Dutch destinations: music and mummies in Frisian villages
A weekend in a peaceful village seemed like the perfect option when one of our neighbours announced plans for a party. Little did we know that the visit would coincide with Franeker’s Oldies festival.
The Oldies Festival, as we soon discovered, is not an event for pensioners, but a music festival focusing on the hits of yore, from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin. It had everything you would expect from a village party – a big stage, a beer tent, food and dancing, as well as a hoola hoop competition and other events for the kids.
They know how to throw a party in Franeker, or Frjentsjer to give it its Frisian name.
The village, officially a city, has some 13,000 inhabitants and is located not far from the coast and the Wadden Sea. Franeker is also one of the 11 Frisian cities included on the route of the almost legendary Elfstedentocht skating race, last held in the winter of 1997.
Its history dates back to 800 when it was a Carolingian stronghold but it was not until 1419 that Franeker was given city rights. It was also home to the second oldest university in the Netherlands (1585 tot 1811), which counted Rene Decartes and Peter Stuyvesant among its students.
Today Franeker is a thriving village, with museums, a theatre, guided walks and a good selection of shops – including one with absolutely everything for the model railway enthusiast. So we found plenty to do, once we’d had enough of the music.
What to do
The Eise Eisinga planetarium
The Eise Eisinga planetarium, finally nominated for inclusion on the Unesco world heritage list is well worth a visit, if you are ever in the neighbourhood. Eise Eisinga carded wool for a living like his father before him and was also seriously clever. He built the planetarium over a period of six years to show that the 1774 convergence of several planets would not result in the end of the world as some apocalyptic scaremongers had people believe.
The planetarium, installed on the ceiling of the parlour in the Eisinga family home, still works in all its glory as a testament to what must have been an extraordinary man with a very patient wife. The museum includes a nice little exhibition about space and the planets which budding astronauts will enjoy. It also has a collection of old instruments and Eisinga’s own writings on display.
Housed in a late 15th century manor house, the Museum Martena focuses on the history of Franeker, and the former university. The Martinikerk church, also partly 15th century, is still used as a church but also stages exhibitions. When we were there, it had a fascinating display about Jewish musicians during World World II.
Take a boat trip
What better way to see the town and surrounding countryside than from a boat. The Friesland tourist board has laid out a two-hour route past all the main attractions, starting in the nearby hamlet of Hitzum. Three hours rental costs €50.
Visit nearby Harlingen
Harlingen has a history as a naval power, with some splendid warehouses and manor houses along side a port that is still bustling today. You can pick up a ferry here to the Wadden Sea islands of Terschelling and Vlieland.
The Hannemahuis is a museum and cultural centre. Also worth a visit is the Harlinger Pottery and Tiles Factory, which still uses traditional methods. Harlingen also has lots of nice cafes and restaurants to chose from, so would make a great alternative to Franeker as a place to stay.
The mummies of Wieuwerd
Just 15 minutes down the road is the hamlet of Wieuwerd where the church, parts of which date back to the 1200s, contains four mysterious mummified bodies in a crypt.
In 1765, people repairing the church found a crypt with 11 coffins containing bodies that had become mummified. They may be members of an obscure Christian sect called the Labadists, brought to the village by intellectual and writer Anna Maria van Schurman who had become involved with the group while on her travels in Europe.
Four bodies and several mummified birds are in the crypt today – the missing bodies are thought were stolen by medical students at long gone Franeker university. No-one has ever explained why the bodies do not decay but there are plenty of theories.
The church has limited opening hours so check the website first. And take cash to pay for your entry ticket.
Where to eat
Franeker has a few places to eat in the city centre, ranging from up market to snack bar, but be aware many of them close early out of season. Our B&B hosts recommended the Grillerije, but we opted for Grand Café de Doelen, which, little did we know, was on the square where the Oldies festival was taking place.
It was a good choice. The menu had something for everyone, was well executed and the pulled pork bao starter was delicious. The staff were friendly, competent and an absolute godsend when we could not get a taxi back to the B&B and one of them offered to drive us home.
We also lunch in the sunshine in the Stadstuin, the walled garden at the back of the planetarium, which had a wide range of salads, sandwiches and toasties on offer. The service was a little slow – the shortage of staff being felt everywhere – but we can recommend the brie and pear tosti and the broodje ham with honey mustard. They had a nice selection of home made cakes as well.
Where to stay
Franeker has a couple of hotels but fortunately for us, they were all fully booked because of the music festival.
We opted instead for the Salix B&B, a walk of around an hour across the fields or a drive of a few minutes. Salix, which also has a few pitches for caravans or campers, is a lovely old brick farmhouse with views across the countryside to the church spires of neighbouring villages. The rooms are big, the breakfast is very good (fresh orange juice and home made jam) and the owners welcoming. It also has a family room if you visit with the kids.
How to get there
If you plan to tour around the area a car would be useful but you can also rent a bike in Franeker itself. If it is windy, go for an electric one – the gales sweep across the fields with considerable force at times.
Franeker has a railway station and is served by trains travelling between Harlingen and Leeuwarden. Once you are in the village, everything is within in walking distance.
If you are travelling by car and plan to spend more than a couple of hours in the town, park a the back of the Albert Heijn car park which is free. It is just a short walk into the centre – follow the spire of the Martini church. Parking elsewhere is limited to two or four hours.
The Franeker Oldies festival is held every May, so check dates if you want to either enjoy it, or avoid it. Franeker also hosts the most important annual kaats competition in Friesland called the P.C. (the letters stand for Permanent Committee, the body that started organised kaatsen in 1854). Kaats is a sort of Frisian version of handball. In 2022, the event takes place on August 3.
Be aware too that in the winter, not everything will be open.
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