Surprising tour on the Frisian water

Canoeing, sailing, skating, or swimming with a Friesian horse that had to be trained: that’s how I got to know Friesland from the water. Now we have a panoramic view of the Frisian water from the high aft cabin of the motor yacht.

Wide Frisian

Frisian-Dutch dairy cows hop in all directions in the meadows meters below. It is the black and white cow of the famous statue s mom in Leeuwarden. The larger black and white cows descend from these Friesian cows: they have been bred in America to become champion dairy cows and are called Holstein-Friesians. Besides cows, shiny black Friesian horses are dreaming in the meadow. At the time, they were bred to plow and on Sundays they were hitched in front of the carriage to go to church. On the water are whoppers of head-neck-hull farms of dairy farmers. The milk boat once passed by them to pick up the buses and take them to the dairy.

Sailing in Southwest Friesland

Sailing in Southwest Friesland

The farming landscape is unchanged and so is the Marrekrite scaffolding. You can moor at free jetties along canals and here and there along the lakes. You can stay there for a maximum of three days, in the shelter of reed beds, adjacent to meadows where the calls of the black-tailed godwit and the lapwing can be heard. Recreational Board De Marrekrite has been successfully looking for a balance between water recreation, the landscape and nature since 1957. The thousands of scaffolding are made of recycled plastic and there are matching poems written at.

Fountain Art in Eleven Cities

In addition to passing nature and farmland, we sail through a string of small, historic Eleven Cities towns. In 1997 I skated the last Elfstedentocht. I remember the bridges and the quays teeming with spectators, but not the beautiful cities themselves with centuries-old buildings along narrow canals, lined with lime trees. Nor the city farms with the Frisian owl plates or the picturesque Sloten.

Lime trees along the canal in Sloten

Lime trees along the canal in Sloten

New in the 11 cities are the fountains. Once docked in Sloten we walk to the fountain ‘Kievit’. It is a girl with a lapwing in her hand and on the shoulders of a man, who stands on a mountain of buckets that form the fountain. It was designed by the artists Lucy & Jorge Orta and refers to the endangered lapwing and to the abundance of water in Friesland, while there is water scarcity in the world.

Fountain De Kievit in Sloten

Fountain De Kievit in Sloten

We get back on the boat and later on our cruise we moor in the center of IJlst – a small Elfsteden town. There we walk to the fountain of the Japanese artist Shinji Ohmaki. He designed the ‘Immortal Flowers – Rikka.’ With the artwork he symbolizes the unshakable bond between man, culture and nature. Hence his attention to old crafts and disappeared flower species, such as the stinzen plants. His harmonious meter-high bouquet stands in a bubbling fountain against the background of the old sawmill De Rat. He arranged the Frisian flowers according to Japanese tradition. Old and new, Frisian and Japanese go together wonderfully well here.

Fountain Immortal Flowers

Fountain Immortal Flowers in IJlst

The new Museum and Workshop Houtstad which stands next to De Rat completes the cultural complex. Cultural tourism has received a major injection with the fountain project. Friesland was number three in the Lonely Planet’s Best in Europe 2018. And it also fits in the theme year ‘Ode to the landscape’.

Sneekermeer - Surprising tour on the Frisian water



Through a short walk we walk over vowels and cobbles back to the boat. On the way we pass the facades of centuries-old low houses built from Frisian yellow bricks. The old houses overlook the water. A narrow road runs between the houses and the canal, which separates their front garden from the so-called overtuinen. These are sloping grassy embankments along the water of the Ee. For centuries, the laundry was bleached there on Mondays. Until the washing machine was introduced, the fields fell into disuse and the municipality took over the dilapidated lawns. She agreed with the residents that the residents should maintain and use the overtuinen.

Gardening in IJlst

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Gardening in IJlst

This deal provides a unique picture: on both sides of the water are the lawns, separated by low hedges and above them is the road lined with linden.

Not to be missed is the Beep fan Nooitgedagt – the chimney that powered the steam engine of the famous skate factory where my wooden Norwegians once came from. And also the wooden Norwegians of all those Elfstedentocht skaters from 1963.

Time to descend through an over garden to the scrubby sidewalk, where the boat is moored at the quay.

Attraction Sneek

Sneek is also a surprise. The largest Eleven Cities city is a fascinating mix of tradition, history and innovation.

