10 things I learned about skating in Holland

1. The whole of Holland is crazy about skating.   You could be forgiven for thinking that every citizen of the Netherlands who wasn’t on life support or lying flat in the morgue was out on the ice this past weekend.   Tens of thousands of people, streaming by at the rate of dozens a minute, in pairs, groups or, like me, all by themselves.


Who can blame them?

ice-skating-holland-netherlands-frost-tree-windmillThe last time they had ice in Holland like this was a dozen years ago when it was so cold for so long, they even opened up the Elfstedentocht, a 200-km tour through lakes and canals linking 11 cities, first undertaken exactly 100 years ago by a man who just wanted to see if he could do it.  The last time it was run in 1997 the winner completed the tour in less than seven hours, for an average of just under 30 km per hour.

Conditions this past weekend were also ideal.   Sunny, below freezing but not too cold, no wind, thick frost covering the trees and reeds.


2. The Dutch have managed to keep this madness in check by organising canal skating into carefully planned and laid-out tours, complete with signposts, colour-coded arrows, and for a few bucks, cute little cards which you get stamped at cute little booths set up every few miles.  ice-skating-holland-netherlands-queue-controle-molentocht-windmill

Waiting in line for your stamp is a great opportunity to adjust your laces, chat with your friend or neighbour, breathe in the aroma of coffee, hot chocolate or traditional pea soup and – I hate to say it – call someone on your cellphone and ask them what, are you on life support or lying in the morgue?  Get the hell out here.

3. Only Canadians who spontaneously decide to drive more than 500 km in from another country wear hockey skates in Holland.  That was the first thing I noticed.  Nearly everyone skates with those long-bladed speed skates.  Occasionally you see a young girl or teenager on figure skates, but the speed skaters must out-number the others a thousand to one.   And it’s no wonder they use speed skates to cover those long stretches.  I’d be moving along at  a pretty good clip only to have skaters silently overtake me with what seemed like half the effort I was putting out.   Someone even asked as I was lacing up at the start of the 40-km tour Saturday whether I was really going to be doing such a long tour in those skates.

The hockey blades did come in handy Sunday morning though.  All alone on a backwater at sunrise I did a few turns with the stick and puck, stopping long enough to set up a self-timer shot.


But since playing hockey, like life I guess, gets old pretty soon if you don’t have someone to pass the puck to –  or at least bash into the boards – I went back to the car and put them away.  Besides, I didn’t like the idea of carrying that stick for dozens of miles.

ice-skating-holland-netherlands-canal-ancient-leather-strap-on-skates-molentocht14. Speed and hockey skates aren’t the only things that help you slide over the ice.  I stopped to look at one little boy who was flying along wearing nothing more on his feet than gumboots and skates that, had they looked weather-beaten, would have been well-placed in a museum.  I asked his mother if she’d fished them out of the attic, and she said yes – they were at least 60 years old.  Her husband had learned to skate on them after they were handed down from his father.

Another man used what I’ll call, um… Swedish strap-ons, because – strictly taking his word for it –  he said they were invented in Sweden for alternating between hiking through forests and skating over lakes.


5. Speaking of switching back and forth, if you’re doing a skating tour in Holland it’s absolutely essential to bring along a pair of blade protectors, because you’re not just gliding blissfully all day from one end of the country to the next without interruption.   At times, just when you’re getting into it and you feel you could go for another few miles without a break, you HAVE to take a break.   Why?


To get to the next canal.   After a while the ice you’re on just runs out, so you slip on the rubber or plastic blade protectors, climb up onto the road, and walk through town.  There’s even a word in Dutch for it: Klunen.  The awkward dance of balancing yourself at the edge of the canal to  get on and off the ice is also a rare opportunity to lose your balance and make groping bodily contact with someone in lycra tights, if that’s your thing.

ice-skating-holland-netherlands-crawling-under-canal-bridge-molentochtSometimes a bridge will get in the way.  For that, you can go through the hassle of putting on those blade protectors once again, or just crawl under.

6. The Dutch are really friendly when they’re out on the ice, and you don’t have to have skates to have fun.  Neighbourhood kids squealing with delight as they make a train out of sleds, couples out walking the dog, kids on bicycles, moms and dads pushing baby buggies or hauling sleighs – they’re all out there on the ice.  With hundreds of miles of track there’s room for most everyone.

7. This is something I’d forgotten: the ice makes noise.  Sometimes you’ll be booting along and all of a sudden you’ll hear a resounding BONGGGGGGGG and for a second you’ll think oh shit we’re doomed but then you tell yourself it’s just the normal process of the ice settling and it will ultimately make the track safer as long as the temperature stays the same.  Or so I’ve heard.

