Many people tend to use Holland and The Netherlands interchangeably, even some people who live there. But North Holland and South Holland are just two of the twelve provinces that make up The Netherlands. We have traveled pretty widely from one end of the country to the other but the province that keeps drawing us back doesn’t seem to be on most peoples’ itineraries. When we point the car north, it seems like more often than not, we wind up in Friesland (or Fryslân in the local West Frisian dialect). I think it’s because more than any other province, Friesland seems to capture for us the essence of Dutch life. It’s a little more relaxed than its southerly neighbors and it really allows us to leave the outside world behind, in a way that very few places do.
Friesland really lends itself to touring by car, provided you are not in a rush. The roads are very well maintained and it’s easy to get nearly anywhere quickly. But the entire region is crisscrossed with canals, and they aren’t just for decoration. It’s not at all unusual to wait for several minutes as a drawbridge is raised to allow a boat (or two, or three) to pass. But the scenery is uniformly pleasant and if you’re in a hurry, you would probably be more inclined to a weekend in Amsterdam anyway.
For our last couple of visits, we have chosen the charming town of Bolsward as our base of operations. It’s central and very accommodating to visitors. We stay at Het Weeshuis (http://hotelhetweeshuis.nl/), a very
pleasant hotel located in the Kerkstraat in a historic orphanage dating back to 1553. The rooms are large and comfortable, and it’s just a few minutes’ walk to the beautiful, friendly town center. The proprietors, Mylan and Manon Lin, are a young couple and he is a talented chef, always taking advantage of local produce at the peak of freshness. It is worth your while to book a table for dinner for at least one evening of your stay. The menu is fixed for each evening and it’s a very nice dining experience indeed.
A five-minute stroll will take you to the heart of the old town, where the impressive city hall (completed 1617) stands at one end of the town square with the Hotel/Restaurant De Wijnberg at the other. A canal bisects the square, with shops and restaurants lining either side. The railings next to the canal were festooned with flower boxes overflowing with colorful cascades of blooms. The emphasis here is on relaxed. Local families looking like they just stepped out of a tourism brochure, can be seen enjoying the evening air. Norman Rockwell would be hard pressed to portray a more idealized looking family group. Several times we noticed that shopkeepers would sometimes step out for a quick bite without bothering to lock up or even move their wares in from the sidewalk. It was a very nice change.
One experience really underlined the relaxing, low-pressure nature of the place. We set out early one morning in our Honda Odyssey to explore some of the nearby sights. Unfortunately, I took a wrong turn and found myself driving the wrong way down a one-way street. But this wasn’t just any one-way street. To my left was a canal, with tiny little parking spaces for local residents. To my right, pretty gabled brick houses left no room at all. Of course, someone turned into the street coming in the other direction. I was clearly in the wrong here. I couldn’t go forward and I wasn’t sure I could back up without smashing something. I had visions of the other driver jumping out of his car and yelling at me for being the goof-up that I very clearly was. Instead, without missing a beat, he whipped into one of the impossibly small parking spaces that I had assumed was not big enough to accommodate a Smart Car. Then he smiled broadly and signaled me to proceed, waving as I went by as if he was expecting us to stop by for a beer later. What had looked like a very stressful start to the day turned out to be one more exercise in slowing down and relaxing. It set just the right tone for a pleasant day in this least stressful part of The Netherlands.
I had intended to cover more ground in this post but I’m afraid I got pleasantly lost in Bolsward. In a future post (or posts), we’ll look at a few other places, such as Sneek and Hindeloopen.