From the west we sail over the De Geau aqueduct with the busy traffic on the A7 below us. In recent decades, a handful of aqueducts have been built in the southwest corner, which, in addition to practical traffic separation, also produces a special picture. Then we glide through the historic center which has the shape of a heart; sail through the Kolk where the Sneekweek starts, and skim past the ancient Waterpoort. The gatekeeper once lived at the top of the Water Gate, who opened and closed the gate. Skûtsjes come and go with cheese, butter, milk and lapwing eggs. The farmers were rich, as evidenced by the number of silversmiths and the facades of the buildings on the Herengracht in Amsterdam.

The Water Gate in Sneek

De Kolk where the Sneekweek starts, with De Waterpoort in the background

In the center we moor the boat in the passenger harbour. Here, the 120-year-old long ship houses of black tarred wood stand out. It was once claimed that Sneek has ‘the largest covered harbor in Europe’. If you have your boat here, you save on maintenance. There is no dust and the weather hardly affects the boats. Whether they are made of wood or polyester: they remain spic and span. It was precisely the notables that parked their boats here at the time. Now there is a waiting list. They are so popular that new ship houses are also being built in Friesland.

The centre

Once off board, we walk through the center. In addition to historic buildings with Jugenstil and Rococo elements, there is new architecture. Such as the Theater Sneek, a design by the well-known architectural firm Alberts and van Huut, which previously designed the Gasunie in Groningen.

Theater Sneek

Theater Sneek by architectural firm Alberts and Van Huut

The arts center Het Atrium is also interesting: from the outside it is the facade of the old Rehoboth school; inside it resembles Center Pompidou.

Finally, the property of Widow Joustra a small attraction on the Kleinzand. Shit skippers sailed from Workum to Hillegom and returned with gin and herbs. Widow Joustra added bitter herbs to the raw gin from 1864. They let it steep for a month in the distillery, after which it was filtered. It has become the most famous skipper’s drink: Beerenburg.

Motor yacht at a jetty on the Frisian water

The motor yacht with a good view from the high aft deck

Back on the boat, we sail east out of Sneek. It is a long waterway with many yacht yards and water sports related companies on both sides. Sneek has grown enormously because it is located at a junction of six waterways (to Leeuwarden, Franeker, IJst and Stavoren, among others). When the city is barely behind us, we skim past the Starteiland Sneek in the Sneekermeer, where the starting signal sounds during the Sneekweek. Sneek lives up to its nickname ‘capital of Southwest Friesland’.

The smell of sawdust and sweet wood

From the boat we not only explore the area on foot, but also by bike. Woudsend draws our attention on a bike ride. Many skippers, ropers, blacksmiths, sailmakers and carpenters lived here in the 18th and 19th centuries. Shipyards and mast makers were located on the water. From a skipper’s place it has become a water sports place. Only the age-old sawmill De Jager still reminds us of its glorious past.

wood sawmill De Jager

Wood sawmill De Jager in Woudsend

There we meet miller Jan Coppens, 85 years old, white-haired and dressed in a dustcoat. In the smell of sawdust he tells that he is an enthusiastic technician. He has worked as a mechanical engineer and has also been a voluntary miller for forty years. When he took the miller’s exam, the mill had fallen into oblivion: the steam engine and later the advent of electricity made wood saws, propelled by wind power, superfluous. But the physics and mechanics of the tool have made him addicted to it for a lifetime.

Jan Coppens

Miller Jan Coppens

It is rare that the servants’ houses, the director’s house, the beam hole, the drying shed and the mill have been preserved together. It should stay that way. Eight volunteers – including youngsters – keep the mill in operation on Saturdays. Ash, willows and oaks that water in the hole for a year and where they become sweet, they sled inside. There they saw the logs into planks like cutting an egg in an egg slicer. “It’s reinventing and re-evaluating an old profession,” he says. The sound of the rotating blades and the stamping of the up and down saw frames once inspired a composer to make a piece of music.

Jan Coppens is not originally Frisian, but has become after all these years: nothing beats Fryslân. If I drop that I grew up in Friesland and must have passed his mill during the Elfstedentocht, it can’t go wrong. But do I still know all the Frisian words?

“Ferdivedaasje, entertainment”, I say. That word covers the cargo of a tour through Friesland. “Oant sjen!” He says and waves at us.

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The wide Frisian water

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