8. If you’re not careful, you can fall flat on your butt.  This has to be the biggest downside of having a hundred thousand skates and skaters on the same patch of ice every day.  The ice develops a few cracks which turn into deep gouges.


If you happen to be skating along a stretch that hasn’t been cleaned off by a Dutch Zamboni….


… you won’t see the crack and you’ll be on your ass before you know it.

9. Even if you don’t speak a word of Dutch, you have to check out the Royal Skating Union’s website to get the low-down on where to go.  At top left you’ll find a box to click on for the natural ice tours open.  Be patient.  Google translate actually comes in handy.

10. Near Rotterdam at Kinderdijk you can skate by a cluster of 19 of Holland’s grandest of icons.  They were built around 270 years ago and were still in use until 1950.  It’s now a UNESCO heritage site.  Some are thatched with the reeds that grow nearby, others made of brick or wood.  A couple were even turning, like this one on the Molentocht (Windmill tour):

OK… 11 things…

Skating in Holland can be an incredibly beautiful experience.

Elation, exhilaration, skipping like a puppy and bursting with a whoop of joy merely to be alive as I made those first  strides on a glistening, black surface that seemed to stretch out as far as the horizon.


Trees bristling with frost, every twig enveloped in a bottle-brush of crystal, sparkling in the orange-blue wash of the morning.  And all so still.


You hear a lot about the sweet spot of tennis, how good it feels when you hit the ball exactly the way you should and it lands just where you want it to.  There’s something about that in the rhythmic dance of skating when you hit the right cadence, when you’re cutting through the surface in a complete connection from your temples through your thighs down to the bottom of your feet, feeling the blades as if they were an extension of your bones as they scrape…scrape…scrape, a thousand times effortlessly across the ice.  You get the feeling you’re floating, as if you were falling into a trance.

I felt that at times this weekend.


60 Responses to “10 things I learned about skating in Holland”

  1. 1 C
    January 13, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    Man, this looks so beautiful. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. 2 lilalia
    January 13, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    What a fantastic post. The photos. Your descriptions and observations. Excellent. Makes me want to pack up the kids and go there right now. Still, maybe I’ll just read through your post again and imagine what it would be like.

  3. January 13, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    Great post, and great photos. I love the one of people crawling under the bridge. Now as an African, not accustomed to real winters, is this not dangerous? Can the ice not crack with so many people on it?

  4. 4 G
    January 13, 2009 at 1:35 pm

    Thanks so much for sharing these with us. How beautiful.

  5. January 13, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    Beautiful photos! 😀

    I’ve lived in Sweden for fifteen years and never heard of those strap-on thingies… They can’t be very common 😛

    • January 13, 2009 at 7:41 pm

      To tell you the truth, I merely wanted to have the opportunity to use the term “Swedish strap-on” and get away with it. 🙂

      I trust the people who organise the tours. After all, they’ve had generations of experience with each canal, know where it freezes and measure the ice accordingly. They were very quick to close everything off on Monday. Just one day of temperatures above freezing won’t make that much difference, but they don’t take chances.

  6. January 13, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    I loved this post! The awesome photos, the descriptions, the sheer joy of skating. Damn I wish I was there. Kudos to you my friend.

  7. 8 Jul
    January 13, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    Beautiful shots! Looks and sounds like a wonderful thing to experience.

  8. January 14, 2009 at 9:14 am

    I loved this post as many years ago, while living in Holland I experienced a Dutch skating day. There is nothing quite like it and you perfectly captured the beauty and amazement of the moment.

  9. January 14, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    Beautiful photographs. All I could think about was Hans Brinker, a book that was stored somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind.

  10. January 14, 2009 at 10:46 pm

    wow – these ones are even more fabulous than the previous photos

  11. 13 kipstrik
    January 15, 2009 at 8:30 am

    Thanks for your comment on my blog!

    Your photos are really beautiful – and what I had time to read of your post was entertaining. I’ll take more time another time and read all of it.

  12. 14 writechicpress
    January 15, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    God, Ian, you’ve outdone yourself! I hit the aesthetic jackpot when I found your site!

    • January 15, 2009 at 5:31 pm

      Thanks, writechic!
      I’d have to day that life outdid itself that weekend. I had the time to do something at precisely the best time to do it, I had fun, learned a lot of things, and have great memories.

  13. January 16, 2009 at 7:55 am

    Really great articles and photos, ian. What a great example of carping the diem!

  14. January 16, 2009 at 10:25 pm

    Hockey skates, ja, ja, ja! Fantastic post matey, and the piccies… breathtaking! The process… a bit surreal for a Canadian, it’s a far stretch from the canal. I’m going to have to check it out!

