(Lex van Buuren van Skate-A-Round gaat op stap in Friesland met 2 dames van de Washington Post!)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 2004; Page P01
When inline skating through Friesland, beware of rogue potatoes. Hit a wayward spud and you're eating Dutch dirt.
Of course, on a 143-mile loop of the northern Netherlands, there are other road hazards to watch for as well: potholes, cobblestones, weeds, meandering cows (and their unfortunate messes). And plenty to look at: sailboats skimming along inland canals, Hobbit-like homes, soft-focus scenes lifted from Delft china.
But glance too hard at the latter and you just might be tripping on -- or into -- the former.
Skaters can slip on shoes and tour Sneek, the first stop on the 11 City Tour. (Lisa Sachs)
The Friesland inline skating tour my sister (on bike) and I (in skates) followed last summer was mapped out by Lex van Buuren, a 37-year-old avid blader whose company organizes inline tours around Europe, some guided (Paris, Barcelona), some not (Friesland). Historically, the long-distance trek shadows the Elfstedentocht (11 City Tour), an ice-skating marathon held on a patchwork of frozen canals, lakes and rivers that thread through the province's 11 ancient port cities. The competition has occurred only 15 times since its inception in 1909, as the entire region must transform into a giant ice cube, a long shot even in this northern locale.
Practically, though, in a country whose national vehicle could be the Schwinn, the fretwork of biking and hiking paths -- often broad and well-kept, scenic and as flat as a coin -- is ideal for inline skaters.
"We have so many possibilities for inline skating. It's like the sport was made for this country, with tons of nice routes with beautiful landscape," said van Buuren, over dinner in the Leeuwarden hotel after our train ride from Amsterdam. "Inline skating is the closest you'll get to the original Elfstedentocht. The inline skating route is a little longer than the ice skating route -- 200 kilometers compared to 230. . . . I couldn't even use my car afterward. My legs were out of order."
I figured that 143 miles stretched over four days, with inviting beds and hot homemade meals at village inns, might equal a slight ache in the quads in the beginning, a sore glute midway, but an overwhelming sense of (pain-free) accomplishment at the finish line. Plus, anyone who successfully completes the Elfstedentocht gets a bronze medal.
What better incentive -- free kitsch.
Mile 1: Leeuwarden. Mile 143: Leeuwarden. But I'm jumping ahead.
It was a shiny blue and yellow day in the brick and macadam college town of Leeuwarden, less than 95 miles northeast of Amsterdam. The first day was like a warm-up, less than 22 miles to Sneek, when compared with the marathon final leg several days later (about 47 miles). In between were pit stops in seven cities and overnights in Sneek, Stavoren and Franeker. But that last long stretch seemed far away as Lisa and I took a quick morning spin (sans wheels) through the 11th-century capital of Friesland.
Friesland, one of the Netherlands's 12 provinces, has a strong independent streak and a distinctive heritage that includes its own language, Frisian, which pops up on road signs and in daily speech; cuisine (Germanic, but not as greasy); and flag, whose red blotches resemble a child's rendering of a heart but are actually red lily leaves.
Meanwhile, Leeuwarden claims female spy Mata Hari, William IV of Orange and artist M.C. Escher as its own. The former "mound" that arose along the shores of the Middelzee is now a modern urban center with art museums and a lively square with the obligatory canal and au courant shops, restaurants and bars that distract the university students from their studies.
The town, however, was less beguiling after I traded my sneakers for skates. Hairline cracks in the sidewalk, twisty turns with zooming bikes and cars, and tempting bakeries that pulled my eyes from the road made for a wobbly beginning. (Being a novice skater didn't make for a graceful start, either.) Once I got out of town -- after barreling through a farmers market and dodging chickens and children -- the trail widened, the traffic slackened and the city's spires and low-slung buildings dissolved into storybook Dutch country. Soft fields of green muted all sounds but the faint burble of a nearby stream. I was in a sweet reverie until I hit a mental bump.
Wait, a stream? Where were the wide canals that could fit thousands of ice skaters? On this squiggle of water, even the ducks were jockeying for space.
My sister and I stopped short and pulled out van Buuren's (sometimes cryptic) directions. (Example: "Continue skating until you see a road sign in the shape of a 'blocked mushroom.' " A what?) It advised us to go right at the fork by the stream. Then we remembered our tour leader's warning: The inline skating route doesn't faithfully track the 11 City Tour. And since there was no one around to ask except some barnyard animals, we followed the fork all the way to Sneek.
Two towns down, nine to go.
My sister remembers the cities for what they offered. Sneek was a swinging spot with boisterous plazas crammed with umbrella-shaded cafes and packs of laughing locals; Sloten was a tiny fortified town with an exhibition of "magic lanterns" (the precurser of slide projecters) and a picnic-perfect lawn along the canal. Workum was home to local pottery shops where the artisans showed us around their small warehouses, pointing out the painted nautical and pastoral scenes indigenous to Friesland.
Also in Workum: The surprisingly modern Jopie Huisman Museum, whose namesake artist could go brush-to-brush with Grant Wood. And there was the ice skating museum in Hindeloopen, which displayed skates of all incarnations (even a couple of rollers) and included a roomful of photos and artifacts tracing the history of the grueling race.
For me, however, it was all about the road conditions.
