The Dutch winter frenzy


Ice-skating on a frozen canal in the Dutch countryside.

It’s that time of the year again, when the thermometer hanging outside my window shows a lower reading than the display on my freezer. When I first moved to the Netherlands more than 20 years ago, one of the first things that caught my attention was the Dutch people’s preoccupation with ice. As soon as the first frost arrives, you can almost literally feel the excitement build up. The media joins in with vigour and if the frost continues, so does the frequency of weather updates whilst the discussions about the condition of the ice in the rivers, lakes and canals across the country gain momentum. The reason: ice-skating is the national winter sport – the large number of speed-skating medals the Dutch have amassed at the Winter Olympics only confirms this. But this is only the start of the Dutch winter frenzy!

The ‘Elfstedentocht’

As temperatures stay below the freezing point, you’ll soon find people out on their skates and the media is flooded with images of ice-skating fever from around the country. Technical terms like ‘black ice’ (describing the quality of the ice) become commonplace. Soon, all eyes are focused on the province of Friesland, home of the (in)famous ‘Elfstedentocht‘ or the Eleven Cities Tour. The ‘Elfstedentocht’ is the world’s longest speed-skating competition, with a course that winds 200km along frozen lakes, rivers and canals and past eleven historic Frisian towns. The competition is held only when strict conditions are met, such as the thickness of the ice along the entire 200km course – the last Elfstedentocht was held in 1997. Each ‘Elfstedentocht’ is preceded by a period of intense speculation and once the start-shot is sound, it’s met with something akin to national hysteria. The past winners were hailed as national heroes.  The name is on everyone’s lips as soon as there’s a prolonged freeze, and not an hour goes by without a mention of it on the radio or television.

Set against a decor of quintessentially Dutch winter scenes (think snowy fields, frozen canals, quaint villages and windmills), participating in or standing at the sidelines of the Elfstedentocht is an extraordinary experience for both locals and visitors alike.

Ice-skating on the canals of Amsterdam

Ice-skating fever hits the country as soon as the authorities give the green light for enthusiasts to venture out onto the ice. In my town, that means one thing: getting your skates out for a fun afternoon out on the frozen canals of Amsterdam.


Amsterdam winter scenes: bicycles, canal mansions and people out on the ice!

Canal boats are barred from passing through selected canals, such as the Keizersgracht, and that’s where you’ll find Amsterdammers out on their skates.


Out on the Keizersgracht

Amsterdammers come out in full force with their friends and families to enjoy the cold weather and a fun afternoon on ice-skates!


A group of friends out on the ice


A mother takes her baby out for a err… skate!


Mum on skates and her child in a sled (with hot choco!). Sweet!

Canal boat landings double in the winter as benches for the skaters to get geared up for the ice!


Getting ready for the ice!


The frozen Keizersgracht

For visitors, it’s a special treat to witness these winter scenes in the UNESCO World Heritage listed Amsterdam city centre. If this frosty period continues, expect more activities on the ice such as speed-skating competitions, marathons and festivals!

Read about the frozen canals of Amsterdam in the winter of 2018.

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13 Responses to “The Dutch winter frenzy”

  1. joe wong 26/02/2012 5:46 pm

    I wasn’t aware you could skate on those canals. It must have been an incredible experience. Hope to do the same someday. Great pics btw Keith!

  2. Holland Fan 13/02/2012 12:28 pm

    We have been in Holland, near the Northern Sea in Fryslan. It’s very nice to see the people skating along the canals. Our children were amazed about this sensation, they know the canals only filled with boats. Great show.

  3. velvet 09/02/2012 6:12 pm

    Woohoo, thanks Claudia! Don’t get me wrong, the Dutch complain about the weather all the time. Hahaha! But, on the other hand, they always know how to make the best of things and they certainly know how to enjoy themselves on the ice. I don’t do photography coaching but I do know others who do such as @KirstenAlana. She’s fab!


  4. Claudia Looi 09/02/2012 5:47 pm

    Love this post! It shows Dutch are innovative and adaptable. Instead of complaining about the weather, you are having fun. BTW beautiful photos. Do you coach? Looking for a photography coach for my daughter (16 year old). 🙂

  5. rob hermans 08/02/2012 11:06 pm

    Keith, what a beautiful set of pictures, but although I am dutch, i don’t know how to skate. But it’s lovely to watch anyway `(now let us all pray for a big meltdown and get it over with!)

  6. velvet 07/02/2012 7:58 pm

    Hi Deepa,
    Use a chair – that’s how I learned to skate. Have fun and make sure you’re padded up!


  7. Deepa 07/02/2012 7:54 pm

    I’ve never skated, but I’m so excited that I’m going to give it a go anyway!

  8. velvet 07/02/2012 7:27 pm

    Thanks J!

    ps/I suck at skating too! 🙂

  9. Jeremy Branham 07/02/2012 7:25 pm

    This is one of the good things about all the cold weather in Europe right now. This is an awesome idea! Not only would ice skating the canals be a lot of fun, what a unique way to get outdoors and explore the country. I know it’s been a while since you’ve been able to do this but this is an awesome event! I love the idea of this (even if I suck at ice skating)!


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