April 14 was a warm spring day in Friesland - yet the temperature in Dokkum suddenly dropped to 'minus 20C'. A thick layer of 'ice and snow' covered the city centre. People were ice-skating on the canal at breakneck speeds, packed in thick winter clothes.
Yet it was all just a mirage: these were all movie actors, making a Dutch film called The Hell of 1963 about the most legendary and bizarre Eleven-Cities iceskating marathon of the previous century. The last day's shooting for the film, which premieres in September, was here in Dokkum on April 14.
The workmen and set-designers were hard at work all week: a huge floating ice-rink was placed in the canal in front of the City Hall, and thick layers of paper snow were packed and blasted all along the canal walls and against the fronts of the town houses in this ancient sea-trading city.
It was really eerie to be in Dokkum this weekend: hundreds of people were crowded on the terraces sipping beer in the warm sun while watching this crowd of actors, shoveling snow or cheering the iceskaters down below, many wearing their old Fresian wooden skates. The scenes had to be shot over and over again, yet none of the onlookers went home until the very last scene was completed, and a director shouted in real Hollywood-fashion: "it's a wrap...'
The Hell of '63 now is almost in the can I was told at the set: the last filming days were held here in Dokkum. The entire city centre was turned into a movie set throughout the previous week: and on Monday, I still spotted a crew taking some last-minute close-ups of the city houses. Early on Monday-morning, a clean-up crew of cheerful young men was hard at work in the warm sun, clearing away shovel-loads of paper snow and power-blasting all this sticky white stuff off the city hall steps and the 13th century frontage of the local Limburg pie shop. When you pick up a handful, it feels just like snow and is just as sticky, yet it's warm to the touch.
One of the very few brave men who actually managed to complete the grueling marathon in 1963 was Jaap Nienhuis - and he was also still on hand, as one of the main actors, being treated like a real movie star by the admiring onlookers, being loudly cheered everywhere he went. The Hell of '63 will have its premiere in November, and is being eagerly awaited by the entire population of Friesland.
The Winter of 1963 in The Netherlands
It's an integral part of their history. And it's an amazing story: that year, the ice on most rivers and lakes was 50 to 60cm thick. On 20 February, a car rally was held across the salty IJsselmeer, the former Zuyder Zee which was frozen solid. The northern-most provinces of The Netherlands didn't thaw out for some 40 days and nights.
The gruelling 124-mile Eleven Cities iceskating marathon takes place in Friesland whenever the temperatures drop long enough for the lakes and canals to freeze solid. The last time this happened was in 1997, and I watched 16,000 of these skilled amateur ice-skaters braving these arctic conditions in a grueling sports event which started 100 years ago with only about 20 participants.
There are no prizes for the winners except a medal and a mention in the newspapers, there is no advertising, it's an entirely amateur event, created and supported by a huge network of volunteers in Friesland province's eleven cities.
An artificial ice skating rink was created on these large floats in the canal fronting the Dokkum city hall in Friesland for a day of filming the movie Hell of 63 about the fabled Eleven Cities ice skating marathon in Friesland province. The centre of the city was turned into a gigantic winter-landscape on April 14.
Known as the 'Elfstedentocht' in Dutch, the one-day tour is an obsession for every one of its 16,000 registered amateurs of all ages from local ice-skating clubs. The event celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. Dokkum is at the half-way turnaround point of the marathon. When these skaters arrive here, they are already very exhausted and in dire need of a break.
This ice-skating marathon can be described as a combination of the New York City Marathon and the Alaskan Iditarod on skates, and without the dogs.
It's also a very nationalistic event here in Friesland, although nobody would admit to that publicly. It's a fact though that the Fresian National Anthem is heard an awful lot more during the Eleven Cities than at any other sports event here. It connects all the towns in Friesland along the route into one huge interlinked network of people, united in only one purpose: to help the participants along to the finish: members of women's clubs, church clubs, sports clubs, all just as busy as bees, keeping the participants warm with hot soup and chocolate and plenty of rolls and donuts - called oliebollen here. And tens of thousands of people arrive in all the cities from all the provinces of The Netherlands despite the icy cold, to cheer these skaters along. And this goes on well into the night until the very last person has made it across the finish line.
Friesland is a unique province in that it has its own language and such uniquely Frisian cultural events. The Netherlands has two official languages: Dutch and Frisian. And while there's always a winner of course - one year two men skated triumphantly across the finish line, hand in hand -- the main thing is not to win but to help each other complete this difficult marathon.
It is only held in Friesland whenever the ice freezes over very solidly along the entire 124-miles of lakes and canals that make up the route. The last one took place on January 4, 1997. This fabled marathon, started officially 100 years ago, was however undertaken unofficially for centuries before that.
And over the past 100 years, it has only been held fifteen times. Yet, it's become the biggest phenomenon in Dutch sports, and the stuff of legends: People still speak in awe here of the 1929 event, when winner Karst Leemburg finished in conditions so severe that a frostbitten toe had to be amputated.
Of course ice-skating has been a popular past-time in Europe for at least 1,000 years. And our forebears had just as much fun with it as they do today: they used to tie sharpened, long bones beneath their feet to glide on. These first bone-skates were called 'glissers'. And these ice-skaters, apparently very rowdy individuals, even made it into some of the earliest European histories: described by Thomas Becket's biographer William Fitzstephen in London in 1174 in some very critical paragraphs about their foul behaviour. see