The Dutch and ice-skating: Why the passion?

The Netherlands is at the moment in an ice skating frenzy. Every canal, shallow lake and river which has frozen from days of sustained sub-zero temperature are venues for ice skating. Some places are holding ice skating races and a colleague of mine told me that there was even an ice disco at her parents’ place in Almere. We even came close to having the almost mythical “Elfstedentoch”, that almost 200 kms. ice skating tour/race that spans 11 cities up north in the province of Friesland. The whole country waited in bated breath for the decision of the Vereniging Elfstedentoch (Eleven Cities’ Tour Committee) last Wednesday if the tour will push through (the 16th in its history which dates back to 1909 and the first this century). Even foreign members of the press descended in Friesland to cover this event and were also betting for a GO on the Elfstedentoch which is hailed as the creme de la creme, the tour of all tours and the race of all races in outdoor skating event not just in The Netherlands but in the whole of Europe.

Frozen canal across the road from our home

The little girl getting her beginner's skates on

Baby steps to mastering the ice

The country got caught up in maelstorm of emotions that it will have its 16th Elfstedentoch this winter when the oftentimes very reserved and sceptical Vereniging Elfstendentoch had its first meeting earlier in the week. Then a contingent of 50-man army members were sent to Friesland to prepare part of the route, clearing the ice of snow so that the sub-zero freeze will still enable the ice cover to further grow especially at night. The Friesians also rallied to the challenge, mobilizing everyone to do their share in clearing up the ice of snow cover either by hand or with the aid of some ice-clearing machine. The committee requires that the average ice thickness to be a minimum of 15 cm. in the entire route in order to be safe to accommodate 16,000 skaters (not including the enthusiastic public who also step into the ice to cheer the participants). With all the news focused on economic troubles across Europe these days, the idea of Elfstedentoch was a much welcomed diversion. Hotel rooms in Friesland suddenly became overbooked and overpriced. The Dutch Railways (Nationale Spoor) was offering special tickets to Leeuwarden (the capital of Friesland) with 40% discount. In every nook and corner of the country the talk was only about the Elfstedentoch.

I was one of the millions who waited in bated breath for the press conference of the committee last Wednesday. And I was one of the millions who felt disappointment and sadness afterwards. The committee after consulting all the ice masters (Rayonhoofden) decided against holding the Elfstedentoch due to weak spots in some areas where the ice thickness did not meet the minimum standard. Some places have just around 10-12 cm. which was deemed to be not sufficient enough for a large contingent of skaters. The weather forecast also showed that the worst of freezing is over and the coming days were not going to result in more ice growth. The ever enthusiastic skaters asked that the minimum standard of 15 cm. be lowered (ice skating is already OK at 8 cm.) but the committee was adamant to keep it, justifying that it was already a reduced one from the original 18 cm. in the earlier races in. Again, this shows the Dutch pragmatism who will not be swayed by emotions that were hitting the roof for a go on Elfstedentoch for no one want to have on their plates the blame in case something untoward happens.

Never mind if the Elfstedentoch is not pushing through, the Dutch en masse are still off with their skating shoes and that will stay till the ice start melting. The training and passion start early and that is for my daughter as well who actually surprised us this Friday when on her third time on the ice (2 other times were in the ice skating rink after Christmas), she just took off walking quite some distance without falling. She has conquered her fear and found her balance on the ice. I know that just like with walking and other phases in her life, it will only go from strength to strength from here onwards.

Finding her balance and conquering her fear...this little girl is catching the ice skating fever

Finding her balance on ice

Baby steps to mastering the ice...papa still in the background

Baby steps to mastering the ice

Start-up lesson in ice skating

There were other kids also getting their introductory lessons on ice

Start-up lesson in ice skating

Learning the tricks of ice skating


Falling on ice is part of the learning process

Baby steps

Teens hit the ice right after school

Birds contend with a very small unfrozen area under the bridge

This bird with its spread-out wings caught my attention


To explain the Dutch passion for ice skating is to take a deeper look at the country’s geography, geology and history. Two-thirds of The Netherlands lie below sea level. I remember that as a child when I was presented this fact, I found it extremely difficult to imagine. How can the country not be overwhelmed by water when the sea water level is higher? In the Philippines, the land is never below sea level but we still get inundated by flood waters on almost a regular basis. Why is it different in The Netherlands. Then came the story about the dike that protect a village against the water and how this one little boy stuck his finger in a small leak in the dike which made him a hero.

The Dutch can be considered as among the most ingenious of people in the world for having mastered living in this condition of most of its land being below sea level. They created dikes and levees. They even reclaimed land from the sea. How did they do it? The Dutch since centuries ago learned to pump the water from low-lying areas with the use of windmills and channel them to a series of canals. The canals then channel the water to the rivers which would eventually empty into the North Sea. That’s the reason why The Netherlands has many canals and how swampy places like Amsterdam for instance, became a habitable place and was used as inspiration by Peter the Great of Russia to create St. Petersburg.

