The Dutch obsession or the Elfstedentocht phenomenon

08 Feb

After the news about the heavy snowfall in Romania has reached the Netherlands, it seems to me like a good time to reveal to you the national obsession, spread like an octopus on Dutch minds.

Every single winter, as soon as it freezes -2°C, you hear enthusiastic Dutchmen predicting that it won’t be long until the ice will be thick enough for the ELFSTEDENTOCHT!

I’ve been living here in Holland for 5 years and until now no Elfstedentocht has been held, because it has never been cold enough. But the way that most Dutchmen seem to light up automatically from the smallest sign of frost and start to mention this tradition, is really unbelievable.

Elfstedentocht means “the tour of the eleven towns” and is organized by the Royal Association of the 11 Towns in Friesland, Friesland being one of the provinces in the North of the Netherlands, with an own language. The association was founded in 1909 and organizes since then this skating tour, not more than once a year, but depending totally on the temperatures outside, because the skating occurs on natural ice from one town to the other. Already on the first page of the association’s site there is a remark about the way that Dutch people react when there is frost, I quote: “When, after a few nights of strong frost, it becomes exciting to know if the tour will be organized, you will be able to read here all  about it.”

Below is a map of the towns, just to give you an idea. The people skate from town to town, on lakes and canals (Holland is full of them), between the fields, under bridges.


The inhabitants of the province Friesland used to skate often for longer distances, because in the past a horse was a luxury not many of them could afford. For fun, a tour similar to the one now was skated several times, even centuries ago.

The tour starts and finishes in Leeuwaarden, the capital of the province, and lasts one day, the last time it was organized was on January 4th 1997. It must have been a great winter, when, after getting pneumonia by diving in the sea on January 1st (Dutch tradition), the Dutch were able to deepen the problem only 3 days later by skating in the cold for hours on end.

Since 1909 the tour was held 15 times, ONLY 15 TIMES! But maybe it’s the low frequency that makes everything so exciting, you can wish all you want, but if the ice is not min. 15 cm thick on most of the route of about 200 km, the tour will not be organized. When there are chances (minimal, believe me) that it might happen, the rayonheads (that’s how they are called) measure at least once a day the ice thickness , and if there are serious reasons, a meeting of the rayonheads will be held to decide whether it’s time to start it all.


Also, the weather institute is being consulted on a regular basis, as well as a weather forecaster known from TV, Piet Paulusma, who comes from the same province, so he has to be from there in order to be trustworthy in such matters of maximum importance. What do you think happens when there are places where the ice isn’t thick enough? I had never heard of such a thing: an ice transplant!!! In other cases a wooden construction will be placed on the ice or on its side, so that the skaters can hop on it until they reach ice again. Also carpets or rubber rugs can be used, but they try to use such artifices as little as possible.

In order to participate in such an event, you have to be a member of the association, because only the real passionated skaters should participate and no tickets should be sold for commercial profits.

At the start, the skaters receive a notebok in which they must collect stamps in every town and also from some secret control posts on the way, secret in order to avoid cheating by not skating all the route. At the finish within the maximum time period, every participant with all the stamps in the notebook receives an award: the cross of the tour of the 11 towns.


The first 11 men and the first 5 women (the discrimination is based on the smaller number of women who take part) also receive a medal.


In 1986 the tour had a very important participant, who wanted to remain incognito: prince Willem-Alexander.


In 2008 a study was carried out (probably the impatience of the Dutch was already huge) and the conclusion was that, because of the change of climate, the chance of organizing a tour is once every 18 years. If this is true, I’m afraid we only have 3 more years until the next tour, until then we will keep getting annoyed every time there’s a little bit of frost.


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