In Sneek, there was the dirt-filled abyss I rolled into, after the sidewalk rudely stopped. Hindeloopen had a velvety road with glimpses of the sea-turned-lake IJsselmeer, the result of a hydraulic engineering project. Outside of Hindeloopen, though, the road to Workum morphed into a rutted unpaved strip, then dead-ended in the middle of a vast field of crops. Beyond Franeker was a wild slalom course of potatoes, small haystacks and cow patties. And while klunen might sound like a lovely word to the uninitiated ear, to a skater it means "evil metal bars that take bladers alive."
On patches of asphalt that seemed waxed, I could look around, not down. Of course, then I would almost fall from staring. Friesland has few blights, and the region seems to have been shrink-wrapped to keep out any pollutants that might sully its primary-colored landscape. Blocky wooden windmills tower over slow-motion sailboats that glide noiselessly along the dikes. At bridges, boats would form a queue while a crew member from each ship placed a euro in the little pouch the toll keeper lowered by fishing pole.
At one such crossing, just as the last of the boats slipped through, an old man stepped out of the booth. He had a short break before the next raising, he told me as I approached. He'd never seen an American on this route before, only Europeans. But he said he met loads of Americans on a Florida Disney cruise he took a few years back.
Then he checked his timepiece, shook my hand and hobbled off, before another flotilla of ships appeared.
I'd also seen few Americans. (Correction: none.) Then again, there weren't that many other skaters, either. But bikers, walkers, strollers and dogs too polite to yip or snip at our heels were in abundance.
One afternoon, though, on the road to Franeker, our last overnight town, I spotted the familiar crouch of fellow bladers. Two men were rolling toward us, one in gleaming new skates, the other in a '70s model, with thick lace-up ties and fat wheels. The two Dutch pals were on their annual buddy vacation. Last year they were sunning in Spain; this year, they were spending six days tackling the Elfstedentocht.
"I hope to not use my shoes the whole trip," said Arjo, the one in fancy skates, as he thumbed the sneakers dangling off his pack.
His friend Louis shook his head, mumbled something about Spain, then spied my sister's bike and said, "I think I'm going to have to steal a bike."
Then they headed off in the other direction, their legs swinging like pendulums.
The final stretch of the Elfstedentocht needs a "Chariots of Fire" soundtrack to mark the nearing finish line. If not that, then how about some cow bells for the dozen or so oblivious bovines that stood in the middle of the route, staring at the faint moon.
For 143 miles, I had swerved to avoid potatoes, stumbled over ancient cobblestones, blushed after Lucy-caliber pratfalls. And now Bessie was standing between me and my medal.
"Hush, hush," I said, following van Buuren's instructions.
That was supposed to shoo them away. Nope. They were as stubborn as mules.
"HUSH, HUSH," I insisted.
They half-heartedly lumbered off, barely a pause in their chewing.
With the cows and the canals and the trail that zigzagged through wraparound fields, the last leg was one of the most picturesque. Maybe I was just getting nostalgic, having grown accustomed to the ghostly sailboats and romantic windmills as part of my daily surroundings. Maybe I was finally getting the hang of rolling from town to town. Or perhaps I simply wasn't ready to walk in shoes just yet.
Details: Inline Skating in the Netherlands
GETTING THERE: Fly into Amsterdam and go from there. Various carriers offer nonstop service from D.C., including Northwest, United and KLM; spring fares from Dulles start at $665 round trip.
From Schiphol airport, it's easy and inexpensive to catch the train and head to various parts of the country. Fares to Leeuwarden, the starting point for the 11 City Tour of Friesland that I took, start at about $28 round trip. Train info: www.ns.nl/over+ns/index.cgi.
INLINE SKATING TOURS: You can blade all 143 miles of the 11 City Tour on your own, finding hotels in the layover towns and muddling through the (often cryptic) road signs, or book with a tour group like Amsterdam's Skate-A-Round (011-20-4-681-682, www.skate-a-round.com). The self-guided inline tour is run by Lex van Buuren, who provides skaters with maps, directions, luggage transport and lodging, including breakfast and dinner (tasty multicourse meals, heavy on the local ingredients of meat, fish, soups and potatoes). Four-, five- and seven-day options available; prices from $285 to $559 per person double. A tour guide can be added for an extra charge. Travel to the start/end town of Leeuwarden is additional, as is Amsterdam lodging.
The company also offers a five-day "Best of Holland" trip, a sail-and-skate adventure for $418 per person (12-person minimum; depart July 19 or Aug. 9), and a four-day "Tulip Skate Tour," round trip from Amsterdam, with stops including the Keukenhof, a garden of 7 million tulips and blooming bulbs. Cost: about $475. Van Buuren can also suggest Amsterdam rides, including the free Friday Night Skate (www.fridaynightskate.nl), a popular social event that attracts streams of bladers.
For other inline skating tours and companies in Europe, see Page P9.
WHEN TO GO: Skate-A-Round's 11 City Tour runs May 19-Sept. 1, but go late in the season and you may hit damp weather, and even hail and icy rain (not fun, trust me). Expect crowds the first week of August, during Sneekweek, a series of sailboat races on Sneekermeer Lake. Also, since the towns are so small, book early as hotels fill fast during summer.
TIPS: Practice long-distance skating before you go (D.C.'s Capital Crescent Trail is a good test drive); though the Netherlands is flat, the long mileage really works the body hard. Wear a sizable backpack that can fit sneakers/shoes, extra layers and socks, rain gear and souvenirs. Also carry water and snacks, since, except for the towns, there are no mini-marts or food vendors along the route.
INFO: Netherlands Board of Tourism, 212-557-3500, www.holland.com.
-- Andrea Sachs
(Bron: Washington Post)