04 Sep A Day in Harlingen
„Holland’s always a good idea.“
I read that once on Instagram and I thought Yeah … you’re right.
Looking at my never ending bucket list of travel, Holland was nowhere to be found between the Wild Atlantic roadtrip through Ireland and a Spa lounging in Hungary. But whereas I have yet to cross them off my list, I’ve visited the Netherlands three times over the past two years. And I am living nowhere near the border.
It’s just like my social media friend said – Hollands’s always a good idea. Holland is always a possibility – lurking beneath thoughts of palm trees and swelling mountains. But give us a long weekend, a couple days off and those ideas rise to the fore in a frenzy.
A shopping trip to Utrecht? Deal. A romantic weekend in Nijmegen. Yes please. A 3-night, give-all stay in Amsterdam? Oh yeah.
But amidst all those possibilities, I have wholly neglected the Frisian part of the country that I carelessly deemed as the happy-go-lucky reflection of our own Frisian region in the northwest of Germany. Shame on me. Seriously.
So when I drove to West Frisia a few weeks ago, I actually had no expectations whatsoever. Only to be charmed out of my sandals.
The whole trip will be divided into three parts: Harlingen, Texel and the sailing Horizontoer Festival. This is the first part, it will be all about the harbour city of Harlingen, while the second and third part will follow in autumn and winter. And by then, bear with me when I’ll be telling you for the umpteenth time how those 5 days in August melted me – feet and ears and all – into a heap of bones that felt alive and free and welcome – and quite melodious.
Welcome to Harlingen
Province: Frisia, Friesland, Fryslân
Also known as: Harlinger
Harlingen on the Horizon
Depending on your starting point, you might want to get up early … or even earlier. Fortunately, the Dutch infrastructure is well established, easy to navigate and laid-back. I drove the Autobahn almost straight into Harlingen. The former is less frequented than in Germany and speeding stops at 130 km/h.
Since the city harbours one of the few ferries to Terschelling,
a much-loved Frisian island, many journeys end at one of the long-term parking spaces near the terminal. Their loss.
The city that unravels itself as soon as you cross the Tsjerk Hiddes bridge is filled to the brim with liveliness, brow-lifting history, small luxuries as well as: stories. And there must be one flower tub for every person living in this city.
Harlingen is very Dutch: bicycles, small canals, shops and stalls with cheese and at the end of the street, a lighthouse. You wander through the park, shop and eat in the nearby city centre, marvel at the well-kept architecture and find yourself at the harbour in the blink of an eye. I love cities that are built like that.
If you want to discover everything at once and listen to the many stories and anecdotes, you simply have to book a guided city tour that starts at the Grote Bredeplaats near the tourist information.
This is how we met Hans. Hans led us over bridges and through narrow alleys, started his tales in Dutch and ended them in German, stated humorous facts without blinking and pointed out the Michelin-starred restaurant by the harbour.
Watching him recount the town’s unique tales almost distracts you from the content itself. Watching people do what they love, soaking up their passion, never ceases to amaze. Thank you, Hans!
The original little harbour city got its town privileges in 1234 – easy to remember – and has since collected over 600 monuments. Its unique location by the Wadden Sea offers quite a scenic view with the tide rolling in and out and an ever open connection to the sea.
The flair of the old merchants‘ harbour is still present when you stroll by the beautifully restored warehouses. We read Brittania, Russia and Sumatra on its doors, learn how to distinguish between rich family homes and even richer ones and gather the importance of being open-minded towards your own people – the Ouwe Seunen – and the Tobbedanser (please try that with a cute Dutch accent while saying it out loud).
True to its meaning, the term cosmopolitan might as well have been established a couple of hundred years ago amid these streets that all lead to the open sea.
And don’t forget to look out for the original advertisements painted on some of the exterior walls!
Shopsnacking in Harlingen
Another adorable fact about Harlingen? It doesn’t have any of the shops that you see everywhere, the undistinguished chain stores that make it difficult to see the unique character beneath the compliant series of mass production. Instead, the town houses a pretty string of single shops that do their best to invite you in while walking along the shopping mile called Voorstraat. Luckily, the town’s just the right size so you don’t have to choose between the market stalls and the neatly fitted shops in the old merchants’ houses.
