Dreamy villages with their churches, pubs and typically shaped farms. Intimate Elfsteden towns. Woodlands, lakes and streaky skies that might have been plucked from a masterpiece. The Saint Odulf path ticks all the boxes for walkers, and links up more than 260 km of provincial beauty. Hop, skip and jump around the Frisian pearls of a spectacular necklace in Waterland.
Following in the footsteps of Odulf
'I can't imagine living anywhere but Oudega, so close to the water,' sighs the young woman, and there goes the ball again, into the Aldegeaster Brekken. Followed closely by her golden retriever taking a flying leap, excitable and untiring, to retrieve the booty. And again. And once more. This is their moment, on the shores of the vast lake that sparkles and shimmers mysteriously on this late afternoon. The sinking sun has shed glitters in its wake.
Land broken by water
It comes as no surprise that this section of the Saint Odulf path is known as Lux Aeterna, or eternal light. At times, the magical lighting gives a special sheen to the lake that was formed around 120,000 years ago, during the last but one ice age. What a paradisaical location, here on the lagoon. You'll encounter the name Brekken quite commonly along the route. Brekken translates as lagoons formed by dike breaches or excavation of peat, for which water sports enthusiasts and swimmers are now very grateful. These are quite literally pieces of land broken by water, which is a lyrical description of the many lakes, large and small, to be explored in the Frisian low-lying moors.
WHO WaS SaINT oDULf?
You can now walk in the footsteps of Saint Odulf, along a path of the same name that threads through a large number of the Frisian pearls. The young missionary Odulf trekked from Brabant to Friesland in the ninth century to christianise the residents. In doing so, this saint known as the Apostle of the Frisians offered them structure, reassurance and a sense of purpose, leaving a lasting impression on his followers. As a result, numerous convents and monastic granges were founded in his name, which were to greatly influence the development of the Frisian countryside. Many of them have disappeared, but the Saint Odulf path brings his legacy back to life.
Mosaic of watercourses
If you can get your hands on a provincial map (which is certainly worth the effort for 'foreign' explorers, check the tip below), Southwest Friesland will prove to have a mosaic of watercourses shaped by Mother Nature and human hands. Lakes of ample dimension with arms reaching out in all directions; ditches, pools, water pits and yes, lagoons. We happen to be exploring on foot, but this is naturally also ideal for a lovely boat trip.
The Aldegeaster Brekken are connected to De Fluessen and Heegermeer lake, another few of those enormous expanses of water. Friesland holds the patent for those.
Another striking feature of the landscape is the numerous fastidiously built transformer houses. Many of these stone constructions were erected at a safe height, on dikes, around the 1930s, wherever there was a risk of flooding or high tide. Nowadays they convert high voltage into low voltage and supply it to households and companies. Some of them are monumental in all their simplicity: keep an eye open and you'll discover the most beautiful designs in the Frisian countryside.
PHOTO: ANKERKERK IN OUDEGA
Now you're in the area: check out the unorthodox building work by director and theatre producer Pieter Stellingwerf. His personally designed curious construction is being built just outside this Frisian port. The development of this so-called Upside Down Frisian farm is well under way and certainly attracts a lot of attention.
Pay attention: three Oudegas
All three are on the waterfront: Oudega, Idzega and Sandfirden. They may just seem like negligible blobs on the map, but anyone with an eye for detail will discover villages of intimate beauty. With no fuss or frivolity.
A tip beforehand: make sure you navigate to the right Oudega. We're not joking; Friesland has no less than three (!) Oudegas, and before you know where you are, you'll end up in Smallingerland or De Friese Meren. They too are lovely places to visit, but way off route when exploring on foot.
"Our" Oudega is a pretty village snuggling under a blanket of tranquillity outside the tourist season. The campsite deserted, the marina empty. The stage that runs via Workum to Hindeloopen (17 km) starts at the foot of the Ankerkerk Church (or should we say the Ankertsjerke) in Oudega, with its tower bell dating from 1623, concealed behind an attractive striped green exterior. No wonder this beauty has earned itself a spot on the National Heritage list. Another monument – just off the walking route – is Doris Mooltsje, and is certainly worth the detour. This oldest hollow post windmill of Friesland is at the same time the largest of its type. A beauty in operation, a sizeable windmill that serves to drain the small polders around the Aldegeaster Brekken. This so-called tjasker built in 1790 has been fondly named after one of its last millers, Doris Hoekstra.
Die älteste Spinnenkopfmühle Frieslands ist gleichzeitig auch die größte ihrer Art. Eine Schönheit und eine Windmühle von stattlicher Größe, die nach wie vor die Polder rund um den Aldegeaster Brekken entwässert. Die Fluttermühle von 1790 wurde liebevoll nach einem ihrer letzten Müller benannt: Doris Hoekstra.