These canals would get frozen in winter especially when the sub-zero freeze goes on for a sustained period of time. I guess it is because of these conditions that the Dutch became very passionate with ice skating and the history goes to as far as the 14th century when they started using wooden platform skates with flat iron bottom runners. The skates were attached to the skater’s shoes with leader straps. Poles were attached to propel the skater. Around 1500, the Dutch added a narrow metal double edge blade, making the poles a thing of the past as the skater could now push and glide with his feet (called the “Dutch Roll”).

While the Elfstedentoch is a “No Go” for now, the hope that it can still push through has not completely waned. THe temperature will warm up beginning end of Sunday till most of the week but by end of next week, there is a second freeze expected. Who knows, it might still happen…let’s keep our fingers crossed for now.

More pictures here:

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About Malou
I'm a mom to a five-year old little girl with interest in cooking, baking, traveling and photography. Castles and palaces are special favorites so when weather permits for a good walk on weekends, me, hubby and little girl are always out for a bit of adventure.

65 Responses to The Dutch and ice-skating: Why the passion?

  1. Nice to ‘meet’ a fellow Dutchy :) Love your pics!
    geniet van de laatsteechte winterdag!

  2. I would so like to try ice skating on a canal, looks such fun, great post.

  3. Bassas Blog says:

    Wonderful post. I never knew about the Elfstedentoch – it sounds amazing. I’m sorry that it won’t be happening but I see that you and your family are enjoying the ice. The pictures of your daughter are enchanting!

    • Malou says:

      Thanks a lot. Elfstedentoch is a very Dutch ice skating race which is hailed as the best of all ice skating races. Unfortunately, it does not take place that often because it needs a long and sustained period of sub-zero temperature to freeze the almost 200 kms. route. Nonetheless, everyone here enjoyed their time on the ice. ;-)

  4. Jane says:

    Great post – so informative! Your daughter has one up on me — I have no sense of balance at ALL, and am so scared of the ice!

    • Malou says:

      Thanks a lot, Jane. Same with me, I have no sense of balance so since the first try on skates, I decided to give up right there and then. Falling on ice is painful, just like falling on concrete.

  5. Kam says:

    Well narrated and photographed. I liked the phrases ‘from strength to strength’ and ‘no fear’.
    Thanks for sharing.

  6. likeitiz says:

    Kids are natural fast learners. Their center of gravity is still low. They have no fear. And they’re persistent. Lovely just to watch them master a skill.

    • Malou says:

      That’s true. It is amazing how my little girl just quickly picked up the skill. She wanted so much to be one of the older girls who are skating so fast. On the other hand, I can only watch and take pictures. ;-)

  7. randysrules says:

    What a wonderful place for the children! We have a smaller neighborhood ice skating pond within view of our home studio, and delight in seeing the little ones out there, as well!

  8. sorry the Elfstedentoch is a no go for now – ! but do enjoy the beautiful scenery and the positive attitude your daughter seems to have with learning – what i find – a difficult skill!

    • Malou says:

      Even without the Elfstedentoch, the Dutch had their fun on ice which was wonderful. My daughter gained her confidence on ice which was great so I’m sure that next winter, she’ll be doing even much better. ;-)

  9. I believe we understand the passion here in Canada

  10. Chrysant says:

    Sounds like so much fun in the middle of a serious winter! During my two winters in Den Haag the lowest temperature was only around -5C, not much snow.
    Now I’m living in Albany NY and we’re used to lots of snow & harsh winter. This year, however, the winter has been really mild – contrary to what’s going on in Europe due to the anticyclone.
    Still, I’m glad that you and your family are enjoying the winter. No cabin fever, good for you guys!

    • Malou says:

      Den Haag because of the influence of the North Sea is always warmer than the rest of the country. I remember that while there was snow in the rest of the country, Den Haag was always free of snow and I would complain to my husband. I love snow having grown up in the tropics.

      Too bad that yours is a mild winter out there in NY. Don’t give up hope yet, I also thought that winter would skip us altogether and then voila, we had 2 weeks of sub-zero freeze. ;-)

  11. What a fun way to cope with cold winters. The mental picture that the thought of a zamboni driving down an outside ice canal instead of cleaning ice in a skating rink brings up is just hilarious to someone who has never seen outdoor ice thick enough to skate on.

  12. Hi,

    I lived near Nijmegen, but on the German side of the (then) border, for three years when I was a teenager. Loved Holland, the wonderful people, the culture, the history, the cleanliness and the obvious love of life.

    Now, I love your blog! Fantastic pics, too. I’m going to read some more. Thank you for sharing.

    Kindest regards,

    Chrissie

  13. This was just the most delightful post to read today for me! I have no experience with canals, other than a quick visit many years ago. I really felt like I was there visiting with you. I held my breath and was disappointed when the news came out! This was so well written, excellent! And your daughter is adorable.. those beginner skates brought back so many wonderful memories for me!

