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Most provinces, regions and even towns and villages in the Netherlands boast their own unique culture and traditions. Every year these culminate in a number of colourful festivals and celebrations that attract both local and foreign visitors alike. Two of the most famous of these are the acclaimed Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities Tour) in Friesland and the vibrant Carnaval enjoyed in several of the southern provinces.
Whenever conditions allow, Friesland hosts the nationally renowned ice skating event known as the ‘Elfstedentocht’ (Eleven Cities Tour). This gruelling race, which begins and ends in the Frisian capital of Leeuwarden, takes in 200 km and eleven Frisian cities on a course of entirely natural ice. If the event is to proceed, the water on Friesland’s pretty rivers and canals must freeze for a requisite number of days, in order to meet rigorous safety standards and ensure a decent ice quality. The first Elfstedentocht was held in 1909 and since then the weather has only permitted fifteen competitions, adding considerably to its mystique. If the Frisian winter is suitably long and hard, representatives from ‘De Koninklijke Vereniging De Friesche Elf Steden’ (the official association and organisers of the Elfstedentocht) check the ice depth along the route. If it is at least 15 cm deep, then the association can authorise the competition.
The competitors have an extremely early start on the day of the race. The first bunch of skaters leave from Leeuwarden at 6.00 am, followed at regular fifteen minute intervals by groups of around one thousand strong. Their course is lined by thousands upon thousands of orange-clad, flag waving fans who descend on Friesland from all over the Netherlands. Rousing brass bands give the competitors a much needed mental boost, whilst catering stalls supply ‘Koek en Zopie’ (cake and an alcoholic beverage) to animated crowds who brave the freezing temperatures. Traditionally Zopie was a hot drink prepared from beer, rum, eggs, cinnamon and cloves, but these days the stalls sell a more contemporary range of drinks such as ‘warme chocomel’ (hot chocolate) and ‘glühwein’ (mulled wine). Spectators can also warm up with a hearty ‘erwtensoep’ (pea soup) and enjoy typical Dutch treats such as delicious ‘gevulde koek’ (almond cake).
Despite a reputation for punishing conditions, the Elfstedentocht remains incredibly popular and participation is restricted to association members. In 1986, when the number of members exceeded the maximum number of entrants, a membership freeze was imposed. A lottery is now held to allocate the treasured starting cards in the most impartial way. Usually only the most experienced skaters, who are able to handle the bitter cold and navigate the treacherous ice, are able to finish the course. In 1963, the most infamous Elfstedentocht began with temperatures of minus 18 ° Celsius. Freezing winds and driving snow continued to hamper the skaters throughout the day and only 69 of the 10,000 competitors completed the race to receive the coveted Elfstedenkruisje (Eleven Cities Cross).
In an attempt to prevent cheating, skaters must have their starting cards stamped by an official in all eleven cities and at three secret mobile stations. In 1986 however, Prince Willem-Alexander, son of Queen Beatrix took part in the Elfstendentocht incognito. Despite obtaining his Elfstedenkruisje under the pseudonym of WA van Buuren, it is rumoured that he only managed to complete half of the course.
Carnaval is predominantly celebrated in the southern provinces of Noord-Brabant, Limburg and Zeeland. It is also referred to as ‘Vastelaovend’, a Catholic ritual held three days prior to Ash Wednesday and forty subsequent days of fasting. The majority of Dutch Catholics are concentrated ‘onder de rivieren’ (south of the rivers), which explains why Carnaval is so popular in the south and only celebrated in a handful of towns in the north. There are actually two varieties of Carnaval, the striking ‘Rijnslandse Carneval’ observed in Limburg and the south-east of Noord-Brabant, and the less flamboyant ‘Bourgondisch Carnaval’ enjoyed in Noord-Brabant, Zeeland and some parts of Gelderland.
The customs associated with the Rijnlandse Carnaval originated in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which had earlier adopted many aspects of the flamboyant Venice Carnival. Each town has at least two carnival associations, with a ‘Prins Carnaval’ (Carnival Prince) dedicated to organising the festivities. Held outdoors, the Rijnlandse Carnaval is famous for its large parades of local towns folk dressed in eye-catching, hand made outfits of bright red, greens and yellows.
The Bourgondisch Carnaval was once a simple feast for local farmers and peasants, but is now marked with large parties and extravagant banquets. It too, is organised by a carnival association which arranges a special theme each year. Participating towns also take on a Carnaval name – Eindhoven for example is temporarily known as ‘Lampegat’.
These days Carnaval is the perfect opportunity to binge on huge quantities of alcohol and sober up with copious amounts of fast food, including the much loved ‘patat met fritessaus’ (chips with sauce), ‘frikadellen’ (fried sausages) and ‘kroketten (fried meat croquettes). Visitors will find that most schools, shops and offices are closed at this time of year, especially in Limburg.
There are many other exciting events and fascinating festivals in the Netherlands – three of our favourites are listed below:
An impressive maritime event occurring one summer in every five. Cheering crowds welcome beautiful tall ships, brightly decked in full regalia, as they sail into Amsterdam harbour from almost every corner of the globe.
‘Vlaggetjesdag’ (the day of little flags) is held on the Saturday before ‘Pinkesteren’ (Pentecost) in the Dutch fishing town of Scheveningen. It traditionally marked the start of the herring season, but these days the annual festival promotes the first catch of ‘Nieuwe Haring’ (new Herring). The eagerly anticipated fish are hauled into harbour, with much pomp and ceremony, in fishing boats decorated with hundreds of colourful flags. The first barrel of herring is sold off at a charity auction that has been known to raise sums of up to 50,000 Euros!
The Tilburg Fair
This is the largest annual fair in the Benelux countries and regularly draws in excess of one million local and foreign visitors to its 240 attractions spread throughout the city of Tilburg. The fun-packed festival lasts ten days in total, with each day showcasing a distinctive theme, from ‘Kindermiddag’ (children’s afternoon), to ‘Seniorendag’ (pensioners day) and ‘Roze Maandag’ (Pink Monday) when extrovert transvestites strut their stuff!