Workum and Hindeloopen
Further along the Lux Aeterna route, Frisian Elfsteden towns display their treasures. Workum with its earthenware utensils and the Waag weighing house, as the eye-catcher on the central lively square where butter and cheese were traded in the olden days. Nowadays, it's one big open-air pavement café when the sun shines. Around the corner, the rich legacy of artist Jopie Schilder awaits you, along with a choice selection of age old façades, guaranteed to leave admirers with a stiff neck. Hindeloopen is equally attractive, with its world-famous painting work encountered everywhere – from nameplates to clogs – and its maze of alleyways and bridges, the Commodore residences and the tiny adjacent houses. Grab yourself a fish lunch and relax on the shores of the IJsselmeer lake.
Pomp and circumstance
Blauwhuis is our most northerly destination today. The Saint Odulf 'Aether' stage (brushed skies) transports us along a 16 kilometre route from Gaastmeer through – the now familiar! – Oudega to Blauwhuis. Final destination: Saint Vitus church, the rightful climax of a considerable hike. Pomp and circumstance is translated into a lofty, richly decorated Gothic Revival style that contrasts starkly with the simple village life. Today's religious building is a striking beacon in the landscape, but this was once the location of a barn church; a conventicle during an age that Roman Catholicism was forbidden in the Netherlands.
The Catholics continued their masses in inconspicuous buildings, to which a blind eye was turned. Once Napoleon came into power, they were once again able to practice their religion openly, and this impressive church was built in 1871. This National Heritage monument is home to a stained glass tableau featuring two Catholic "heroes": Titus Brandsma and priest Jan Ysbrand Galama. Outside, wealthy farming families ensured plenty of eye-catching tombs.
LONG-DISTaNCe WaLKING ROUTe
This walking route (more than 260 km) comprises 15 stages to take you through Southwest Friesland, Gaasterland and the Greidhoek. The stages take walkers to seven of the famous Frisian Elfsteden towns, through villages, woodlands and rolling hills, past lakes, visiting churches and long-lost convents. Walkers are advised to use the detailed route book with maps that follow the existing network of walking routes. The authors also provide tips for fun addresses for food, drink, overnight stays or simply inspiration.
Carnival in the pub
Café De Freonskip (Frisian for friendship) is a very friendly watering hole right on the village crossroads, and dates all the way back to 1875. The innkeeper is pleased to explain about the original hostelry that was a popular overnight stay for gentlemen travelling to Sneek. Inside, the guests would indulge in aqua vita, while the horses were rested outside. The drinking tradition continues nowadays in spring, as Blauwhuis is one of the scarce Catholic enclaves in Friesland, where
the residents greet each other with a hearty cry of Alaaf! normally only encountered in the southern Netherlands. Carnival is celebrated exuberantly here each year; Blauwhuis is temporarily renamed Fyfkesryk and the pub and party centre shakes on its foundations. 'Three days in March,' owner Gerard de Wolff grins, pointing to the portrait gallery of Carnival Princes on the wall, above the pool table that is out of service, resting under a thick pile rug.
PHOTO: DE VASTE BURCHTKERK IN WIJCKEL
The influence of the Baron
During our third stage spanning Wijckel-Balk-Sloten (16 km), we'll encounter Baron Menno van Coehoorn, the general and master of fortified construction who had such a strategic influence on the North and on the Republic of the Seven United Provinces. While Wijckel is modest in size, it exudes the legacy of Van Coehoorn, who had his beautiful estate built here in 1678: Meerenstein.
Unfortunately, the manor house is long gone, but there are lovely walks to be enjoyed in the Van Coehoorn woodlands where it once stood. In the National Heritage Vaste Burchtkerk church, with its impressive tower, you'll find the monumental tomb of this man who influenced so many fortified towns. Sloten is one such town. The smallest of the 11 Frisian Elfsteden towns, but no less of a pearl. No wonder that this stage has been named Moenia Perlae (city walls of the pearl).
Wonderfully free from traffic
Another aspect tourists love about historic town centres such as Sloten is of course the lack of traffic. You can photograph beautiful scenes along the Lindengracht, the Kapelstreek, Voorstreek or Heerenwal with their idyllic bridges, nostalgic street lanterns and age old buildings, without a single parked car in the way. Unless a house painter or builder happens to be at work. They are the exceptions to the rule. All vehicles must be parked outside the old centre, and the rule applies to guests and residents alike.
How well the old fortifications have been preserved becomes apparent when walking the original walls. Start your voyage of discovery in the old town hall of Sloten, which is home to both the tourist information centre and the Stedhûs Sleat Museum. The legal chamber on the first floor is the showpiece of this beautiful building. And don't forget the magical lanterns in the attic; the unique collection of former resident Peter Bonnet appeals to the imagination of old and young alike. The magic lantern – precursor of the slide projector – provided magical images in the old village of Sloten. But then we were already bewitched.
COPY: JOLANDA DE KRUYF // SOURCE: NOORDERLAND // PHOTOGRAPHY: JAN TIJSMA, JDK