2018 is a momentous year for the city of Leeuwarden and the wider province of Friesland: the region is a European Capital of Culture (along with Valleta in Malta). The title is designated to cities across the continent to raise their cultural profile and show the rest of Europe what sets them apart.
So what makes Friesland special? Well, they have their own language, for a start. Within the Netherlands, it’s simply known as Frisian, but it is technically one of three different languages: outside of the Netherlands, it is called West Frisian, which is spoken in the province of Friesland and a couple of towns in the province of Groningen. There is also North Frisian (spoken in far north Germany) and Saterland Frisian (spoken in a few villages in western Germany). The greater Frisia region stretches from the Northern Netherlands through Northern Germany – the province of Groningen was actually Frisian once upon a time. This may help to explain the (playful) disdain that is occasionally expressed in Groningen about Friesland – and vice versa.
|Grutte Pier – the Frisian William Wallace – is credited with coming up with a tongue twister test for Frisians: “Buter brea en griene tsiis, wa’t dat net size kin is gjin oprjochte Fries.” (Butter, bread and green cheese: if you can’t say that, you’re not a real Frisian). Pier was a guerilla fighter who led an armed band of pirates, called Arumer Zwarte Hoop, against the Habsburgs after his village was ransacked and his wife was killed. It was truly the “Braveheart” story of the Netherlands. After seizing 11 ships belonging to the province of Holland and defeating hundreds of Hollanders in the Frisian city of Hindelopen in 1518, the language test was used to detect whether the captured troops were Frisian, Lower German or Hollanders. The phrase is still used by Frisians today to amuse themselves at the expense of anyone who doesn’t speak their unique language.|
IJsselmeer and Wadden Sea
The Netherlands is famous for its canals and waterways, but in Friesland in particular, you’re never far from it: The IJselmeer (at least half of it) and the Wadden Sea flank its borders and surround its barrier islands. Summertime in the province is characterized by famed Frisian skûtsjes sailboat cruising along its lakes and canals, and in the winter, Frisian skaters take to the ice, hands clasped behind their back. Friesland also has the most cattle of all the provinces in the country (281,000 as of 2015), so it should come as no surprise that the dairy industry is very prominent and influential in the area. There are still more people than cattle in the province, though.
The capital city of Friesland is Leeuwarden, which has had inhabitants since at least as far back as the Roman empire: ruins of buildings from that era have been found near the Oldehove, the city’s version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. While there have been multiple churches at the site in the city center over the centuries, construction on what was meant to be a very tall and very broad tower (comparable to the Martinitoren in Groningen) began in 1529. But the steeple was already clearly sinking into the ground when it was only 10 meters high – the architect had unknowingly built the steeple on the embankment of a terp, an artificial dwelling mound characteristic of the coastal Dutch provinces to spare villages from flooding. Not only was the Oldehove leaning, but the structure itself was also crooked. Various churches have been connected to the steeple throughout the years, but construction on the steeple itself was abandoned in the 1600s, and the church tower has never been completed.
Outside the Netherlands, the best-known icon of Friesland is Mata Hari. Despite her Indonesian name – “matahari” means “sun” in Malay – she was born Margaretha Zeller in Leeuwarden in 1876. Her name became world famous due to her career as an exotic dancer. Her stage name and her act were derivative of Indonesian traditions she was exposed to while she lived in the former Dutch colony with a Dutch Colonial Army officer stationed there, whom she married when she was 18. When she returned to Europe, she became a popular burlesque performer in France for years, but she was eventually convicted of being a spy during World War I and was executed by firing squad. In a final gesture befitting her stage persona, Zeller allegedly blew a kiss to the gun-bearing executioners before they shot her.
Second World War
During the Second World War, the Netherlands was captured by Germany, and in Leeuwarden, the city airport was converted from essentially a single runway into an air base at a crucial location: German planes could intercept allied pilots along the Frisian coastline on their way to Germany. And they were terribly effective: thousands of fighters and bombers were shot down over Friesland, many of which crashed into the waters surrounding the province before they could reach land. Pieces of aluminum from the wreckage of bombers and fighters still wash ashore on the Wadden Islands and the Frisian coastline of the Ijselmeer to this day. Leeuwarden, along with much of the rest of the northern provinces of the Netherlands, was liberated not by American or British troops, but by Canadians. Leeuwarden will kick off the Liberation Day festivals for the entire country in 2018, and the surviving Canadian veterans have been invited to take a place of honor during this year’s special event.
|Friesland remains a province with a unique combination of cultivated land, carefully managed waterways and wide open natural spaces on its islands and coastlines. And if it were up to some Frisians, they would be their own country: similar to the Catalonians in Spain, Frisian separatism has been a persistent movement in the modern era, calling for greater autonomy for the province, its language and its resources. Given Friesland’s long independent streak throughout its history, whether it is officially recognized or not, the province will likely always be distinctly different from the rest of the Netherlands.|