Ice-skating in the Netherlands
When the Lowlands freeze, there’s only one thing to do — go skating!
Whenever the temperature drops below zero for more than a day, the Dutch get a certain extra sparkle in their eyes. No, it’s the possibility that they will once again have the good fortune to go ice skating. Oh sure, there’s always those artificial ice rinks — but what really tantalises is the prospect of skating on natural ice.
And there are lakes, canals and ponds all over the Netherlands that freeze up enough to skate on. Every winter there’s huge speculation about the Elfstedentoch, the Eleven-Cities Tour, a 200km marathon skate in Friesland that takes place entirely on natural ice. So rare is it that enough ice to forms along the route that it has only been run 15 times since it officially began in 1909, though the race is said to have been around for hundreds of years.
In 1963, conditions were so extreme that some competitors lost toes to frostbite while others skated right off the ice when they could no longer see the edge of the skating surface. And still, would-be competitors sign up and pay a fee every year, hoping to be a part of the next race.
Unfortunately, only members of the official association (De Vereniging De Friesche Elf Steden) are eligible to join the race, which starts and finishes in the Friesland capital of Leeuwarden. A lottery decides which lucky skaters will get to compete, but it isn’t held until the mercury dips low enough.
Conditions for the race are very specific and as soon as the ice has reached the required thickness of 16cm, the race will be called to take place two days later. Each winter consistent freezing temperatures spark furious speculation as to whether or not the big event will be held, which hasn’t been run since 4 January 1997.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t still get out on your own two blades. Check the daily paper in your area for the Schaats Kalender. This is where you will find all the nearby places to safely hit the ice. Many expats hail from places cold enough to have learned to skate from an early age, but few people take the opportunity to skate on natural ice. While the ice may not be Zamboni-smooth, the experience is well worth a try.
For those who’ve never tried skating, the activity offers great exercise, and can be fun whether you’re on your own or in a group. All you need are your skates and some warm clothes. A helpful website — although in Dutch — for natural ice skating news, weather and information from around the country is www.natuurijsschaatsen.nl.
The website provides regular updates on skating competitions; however, taking part in these races often requires advanced registration. To find out where they are being held click the "Toertochten zoeken" box and select the province of your choice from the drop-down menu.
And if it does get cold enough, those in the know say that there’s no better way to see National Park de Weerribben (www.deweerribben.nl) than on skates, because you can easily go to places that might otherwise be nearly impossible to reach. If the skate fits. The only significant downside to skating on natural ice is that you need your own skates because it’s virtually impossible to rent skates to take to the local ice pond. If you’re not sure whether you want to invest in a pair, you can go to a rink where you can rent skates and glide on the ice for a while. Oomssport (www.oomssport.nl in English and Dutch) has two locations with indoor rinks where you can rent before buying.
And if you get a taste for the ice, you can probably find at least one man-made rink, or ijsbaan, in your local area. Checkwww.schaats.pagina.nl. In the Netherlands you can find hockey and figure skates, but more common are those with the long blades, used in speed skating.
There are also klapschaats, a contraption that you can strap on to specialised boots, which leave the heels unattached, the same way that cross-country skis work. Older versions of these can sometimes be found in second-hand and antique shops. Try these out at your own risk.
For more information about natural ice skating areas, events and local conditions, check with the national skating association website, www.knsb.nl.
Eleven cities' tour (Friesland)
If the temperature drops enough so canals freeze over to a depth of 15cm along a 200km route, keep an eye out for this gruelling skating marathon through the northern province of Friesland.
The Eleven-Cities Tour in Friesland has been run only 15 times since 1909
To find a skating club click on the "Schaatsclubs" link on www.schaats.pagina.nl.
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