This article was originally published in The XPat Journal Spring 2018 Issue

In 1985, Meline Mercouri, then minister of culture in Greece, and Jack Lang, her colleague in France, decided that they wanted to create something that would make Europeans more aware of their shared history and values – as well as illustrate the rich diversity of European cultures. This became the European Capital of Culture. Any city that has this title is given the task of organizing a variety of cultural events that not only illustrate what is unique to that particular region, but that also show the ties that this region has with the rest of the European Union and European Economic Area. Since 2007, there are two Capitals of Culture a year.

Wave of Church Bells

This year, one of the two cities to carry this title is Leeuwarden, the capital of the province of Friesland – one of the two northernmost provincial capitals of the Netherlands. A status that the Frisians are so proud of that they celebrated the opening ceremony throughout the entire province. At 10:15 p.m., after the ceremony, when the bells of the Leeuwarden churches started to toll, the bells all across the province tolled as well. One can only imagine how this must have been for anyone out in the country-side; shrouded in mist with among the far-reaching meadows and only the nearest trees visible, to hear the waves of church bells undulating through the thick fog, coming from all directions.

At the same time, the Frisians were characteristically level-headed about the whole thing. “Yeah,” said the hotel receptionist when I mentioned the city’s honorable status, “I thought ‘well, that’s nice’ – but apparently, it’s a big deal. Even the King and Queen are coming.”

Tall and Short Tales

The actual opening ceremony was on Saturday, January 27, but the Leeuwarders and the surrounding villages held their own private party the evening before. All the museums opened in the evening of the 26th – free of charge – where they hosted cozy little get-togethers during which people from all walks of life shared their family and regional history with anyone who wanted to stop and listen for a while. This also took place in private homes; on the opening’s official website of the opening you could find at least 200 different locations, even on the Wadden Islands, where people opened up their living room, to offer you a cup of tea or coffee as you came in to listen to their personal tales. The topics of these tales ranged from local heroes, to the conversion of parachutes (attached to dolls by the Germans during the Second World War, to create the illusion of an invasion) into clothing, to ‘tall tales’ that still do the rounds in bars, to the story behind a motor cycle museum, and approximately 196 other topics.


Of course, it was impossible to join all the audiences, so we limited ourselves to those told in museums, where we would be able to catch several storytellers on one location. First, we met (an actor playing) Jacob van Aaken, who was elected, in 1529, to build the symbolic Oldehove Tower of Leeuwarden; this country’s very own leaning tower of Pisa. We also met an archeologist, who dreamily told us of his ventures out to the foggy meadows, in total silence and solitude, the fruits of whose hidden treasures now fill the cases of the Historic Center of Leeuwarden.

Next stop was the Friese Museum (Frisian Museum), which also houses the Verzetsmuseum, or Resistance Museum. Here we heard the story of the Jewish couple, Barend and Mimi, who had fled Leeuwarden on a trip that took them through Belgium, France, a concentration camp in Spain, a refugee camp in Jamaica, Ontario and back to Europe. Here, their paths separated and Barend joined the liberation of Maastricht and the southern region of the Netherlands, while Mimi joined the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs in London. After the war, they were reunited. During their entire life, they took a suitcase with them that they forbade their children to open. Only after their death, were their children allowed to peruse its contents – and discover the history of those family members who were gone but, thanks to the suitcase, not forgotten.

Mata Hari was just a young girl with a wild imagination whose life was not easy

Mata Hari

The Friese Museum is currently hosting an exhibition (till April 2) on another of the city’s famous citizens: Margaretha Zelle… better known as Mata Hari. Known as a manipulative ‘man-eater’, Grietje (as she was called) was just a young girl with a wild imagination whose life was not easy. By the time she was 14, her father had gone bankrupt, her parents had divorced and her mother had died of tuberculosis. Sent was to live with an uncle in Sneek, Grietje soon ended up in a training school for kindergarten teachers in Leiden, where she was presumably raped by the director. Enticed by the romantic idea of being married to an army officer, she married the twenty-year-older Rudolph McLeod who took her to Indonesia. Here, she spent months learning about the local culture and tradition and joined a dance group – which would stand her in good stead, later on. The marriage was troubled and after the death of their little boy, the couple returned to The Hague, where eventually they divorced. Margaretha decided to try her luck in Paris, aided by her dance lessons and her knowledge of an ‘exotic’ culture. Did Mata Hari, as her name was by now, manage to many a man’s head spin? Yes. Did she drive some of them to ruin? Perhaps. Did her act involve nudity? Yes, but this was still seen as esthetic nudity in a city that was hard to shock. Did she meet high-placed people during the First World War? Certainly. Did any of them pay her? Absolutely. Did she know and share details of national security? Probably not. By the time the war broke out, Mata Hari had been losing her beauty and her fame. But her imagination was still running wild and her hunger for recognition was still unabated. When accused of being a spy, she thought this was – at best – amusing and saw this as an opportunity to place herself back in the public eye. When it became clear to her that the authorities were taking the accusations seriously and that this would have grave consequences, it was simply too late. Mata Hari was executed – bravely, without a blindfold – on October 15, 1917 in an act that was largely meant to show the people that the French government was doing its part of protecting the nation’s safety.


