks if you want to get through unscathed.

Then there is the paving in the centre of town, these fabulous natural black stone blocks are all the way from China and in the dry they are ok, if a little wobbly and uneven. In the wet they are a bloody death trap. They are slippery, some of the gaps are large enough for a bicycle tyre to get lodged in or for ladies to get a heel stuck and the uneven surface feels twice as bad as you concentrate on avoiding the gaps and the bikes whilst also trying to avoid the blocks that protrude from the ground ready to pitch you flat on your face all while keeping your balance on stone that is as slippery as black ice and just as deadly. Once it does freeze forget it, whatever shopping you wanted isn’t worth the bruises or risk of a broken limb.

All of this makes arriving in Friesland even more amazing because if you drive up the A7 from Amsterdam you will cross the Afsluitdijk which is 32km long bridging the gap between North Holland and Friesland. Built between 1927 and 1932 it separates the Waddenzee which is salt water and the Ijsselmeer fresh water and apart from joining the two provinces it is also a major defence against flooding. At the time it was built there were no computer projections or satellite photos, just basic machinery, lots of man power and a ton of hard work. It puts the modern building blunders to shame. Oh, and if you are a keen cyclist this is the Netherlands of course there is a cycle path too!

If you are one of the people will who arrive by train you will be greeted by a fountain outside the station which is one of 11 to mark the route of the famous 11 city race route. It is by a Spanish artist and I’m sorry but to me it has no meaningful significance to Leeuwarden and looks like an unpainted plastic or plaster model such as you would give a child. The fountain is plain white and although white looks great in the sunny Mediterranean climate of Spain in our northern city white tends to look bleak and get covered in algae very quickly. . Mind you comparing it to the other 10 of the 11 fountains project also makes me think we got off lightly, a drowning bat, a bowl of flowers or a large fish on a plate, maybe two big white heads are not so bad after all?

If I'm honest I cant say the heads are any worse than some of the offerings from Dutch artists either.

Many neighbourhoods in Leeuwarden named after a theme so there are the composers, Beethoven Straat and Bach Straat etc and the painters with the Vermeer straat and the Vincent van Gogh straat etc and it’s in this area of town that the 'wonderful' fountain chosen to represent the people and atmosphere of the neighbourhood named after artists is an umbrella ! A stupid big red umbrella, you know the type, normally seen in the children’s paddling pool at cheap holiday camps. The worst thing about it is (and I pass it daily) the water comes down the inside! The price of this hideous red folly was in the region of €100,000.

It's enough to make the most dedicated art lover shudder.

However, once you’re here there are several museums to visit in Leeuwarden one of which used to be housed in a wonderful old building on the far side of town. It’s now housed a soulless box of modern design which is about as interesting as a box of cornflakes...

The exhibits inside the Fries Museum are nothing to set the blood on fire either but if you are having trouble sleeping it might be worth a visit. I have been once, I had a discount ticket which was just as well because if I had paid full price I would have demanded a refund. Im not being flippant it takes a lot for me to say that because I am a museum lover. When I go on holiday the first things I checkout are my accommodation and the local museums. I have seen grand museums in huge impressive buildings and some housed in little more than a shed, but found them equally enchanting and interesting so it’s sad when I have to say the newest one in my own town does nothing to inspire me.

The Princessenhof on the other hand is very pretty, the building with its old architecture, wide planked wooden floors, worn smooth and yet slightly uneven in a way only time and many feet treading on them can cause and the beautiful pottery it has on show means this is a place is well worth spending an afternoon. Just around the corner is Leeuwardens famous leaning tower, the Oldehove which is not quite as original as it pretends but it’s fun to climb to the top and enjoy the views.

That’s not to say there are no good things to be found in Leeuwarden, after all this is the birth place of the most famous or should that be infamous? exotic dancer in the world, one Margaretha Zelle better known as Mata Hari. A small statue stands at the beginning of the street where she and her parents once lived, and the local museum (the one in the box) has some letters and albums of hers on display.

The city also has a lot of fantastic old buildings, some of which date back to the 13th century, there is a network of little canals and bridges and its possible to take a boat trip with guide along them in the summer to get a different view of the town, but if you’re on a budget there are also free walking tours to help people see the best of those lovely old buildings. These are given in English or German and most start at the leaning tower. ( Information from the VVV office near the station.)

Or why not take a chance to look at some of the fabulous windmills scattered around the province. They are a vital part of Dutch culture and recognised Dutch icon, I love to take photos of them and on open monument days you can visit and see them working. Much nicer than big white heads!

There are also some great places to eat and not all of them are big fancy places either, a little restaurant called De Vliegende Hollander (the flying Dutchman) has a lovely cosy atmosphere and serves good food at a reasonable price, for coffee and a sandwich try the Post plaza it’s housed in the old telephone exchange and has some quirky interior decoration. For takeaway food there are lots of sandwich bars and the obligatory lompia (spring roll) stand in the middle of town but one of my favourite places is tucked away in the Oosterstraat and is a small unassuming grocers shop where the owner makes his own pide filled with spinach and feta cheese. Warm and fresh the herbs, spinach and cheese are just the thing for a tasty takeaway lunch with a difference.

Each year there are set festivals like liberation day (5th may) and the kings birthday (27th April) as well as the huge yearly flower market which is on ascension Thursday all of these are free to attend. During the summer there are also free concerts on Sunday in the Prinsentuin (park) where young and old gather to sit on benches or spread a blanket on the grass and just enjoy (hopefully) some sun and some music on a Sunday afternoon.

Spreading the net, a little wider as Leeuwarden intends its year as city of culture to include the whole province, I have to say there are a great deal of things in the little corner of the world that are quite lovely.

A walk along the sea dyke is a must for bird watchers and weather watchers alike and if you are brave (or foolish) there is always wad lopen (walking on the mud flats) although this should only ever be done with a guide for obvious reasons, the mud is sticky and it can get very cold out there.

If you don't fancy walking across the mud there are boat trips out to see the seals who bask on the sand banks in the waddensea.

There is also a lot of nature to admire in this little province and lots of little antique and curio shops dotted around in the villages. Quite often you see things just put out in people’s front garden with for sale signs (te koop) anything from jam or eggs to garden furniture or tractors! You just stop and buy what you need, and such is the innocence of this area that very often there is a little tin, so you can just take what you want and put the money in tin. It’s an honesty system and it must work because lots of people use it.

For all its faults and flaws Friesland is a pretty and relaxed place to live. I just hope that the planners of this city of culture remember the charm this place has, it doesn’t need gilding or fancy big city plans to make it shine and I hope the visitors get to see the real Leeuwarden and real Friesland and not just the show that’s being put on.

If anyone is planning a visit let me know. I’d love to hear what you think of this little 'city of culture'.

On a last note I have to say.

I don't want to be a negative voice, I want to believe that this year of culture will leave a positive and lasting legacy for those of us who live here and love the culture just the way it is, but my cynical mind says once the party is over Leeuwardens residents will be left to foot the bill as the visitors pack up and leave us behind like crumbs of mouldy bread.


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