    • Malou says:

      Thanks a lot, Barbara! I hope you will visit The Netherlands again in the future. Being Canadian, I’m sure that you’re a natural on ice. Here in Holland, it is impossible not to be swayed by the passion of many to put on those skates (except me, if course, ha, ha, ha!).

  14. viveka says:

    Great post! Do you know there is classical music piece that is written with the Dutch canal skaters in mind – beautiful.Emil Waldteufel’s – (Les patineurs). Beautiful piece of music – a waltz.

    • Malou says:

      Thanks a lot, Viveka. I’ll check check this piece of music that you mentioned with my father-in-law. He loves classical music so he might know. ;-)

  15. That is definitely a passion for winter sports! So unsurprising that the Dutch dominate all the skating events during the Olympics.

    And I love your daughter’s training skates! Do they just strap on to her regular boots? Which are the most adorable pair of furry-topped boots ever. I wish they made adult ones like that!

  16. debmoyes says:

    I am so interested to read about the skating event! My husband was in Amsterdam in mid January and talking to his Dutch clients about skating and they told him about the E. Sounds wonderful and so sorry that it isn’t happening! I loved reading Han Brinker when I was young and have long been curious about skating in your country.

    • Malou says:

      The Elfstedentoch excitement indeed reached fever pitch here. Unfortunately, it was not a good idea to hold this event when the ice in some parts of the route was considered not safe enough. It would have been my first time too to experience the passion and excitement like any Dutchman here but hopefully we’ll still have it in the future…

  17. karencooking says:

    This post reminded me of a favorite book from childhood — Hans Brinker!

  18. torivictoria says:

    Great Pictures, lovely food, will definitely try out some recipes. Thanks.

  19. ashutoshdhar says:

    I think ice skating should be on my ‘to-do’ list somewhere. Never tried this before . . .

  20. From cold winters and being below sea level, they’ve mastered the art of the silver lining and turned it into silver skates :)

    What beautiful memories you’re making for your daughter! I’d love to skate the frozen canals.

  21. wundiverse says:

    Fascinating! I’m going to Amsterdam this weekend and only hope the great ice skating race occurs!

    • Malou says:

      I’m afraid that you’ve just missed the skating fun here in Holland. The temperature since end-Sunday already rose above zero so the snow is gone and the ice cover on canals are rapidly melting. ;-)

  22. Stephen says:

    I noticed skate marks on the lakes as I sped through The Netherlands last Friday. Speed skating looks great on TV, I’d loved to have seen the real thing.

    • Malou says:

      I’m sure that you would have enjoyed watching the Dutch skating on ice. There were plenty of local skating matches in many towns, cities and villages. Even Amsterdam had its Keizersrace.

  23. Wow, you have a frozen canal just across the street from your home? How lucky!! I would be out there ice skating every day.

    Your daughter is so cute!! I have never seen beginner skates like that before, that’s got to be the cutest thing ever!

    • Malou says:

      It’s cheap fun, isn’t it? Everyone had a great time skating on the frozen canal. Even at night, this canal is filled with enthusiastic teenage skaters. The people who live there have these huge spot lights so the fun continues way into the night.

  24. Now that´s “proper” ice skating – probably not something we´ll ever get a chance to do in Andalucía!

  25. glimmerbomb says:

    Thanks for your follow. Hola from Singapore! It’s been a while since I’ve seen winter, miss it…

  26. What a beautiful blog! My daughter was a competitive US figure skater & I can appreciate watching those baby steps on skates. Although she loved competitive skating, I’m sure that skating the canals would be an amazing adventure for her. I remember her Russian coach talking about doing this and what an incredible experience it was.

    • Malou says:

      Thanks a lot, Diane! The Dutch are crazy about skating. It goes hand in hand with the national pride. Everyone here will be with their skating shoes on the moment the canals are safe for skating. Your daughter should still try at least once to experience the Dutch outdoor skating when the canals are frozen. I’m sure that she will cherish the experience. ;-)

  27. Gus says:

    Ahhh… you remind how I miss ice skating. Growing up in Boston, seemed like everyone skated. Now living on the Oregon Coast, the weather is much too mild (but I like that!) I suppose we can’t always have it both ways. Thanks for the visit to my blog.

  28. eof737 says:

    I think it is wonderful to have a canal right in front of your home … and then it becomes skating rink in the winter. :-)

  29. dolcevita87 says:

    I absolutely love Holland! and I have always been there in the summers or autumn! Thanks for posting such fabulous photos! :D I am going to visit Amsterdam next winter. Period.

  30. Marcia Stehouwer says:

    My cousin broke her wrist on the ice – so not much fun. There was a book by Miendert De Jong about learning to ice-skate. The canals don’t always freeze up so skating is a hit and miss it seems – Kind of like Calgary where we have great outdoor ice and then we get chinooks that melt it all. Thanks for sharring!

  31. That bird with the outspread wings is a cormorant.

  32. TimCC says:

    I used to work with a lot of Dutch guys. Your photos and stories remind me so much of the culture in Holland. Lovely work.

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