But, let’s go back to Leeuwarden. This is one place the Romans did not occupy when expanding upon their empire. However, the historians do know that trade took place with the Romans and that perhaps one or two Romans visited. The clue? A cat bone. Among the many archeological finds, including tools, weapons, pottery and fibulas, is a cat bone. Judging by its age, and knowing that the Frisians didn’t have any and the Romans had them as pets, the only reasonable explanation for its presence there is that either a Frisian brought one home to show his fellow villagers the mysterious animals that could be found beyond their horizon, or a Roman himself paid the city a visit, bringing along his furry pal.

Though the Romans did not live there, there were plenty of other inhabitants, coming and going in waves, starting approximately in the year 100 BC. At the time, Leeuwarden (a name that first made its appearance in the 8th century) was a sea harbor, located on the coast of the Middle Sea, which eventually silted up, making Leeuwarden a land-locked city. Then, in 1426, that it was decided that the three terp-villages (a terp is a manmade hill) called Hoek, Nijenhove and Oldehove were to become one city, under the name of Leeuwarden.


In the 16th century, after the murder of William of Orange, the Nassau family of Friesland became the source of stadtholders of the northern provinces, and Leeuwarden grew in population and fortune. The family’s palace in Leeuwarden remained in hands of the Dutch Royal Family until 1971, after which it was sold – to become a hotel in 1996. An excellent one, in fact, with generous rooms, fine dining, a sumptuous breakfast, a garden, and a living room – and conveniently centrally located. Keep in mind, though – before the word ‘palace’ has you mentally wandering the likes of the Louvre, with gold-painted walls, echoing ceilings and priceless works of art – that, for the Calvinistic, unpretentious Dutch, a big building is soon a palace…

Alice in Wonderland

The center of Leeuwarden is cozy and manageable in size – the one time we got lost lasted about 20 seconds – and the people are very friendly. At the end of the market day, we witnessed how the owner of a market stall had prepared a big package of unsold foods, which he pressed into the hands of an indigent gentleman, with strict instructions to eat it all himself. A walk through the Bagijnestraat brought us to Boomsma Museum; home of the Boomsma Beerenburger, the local gin. Here, you can request a group tour and a tasting, or you can just stroll through it. A stroll, incidentally, that sometimes feels like you jumped down the rabbit hole after Alice in Wonderland, as each room leads to another whereby every time you pass through a door, you go back in time another two or three decades – until you end up in the Gruttersmuseum / Grutterswinkel. Here they sell old-fashioned candy and you can order a cup of coffee or tea, and a local pastry, in one of their modest-sized living rooms. The jump down the rabbit hole can even be made literal, as you crawl down the stairs to visit the locale’s old wine cellar.

Nature Museum

If you come to Leeuwarden with your children, be sure to go to the Nature Museum. Its target group is primarily children, but it has been set up in such a way that even you, as an adult, will find yourself wanting to participate. Instead of merely having all sorts of stuffed animals on display, it focuses on specific aspects of nature: which animals are white by nature (and why) and which are albinos; what different types of teeth there are, and what their purpose is; walking through a space that is completely dark and identifying animals by feel; the life of the more than a million geese that spend the winter in Friesland (including the chance to hang in suspension and follow a goose through the sky); and much, much more. One particular display will set your (children’s) mind(s) thinking: you select a type of animal, then select an ecosystem, and then try to determine how the animal will have to adapt to survive there – and what its chances of survival then are. The idea is to make the public aware of the consequences of any type of climate change and what this will mean for the various species on earth.

Capital of Culture or not, Leeuwarden is well worth a visit. If you want to know more about what the city will be organizing as Capital of Culture, visit

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