  15. January 16, 2009 at 10:36 pm

    The photos are amazing; I also liked seeing the video with the windmill wearing its “sails” on the blades…all the windmills and any photos I’ve ever seen just had the wooden blade framework, the only place I’ve ever seen the sails is maybe in 400 year old Hendrick Avercamp landscapes.

    The Swedish blades (nordic skates, generically) deal with rough rutted ice and bitter cold. This is because they can be made to use a cross-country ski boot and the blade is taller and longer with a “prow” in front…they can even go over ice with 2-3cm of snow on it. With rutted ice, you can have some nasty falls, particularly in a traditional speedskate blade which has little rocker (mostly flat to the ice). For long distances, the added comfort of the Swedish blades is a plus–if you aren’t with the lead peloton in the Elfstedentocht you won’t mind the sacrifice in top potential speed for the gain in toe warmth and ability to deal with rough ice. Though that was funny–I did get a chuckle at the Swedish strap-on comment; in a related note there is a store on my commute with a sign that says it sells “Swedish erotica” which I wonder if is like inexpensive sex toys made of particle board wood that you have to put together. I guess maybe these days my association with “Sweden” is mostly Ikea. On a skating note, there’s an upcoming point-to-point 80km tour / race that departs from Stockholm in February…the Vikingarannet.

  16. January 16, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    Illinoistocht, you sure do know your blades!

    One thing I didn’t mention was the new type of speed skate with the clapper. The heel detaches from the blade at the end of the stroke, slapping back onto the heal when the blade is lifted with a loud clap. Only the most serious skaters were wearing them, though.

    The Stockholm skate sounds wonderful, probably much more wilderness to trek through than in Holland, that’s for sure. I know I won’t make it though – too bad.

    You might stop in that store and let us know what you find! 🙂

  17. January 16, 2009 at 11:28 pm

    You said the photos would be good, and you weren’t kidding! They are GORGEOUS and I just love the one of the windmills in a row, in the mist. Truly beautiful, and you’ve made me add skating on the Dutch canals on my list of things to do before I die! 🙂 Thanks for sharing, Ian – and so glad you enjoyed it!!

  18. January 17, 2009 at 10:50 am

    Oh, Ian. Best.Post.Ever!

    As a defrosted Minnesotan, #7 had me laughing out loud.

  19. January 17, 2009 at 10:49 pm

    Beyond-words wonderful post. I don’t feel envy very often, but I envy you that opportunity.
    Thanks so much for making me want to do something I didn’t know existed a half hour ago!

  20. January 18, 2009 at 1:14 am

    Wow, what a delight to visit Holland! I’ve never skated in my life, but I think, even at my age, I’d like to give it a go. Wonderful posts, great photos!

  21. January 18, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    The area is quite special at any time of year, I’m sure. You can see the windmills and ride through the area on bicycle, too. 🙂

  22. 25 droppingtherake
    January 21, 2009 at 1:29 am

    What an excellent post. You’ve managed to cover the entire experience without spilling too much words. You’ve made a great favor to Dutch tourism too, haha. By the way, what camera were you using at the time? These are beautiful shots.

  23. January 21, 2009 at 7:43 am

    Hi droppingtherake,
    I wonder whether I should send them the bill?
    Or maybe they’ll have a rise in complaints for all the tourists arriving with skates on wondering where all the ice is. 🙂

    It’s funny, but I get asked that question a lot. The camera is a Kodak Z712 IS

    I like it because it fits my hand perfectly, has a very long optical zoom with an image stabilisor, and easy-to-handle functions via the menu.

    I bought it a year and a half ago, and in the meantime they’ve since out with a newer model, the Z812. The big improvement with that one over mine is the HD video. I’m pleased with the video I already get, but high definition would of course be the ideal.

    One thing about Kodak digital cameras: the Kodak software that comes with it is really terrible. Do not load it onto your computer! Your camera functions perfectly well without it. To load photos onto the computer I take the card out and use a card reader via USB, then play around with them using IrfanView.

  24. 27 Po
    February 3, 2009 at 12:00 am

    That really looks like something worth doing in winter. I would love it!

  25. February 3, 2009 at 3:14 am

    What a wonderful post. Thank you. We are a skating family & I’m going to show this post to my daughters tomorrow. The photos are lovely. I’d love to be in Holland when the canals were frozen! We still have yet to skate on Rideau canal–it’s never been frozen well enough when my h & I can get away with our kids.

