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 Netherlands 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!
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, such as the idyllic Hindeloopen.
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. Here are photos of the frozen canals in February 2012:
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.
Amsterdammers come out in full force with their friends and families to enjoy the cold weather and a fun afternoon on ice-skates!
Canal boat landings double in the winter as benches for the skaters to get geared up for the ice!
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!