Published: 29/12/2017 09:11 - Updated: 29/12/2017 10:21

Leeuwarden - capital of culture 2018 and home to Marta Hari.

Written byRon Smith, travel writer

Leeuwarden is the capital of the Friesland region of the Netherlands.

If you look at a map, north of Amsterdam is a lot of water, and then a large area bulging out into the sea with some off shore islands. This is Friesland, where the cattle come from. With typical Dutch efficiency, KLM fly you from Inverness or Aberdeen to Amsterdam Schiphol airport where the trains leave several times an hour (to anywhere!) at prices much lower than in the UK, and it takes just over an hour to get to Leeuwarden.

Read more:

A guide to Leeuwarden

Dutch tourist office

The Netherlands is renowned for being flat, but Friesland tops it all, well over half the country is below sea level! They say that they live "on the bottom of the sea", and have a great respect for water and dykes. They are very environmentally aware especially of climate change and rising sea levels of course! They have centuries of dyke expertise and have recently found that "soft" dykes, of different shapes and curves, will soften the hammer blow of the waves and the new, higher, dykes are artistically shaped to look like female figures lying on their sides! Maybe this has been influenced by the famous WW1 "spy" Marta Hari having been born in Leeuwarden.

At just 1.2metres wide, this Leeuwarden chocolate shop is the smallest shop in the whole of the Netherlands
At just 1.2metres wide, this Leeuwarden chocolate shop is the smallest shop in the whole of the Netherlands

Leeuwarden is, naturally, built on sand, so building defensive walls was not an option, so they built star shaped wide canals to circle the town. This means that the centre is compact and nothing is very high. A grand church tower was built, but not completed as it started to lean, and today rivals Pisa for its angle of tilt. Walking through the lovely streets you will come to a modest sized new statue of Marta Hari on a canal bridge outside the hat shop that her grandfather started and her father inherited. Her real name was Margaretha Geertruida Zelle. Her father was, it seems a very unpleasant man. He was always complaining to the police about some imagined insult, always accusing the staff in the hat shop of theft, poor timekeeping and so on, and also to the domestic staff in the house, so they had a continual turnover of staff. He speculated on the stock exchange and made some money, so they moved up from living over the shop to a grander house. He then went bust!


For Margaretha (Greta) life became difficult. When she was 18 she saw an advertisement in a newspaper from an officer in the Dutch army called John McLeod, looking for a wife. His ancestors came from Stornaway! This "lonely hearts" advert was placed because he was coming home from the Dutch East Indies on sick leave, and wanted to get married. Greta replied, they were engaged very quickly and married, and she went back out to the far east as Mrs. J. McLeod!

Unfortunately, Major John McLeod was also a nasty man. He was very bad to her, gave her syphilis which passed onto her children, requiring terrible treatments and was violent against her. She left him, returned home, and had great difficulty finding work. The court ruled that John must pay her 50 guilders a month for the upkeep of the children and herself, but this he never did. When it was attempted to enforce the court order, he was found to be bankrupt. At that time, women were not allowed to do much, they were wives and mothers only! She found work on the stage, and moved to Paris to have a career as an exotic actress and have many lovers. The name "Marta Hari" comes from a Malay word for "eye of the day" meaning the sun. Unfortunately, she was shot by the French army as a spy on the 15th of October 1917 when she was just 41.

That was 100 years ago, and French military papers should be released after 100 years to show what (lack of) evidence the French actually had. In Leeuwarden, there is, until April 2018, an important exhibition of previously unknown letters and photographs all about Marta Hari, in the Fries Museum. This is a modern very attractive stylish museum built across one end of the market square. It conveniently hides a horrible modern boring shopping centre that is so unattractive you want to keep walking rather than go inside. The council put the design for this out to various architects. One, Mr. A. Bonnema, had his design rejected. He was not happy about this (and I can sympathise) so on his death he left 18 million euros to the council to build the Fries Museum to his design - and the money could not be used for anything else. After some years of dithering, the council saw sense and built it. Well done them. It is a super building, harmonises with the historic buildings around the other 3 sides of the square, and provides an excellent world class exhibition and gallery centre.

The traffic all has to stop to let a boat go through
The traffic all has to stop to let a boat go through

We are used to the Holland part of the Netherlands, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and so on, which are all very densely populated. Leeuwarden as the capital of Freisland has 108,250 people. This gives it a special "feel". It is busy and quietly going on about its business, and still keeps that small town feel, despite its importance and sophistication. One example - the new statue of Marta Hari was difficult to photograph due to parked cars and bicycles, but when I passed later, it was clear so took some photographs. An elderly gentleman was walking past leaning on his stick, and stopped to tell me about another picture of her on a wall nearby, done as graffiti - as I don't speak Dutch he naturally switched to English, as is common here. While we were chatting a lady walked past and went into a shop and came out again with a leaflet for me about the official unveiling of the statue the next day, and how the hat on it was just welded on the day before with great difficulty. Typical friendly people.

Marta Hari painted directly onto a wall in graffitti style, Leeuwarden
Marta Hari painted directly onto a wall in graffitti style, Leeuwarden

At the head of one lane is a very narrow shop, selling excellent chocolates. I went in to buy some for Mrs. Smith, and the lady chatted to me, explaining that this is the smallest shop in the whole of the Netherlands, at 1.2 metres wide, and selecting the best chocolates for me. She had not visited Scotland but was interested to hear about us, our desire for independence and why the UK is leaving the EU (to which she sympathised). Across the road was a large and very pretty C&A shop. As they were having a "mid season" sale (there is always a sale) I went in and bought a couple of things. The staff were friendly, made sure that the jacket I bought for a snip actually fit me, and I learned that this was the 2nd C&A shop ever. The first was started by brothers Clement and Auguste (hence C&A) at their home town of Sneek (pronounced snake) nearby.

Walking around Leeuwarden is a real discovery trail. Walking through the gardens, well laid out and maintained, alongside the broad canal, there are many typically Friesland boats tied up, all maintained to a high standard. A modern cabin cruiser came chugging past, and slowed as it approached a bridge. This bridge is major roadway, with many buses, trucks, cars and of course bicycles passing over it constantly. Slowly, a worker surveyed the road traffic, and then, after letting two busses pass, the traffic lights turned to red, barriers came down, and the bridge started to lift. When it was almost upright, the traffic lights on the canal turned to green, and the cabin cruiser picked up speed and raced through, allowing the bridge to slowly lower again and traffic resumed. This must play havoc with the bus timetable! It is not a rare thing either, further on another boat was passing through another raised bridge.

One of the well preserved traditional boats tied up along the broad defensive canal at LeeuwardenIn Keith, it is normal to greet people when you pass them in the street, which is impossible in cities of course. In Leeuwarden, as I walked along the paths local people coming the other way naturally greeted me, which I really appreciated. It was similar when I eventually was leaving the town. The wonderfully ornate railway station which has quiet style, and a piano inside for anyone to have a tinkle, has automatic ticket barriers. I tried to scan my pre-printed ticket but it wasn't working. Tried again, no luck and a student also going through stopped to see if he could help, as did an elderly lady with her message bags, and this was before the NS railway lady on duty at the barriers could come across to me! She said that the printing was not so clear but it was all OK and opened the barriers for me no problem and wished me a good journey back to Schiphol and be sure to take the train on the right.

There is s much to tell you about this city and the region, mostly unknown to us and well worth exploring, that I will have to continue in part two. 

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