Explore it with a neighborhood: Leeuwarden, the Netherlands’ capital of tradition | Travel

The greatest option to see this 12 months’s joint European Capital of Culture is to ask the residents to indicate you their metropolis – totally free

Painted metropolis: biking by way of the centre of Leeuwarden.
Photograph: Robert Ormerod for the Observer

It’s simply after 10am and I’m biking by way of the slim cobblestone streets of Leeuwarden within the Netherlands, previous canals with ivy-covered banks and completely preserved 17th-century service provider homes, because of Mila and her boyfriend Wilmar, our guides for the day. “Bike is by far the best way to see the city,” says Mila. “The only rule is you’ve got to bring us back afterwards. And in the same condition.”

Netherlands map

Leen een Fries – in different phrases, borrow a Frisian – sums up the spirit of Leeuwarden. It’s a free scheme of 90-plus customer experiences, the place locals lend their time to indicate you the sights, enable you discover your approach and provide ideas. This 12 months the town is joint European Capital of Culture (together with Valletta in Malta) and there’ll be numerous occasions to have fun. Friesland, within the northwest of the Netherlands, is essentially the most genuine, if unknown, of its provinces, filled with meadows and forests; Leeuwarden, its capital, is like Amsterdam with out the crowds. It has survived because the early 10th century on the dairy farms that encompass it. Nowadays it’s a pastoral city with an enviable variety of nationwide monuments (600, to be exact), epicurean cheese outlets (Zuivelhoeve on Kleine Kerkstraat is a selected treasure trove) and biking lanes which can be as civilised and effort-free as you’d count on.

A girl sitting at a table reading a book in a cell at Blokhuispoort, a prison-turned-library.

Jail break: a younger inmate at Blokhuispoort, a prison-turned-library. Photograph: Robert Ormerod for the Observer

We park up at Blokhuispoort, a 19th-century jail museum; with its gothic arch, excessive masonry and intimidating Wormwood Scrubs turrets, it doesn’t instantly really feel that welcoming. It’s not till you get inside that you just recognize its transformation. The previous courtyards have been utterly transformed – there’s a classy youth hostel, a energetic waterside restaurant referred to as Proefverlof and a designer library (no portcullis, however Porridge-style cells double as splendidly kooky studying rooms). On the bottom flooring is a bookworm’s haven, Café de Bak, however proper now I’m in want of extra sustenance and an hour alone with Dostoevsky isn’t going to do it.

Not far down the road is the Post-Plaza Hotel and Grand Café that Wilmar insists I go to following our tour. Vaulted and high-ceilinged, the brasserie was as soon as the primary publish workplace and a haphazard array of vintage mail packing containers and letter trays are lovingly preserved. In conserving with the town’s aptitude for reinvention, the adjoining boutique resort has redefined the architectural traces of a former financial institution. The spotlight, after plates of buttery prawns and scrumptious North Sea bass, is a espresso paired with a hazelnut and aniseed dúmke, a biscuit – I’m instructed – formed like a Frisian’s thumb.

A hand holding two large triangular cuts of cheese, one green the other purple

Epicurean leanings: flavoured cheeses. Photograph: Robert Ormerod for the Observer

To get a really feel for Leeuwarden’s artwork credentials, the Fries Museum on Wilhelminaplein, centre of cultural life within the province, is the very best place to begin. The journey begins at road degree with a minimalist café, earlier than climbing, previous views of Frisian flags hung from the Gerechtshof courthouse throughout the sq., to the higher galleries the place the previous nonetheless appears tangibly and reassuringly current within the gallery reveals. If you want your historical past with a aspect of QI trivia, the medieval De Oldehove tower, seen on the distant fringes of the previous city, is much extra extraordinary than Pisa’s leaning one; it’s so crooked it might by no means be completed.

Upstairs is an exhibition dedicated to one of many city’s extra well-known former residents, Mata Hari, born right into a affluent Leeuwarden household in 1876. In 1917 she was convicted by the French of passing secrets and techniques to the enemy, accused of being the “greatest woman spy of the century” and executed by firing squad. She has now been solid in a distinct mild, thanks partly to a cache of her private letters revealed for the primary time in 2017. It’s an enchanting exhibition, operating till 2 April, adopted by a retrospective on one other former resident of Leeuwarden, MC Escher (from 28 April to 28 October). Lampooned by his friends, he however created a few of the most memorable photographs of the 20th century together with his mathematical dreamscapes; Stanley Kubrick and Mick Jagger have been followers. As a warm-up for his arrival, the Phantom Limb exhibition (till 6 January 2019) options postmodern homages to this grasp of phantasm.

Mata Hari in exotic green costume jewellery in Fries Museum

The ‘greatest woman spy of the century’: Leeuwarden’s Mata Hari, who was executed by firing squad. Photograph: Museum of Friesland

It’s a brief trip from right here to the place Escher was born, a constructing that now homes the Princessehof National Museum of Ceramics, spruced up for its centenary 12 months. There’s not a lot proof right here of Escher’s imaginative and prescient till you look midway up the brickwork, and there you possibly can spot a homage; a glittering mural depicting a brain-bending tessellation of silver and black geese. If Leeuwarden is nervous about its new cultural function, it definitely doesn’t present. Everywhere you look there are fascinating inventive tasks that “fool around with established certainties”, as Escher put it, from the transformed jail to Boomsma Beerenburger, a novel walk-in micro-distillery positioned a block from the ceramics museum the place juniper, liquorice and candy calamus are steeped in alcohol.

“Leeuwarden is ready for this party,” artist Dioni ten Busschen tells me over a glass of untamed blackberry-infused spirits within the tasting room, exhibiting of her most up-to-date work, a life-size Friesian horse sculpted from peat. The European Capital of Culture’s crucial is to place a vacation spot on the map, however it appears that evidently Leeuwarden actually didn’t want that a lot assist in any respect. Or because the Frisians say, doe maar gewoon. Just act regular.

Way to go

EasyJet flies from 10 UK airports to Amsterdam Schiphol from £42 return; Leeuwarden is a 2¼-hour practice trip north. Doubles on the WTC Hotel Leeuwarden from £70. For a free metropolis tour, go to More data at and

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