Go on, take your time while you stroll through town, because there is so much to discover and so many things you haven’t seen yet. And don’t forget to get yourself a souvenir!
Among the shopping promenade you’ll also find a fine selection of Cafés and small restaurants, perfect for catching your breath, craning your neck towards the sun on one of the many terraces or back gardens and soothing your hunger pang.
We had sweet minted tea and a delicious sandwich for lunch at De Lachende Koe (“The Laughing Cow”). In Germany I rarely order peppermint tea, because I can’t stand the tea bag stuff. But here, in the Netherlands, it is more than common to get a fresh twig with mint leaves along with your hot water. Another sweet detail that refuses to leave my (already) memory-laden brain.
Spotting the Harbour
If you travel to Harlingen by train, the first things you’ll see when you step out of the carriage are the boats and the lighthouse and the people waiting to cross one of the many bascule bridges! The passage between city centre and harbour is rather fluent here. Docking your barge and finding yourself in the middle of town? Pretty much the case in Harlingen.
The harbour is of course the starting point for all the maritime adventures:
Water sports, sailing trips, building ships, travelling to the Frisian Islands, a tour through the tideland…it’s a long list.
So pack your oilskin jacket (or Friesennerz (‘Frisian Mink’) as we call it in German), maybe a pair of wellies and dive right in. Or simply sit down by the pier, put your legs over the railing and enjoy the buzzing atmosphere (and capture it on camera).
Willem Barentsz Wharf
The local project I was most impressed by was the Willem Barentsz Wharf, but hey – I’m a seaside kind of girl.
What a monster this project is, what a gigantic and brilliant endeavour! To form an attachment to the old Willem Barentsz we meet Karel Jan who could easily teach a full course in The obstacles and challenges of nautical endeavours in centuries past. And trust me, the auditorium would be full.
Who needs a Flying Dutchman when they have cool Willem Barentsz. Literally. Why else would they name a part of the Arctic Sea after him.
Born on Terschelling (a real Frisian then) in 1550, he was one of the first Europeans to spend a winter in the Arctic.
But why would anyone willingly swap his flip-flops for a few months of eternal winter? And without the promise of a safe passage? And return?
According to Karel, Dutch merchants, very much engaged in the seafarer’s business at that time, wanted to find a sea route to China without having to sail round Africa, which was a long and dangerous detour. So, logically, they would ‘simply’ sail across the Arctic Sea.
However, the world as we know it today wasn’t fully mapped back then. Even though geographers knew that there was ‘something’ northeast of Scandinavia, it was pretty much all a blank space. So they hired Willem Barentsz, an experienced sailor and cartographer, who set out with his expedition team and ship in 1596 and arrived at the island of Nowaja Semlja (which is now part of Russia) during the Arctic summer.
They built a house, stayed over the winter and decided to return with much smaller boats in the spring, because the big one was still stuck fast in the thick layers of ice. It was later recovered by the Russians while Norwegian explorers found their winter house almost 300 years later. It was still in good condition with lots of well-preserved appliances and books in it. Barentsz also discovered Svalbard during his expedition.
Weakened and badly nourished, the Barentsz crew still had to carry the small boats (you see an original one on one of the pictures below, behind the hollyhock flower) occasionally across the ice – what an act of inconceivable strength! Twelve of the 17 original crew members made it back home safely. Willem Barentsz, however, wasn’t one of them.
So, what’s so special about this wharf? Well: They are building Willem’s ship. Wooden beam by beam by beam. And in the exact same order and manner as they did back in the 16th century.
How are they able to do that? Apart from the Dutch mastermind who calculated and issued the present-day construction plans and his hardworking crew, they are also the keepers of a special diary. It is an original diary from a 16th century sailor who actually took part in the above mentioned Barentsz expedition and who speaks of the hardships and Arctic saunas in his writings.
And who are these crazy fellows? Very honourable ones actually. Karel tells us that they are all volunteers who work 4 hours a day, 4 days a week on that particular wooden ship. A ship that will be 25 m long and 5 m wide in the end. And yes, they have an original cannon on board.