  26. February 3, 2009 at 7:50 am

    Hi Lillian,
    I hope your daughters like it too! Thanks a lot.
    I hope it’s not going to be the same with Holland, but I managed to skate on the Rideau only once. That was back in the early nineties while I was living in Montreal. We all piled into a car and headed down the road. I remember how sunny and cold it was, and how on the lake there were booths set up where you could buy drinks and hot snacks like beaver tails. Mmmmm….

    Are you arriving via Charlotte’s blog? Her description of this post on her blog absolutely floored me. It’s at the end of this one:

  27. February 3, 2009 at 9:58 am

    Heavenly post and beautiful photos! Thanks! Wish I were there!

  28. February 3, 2009 at 12:32 pm

    That picture of people crawling under the bridge is priceless!

  29. 32 erinatruba
    February 26, 2009 at 1:21 am

    Hi! I’m the Community Manager of Ruba.com. We’re building a website to highlight some of the most interesting places travelers around the world have discovered. We’ve read hundreds of blogs about the Netherlands, and we think that yours is awesome! We’d love to highlight excerpts from blogs like yours (assuming it’s OK with you of course) and to discuss other ways of tapping into your expertise if you are interested. I’m at erin@ruba.com.
    Thanks! 🙂

  30. February 26, 2009 at 10:51 am

    I get homesick after seeing all those photos. They are beautiful!

  31. 35 ChrisB
    February 28, 2009 at 10:27 am

    Fantastic photos and text. I lived in Holland for 2 grea years in the late 80’s. I never did take up skating but was always enthralled at the enthusiasm of my Dutch colleague who would always have a pair of skates handy in the event of cold icy conditions. I was used to lunch times being spent in the “pub” back hime in England. It was great to see office and factory workers alike heading for the nearest pond during lunch breaks.
    I now live in Canada and the people here really live the winter with diverse interests in all types of winter activities.
    Sorry if I offend any of my fellow countrymen, but if people over there spent more time living and adapting with the different seasons maybe they would’nt all be so miserable?

    Fantastic Blog. I look forward to your next posting.


  32. February 28, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    Hi Chris – welcome! Thanks for the compliments. 🙂 I must warn you though: that trip to Holland was so unusual, it’s a pretty hard act for me to follow.

    So do I take it you find the Canadians you live among miserable? Do you live in Edmonton? Regina? Winnipeg? That might have something to do with it…

  33. 37 salah
    June 7, 2009 at 9:39 am

    I really want to know about skating. What season can be good skating for me?

    Hi Salah, it would have to be in winter – like between December and February usually – but the ice better be thick enough!

  34. August 13, 2009 at 9:52 am

    The school of skater “Nora Vega” invite you to visit our page http://www.patinushuaia.com with the idea to make public our activity tha our sport have in our city , our contry and the world so we wait recive information from all the activities that you develop.
    Andres Chaves – Lina Gonzalez

    La Escuela de Patín Nora Vega invitan a ustedes a visitar nuestra pagina http://www.patinushuaia.com con la idea de difundir la actividad de nuestro deporte en nuestra, provincia, el país y el mundo esperamos recibir información de todos en las actividades que desarrollan.
    Saludamos Atentamente
    Andrés Chaves – Lina Gonzalez

  35. December 11, 2009 at 6:32 pm

    Thank you for sharing! We’re here in Canada, west coast, not much cold weather, but yesterday we (myself and my homeschooled son) did some rare field skating with older neighbours who are Dutch, and just hearing them talk and seeing them skate, made us google…and come upon your wonderful sharing! Thank you so much!!

  36. January 17, 2010 at 7:31 pm

    Stuart McLean read his story “Holland” today on his weekly radio show on CBC called the “Vinyl Cafe”. The story is about his Vinyl Cafe characters flying to Holland for the weekend from Toronto in order to skate on the canals.

    While I was listening to the story I Googled “Skating on Holland’s canals” and your blog was the first website on Google’s list. Your photos are fantastic.

    If you have never heard of Stuart or his radio show you can tune in using the live stream off the CBC website (http://www.cbc.ca/podcasting/includes/vinylcafe.xml) or subscribe to the free podcasts on iTunes. My wife & I love to play his podcasts when were on the road. The miles seem to melt away. When I travel overseas I always make sure I have a whole slew of his program podcasts on my iPod to keep me connected to the country. He is truly one of Canada’s treasures.