They’ve been working on it since 2010 and are already up to the second and final deck. They’re mainly using strong Oaktree trunks from a Danish cultivation area that was created for shipbuilding decades ago. They build in more than 4.000 handmade wooden nails (you can see one in the making on a picture below) and use crowdfunding to be able to finance complicated wood cuttings. By carving names into those special beams, the shipbuilders say thank you to all the contributors. A very successful campaign.
Karel and his ‘mates’ are hoping to finish the ship and launch it in 2018, which is a very special year for Harlingen with big festivals on the horizon.
Wishing you all the best for this amazing project!
Dining in Harlingen
At some point into our dinner, I thought I might be sitting in one of those lobster places in a small seaport town in Maine or North Carolina. You know, where everyone’s meeting after a day at the beach to order a bucket of mussels. Where the interior looks absolutely shabby chic and any pale guest is spotted a stranger.
The atmosphere of the Nooitgedagt is an exact image of my speculations. With its interesting food combinations, the authentic look and service it simply has to be one of the best culinary spots in town.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever forget the chocolate dessert that melted right on my tongue. I’d love to go back to Harlingen just to have another dinner there!
If you prefer a more fancy place, book a table at the ‘t Havenmantsje. It is the afore mentioned Michelin-starred restaurant by the harbour which also offers some interesting workshops with the chef.
The place comes with a complimentary nice view of the harbour and town, especially at night.
Get up and dance
(because the alternative is a polonaise)
Since we were hooked up with the Horizontoer Festival, there was music all around the city. The sailing festival started its annual tour in Harlingen and made a spectacle of a diversity of bands playing their brilliant repertoire in the open pavilion at the town square (which very much reminded me of Stars Hollow) and in several cosy bars. Have I mentioned how much I love watching people throwing off sparks of emotion because of what they do? Well, in that case the whole festival was more or less an insane firework. But more about that later, as promised.
While leaping from one festival location to the next, we also came upon a Dutch duo that wasn’t part of the Horizontoer but decided to play some live music nonetheless.
There’s no such thing as too much music, ey? Two slightly older men in black shirts holding onto their guitars on barstools. I was worried that we happened upon the Dutch equivalent of a Schlager duo, when they suddenly started jamming and a few moments later the crowd, formerly sitting neatly in their café chairs, went mad with cheering, dancing and singing on top of their lungs. I didn’t understand a word but then I didn’t need to – they all had one hell of a good time. And it was bloody contagious!
Later, my new Dutch friend told me that they changed one of the cover songs they played (Kings of Leon’s Sex on Fire) into Seks met die kale which literally translates as Sex with a bald guy. Well. They know how to make memories.
Sleepless in Harlingen
If you take the chance to visit Harlingen before your sailing trip starts at 3 in the morning then you’ll be lucky enough to spend your night already aboard ship and let yourself be lulled to sleep by the soft waves that roll into the harbour.
We spent one and a half nights in Harlingen and crashed at the Apartment Hotel Almenum on our first day. It is located right behind the shopping promenade and has a very nice inner courtyard.
There’s also a perky city hotel right in the centre (Hotel Harlingen), as well as a stylish Boutique Hotel and many more. The Anna Casparii Restaurant that you see further below also functions as a rather elegant hotel.
Or – if you’re there for the festival, you might as well just throw your bags into your room, get up, get out and return for a much needed breakfast with lots of peanut butter 😉
Good night – goede nacht!
All analog pictures taken on film with vintage and lomo cameras. No Photoshop, digital filters or anything, just pure and creative film photography.
Exceptions to the above are the title picture, the two concert pictures and the Harlingen postcard/collage.
Films: Kodak Portra 400 (colour pictures), Ilford hp5 plus 400 (black & white pictures, +1 push) & Fuji Instax
Developing: Mein Film Lab (colour and black & white pictures)
Scan: Mein Film Lab (colour pictures), CanoScan 9000f (instant pictures and black & white pictures)
All photographs displayed in a low resolution.
A huge thank you to the INTERREG program of the European Union and the INTERREG partners who made this wonderful trip possible. A big thank you goes to Stichting RegioMarketing Toerisme for organizing this Blogger’s event and to my new Dutch friends 🙂