  37. January 18, 2010 at 7:32 am

    Hello vschaik, and thanks very much not only for letting me know you enjoyed this post, but for the tip on the vinyl cafe item!
    I listen to a few CBC podcasts already, but not vinyl cafe. I’m sure the show you mention is still available in the download cue, so I’m going to toddle off to iTunes right now and subscribe. If I pick up on anything I can add to it for you, I’ll let you know. 🙂

  38. 43 Luuk P
    March 6, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    I saw these and other windmills 1000 times, I did those skating 100 times in that place and in several other places as the north of Overijsse. Try that region: more quiet, no americans, better en lovely nature). It’s very nice to read your report. It makes me enjoy this skating again. Your story is 100% correct and you perfectly catch the partly idiot instinct to skate. Parts of Holland stop because of this skateble ice: “No, i’m sorry, we can.t help you, our staff is skating at the Weerribben”. You have to grap the change when there is ice; it only happens some days in some years.
    When you want to join us: Make it sure that you can fly within 24 hours if neccesairy, watch all the meteo’s and check if there is will be a place to skate at:
    http://www.schaatskalender.nl en http://www.schaatstochten.info
    You’re all wellcome!
    Luuk P

  39. August 12, 2010 at 11:17 am

    What a great post and thank you for sharing this link with me! I’ll bookmark it, so when the winter returns [or if I get the bug to share before then, which has been known to happen!], I will link to this. You’ve shared and pointed out the best highlights of this event. Great photos too!

  40. February 21, 2012 at 4:08 am

    Love the skating on the canals! I am blogging about skating in Holland. Like you, I learned in my country (USA), would have brought my figure skates, mistake! Loved the old wood skates, I would like to own a pair. Know what you mean about synergy with skating – so relaxing, feel like you could skate forever! Holland and the canals is the winter vacation spot for me! Like you, wouldn’t mind going by myself, can concentrate on skating! Lots of friendly people talk to and make social connections with when you want to go and do something else. I would like to upgrade from basic digital camera. I would like to use some of your photos (will give credit to your blog). Contact me if not OK.

  41. February 21, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    Thanks for responding to my post. I couldn’t resist, came back to enjoy the scenery and all the skating! Also reread all the comments. My question about what camera you use was answered! I am in awe of your writting skills, not to mention your photos and overall look of your blog! Also lots of choices for video observing and getting the real feel of Holland skating! To answer your question, no I have not been to Holland or the canals. I am a little envious of you being a Canadian, it seems you have a great winter sports heritage. It ‘s wonderful on the sports end but I have often wondered how Canadians live in such cold conditions in the winter. I went to Montreal one summer when I was a child and remember vividly how cold it was in the shade. I respect all Canadians! I also remember the great food we had at a very beautiful motel on the way and flower filled, clean, sophisticated Montreal. The low rent district looked like it could have been in Paris, with flower boxes on every townhouse window bursting with color There were gardens everywhere we went! The women’s fashions were several years ahead of NY and very european in feel. I will never forget my visit. What I experienced, I would be very proud to be called a Canadian!

    Unlike you and your great heritage, growing up in Virginia I snagged a relatively small amount of time skating outdoors (I’m old enough there were no indoor rinks in Metro Washington area growing up!). I am grateful for my father who took the time to take my sister and I to the one outdoor rink in D.C. every winter. Thankfully my nephew has inherited the skating (hockey like you) and winter sports interests from his father and grandfather who is from upstate NY. I am fascinated with outdoor pond, lake, and canal skating! Great scenery, more room and on the canals, places to skate to, not to speak of the conviviality! I am also noticing all the posts about skating in Germany, want to take a look at those!

    • February 21, 2012 at 9:08 pm

      You know, I grew up in the area around Vancouver, a part of Canada that’s warmer than the eastern part of the US in the winter. When I was a kid I can remember only one winter – I was 12 going on 13 – when local lakes had frozen solid enough for you to skate safely. We had heavy snows, but not every year, and they never lasted longer than four or five weeks at most, because it would usually warm up and rain as it usually does around there. But yeah, being Canadian you get the whole winter deal in the hockey culture, the curling, the skiing. Guess which one of those three I’ve never done? 🙂

      Thanks for having a good, long look at my blog – and I hope you enjoy the Hamburg skating stuff.

  42. 49 C
    November 19, 2014 at 4:50 pm

    I live in Holland and it really is like this, to bad can not do it more.. I’m scating on hockey blades but you are right when you say that the longblades outnumber us, but it’s a great way to practice if you go scating for the first time. And the craking of the ice is sometimes a bit scary but don’t let that hold you back. In my Neighboorhood, close to Rotterdam we all scate and it is really funny to see someone fall flat on their butts! We also have a scating place where they make the ice smooth and nice its on a grassfield and they sometimes do it for free, we even went scating with my school! I really hope this year we can scate again!!! (and I also hope I didn’t forget how to do it :D)

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