in The Netherlands

Alternatieve Elfstedentocht: Ice skating on Weissensee (2012)

I went to Holland together with Suna and joined my parents for a trip to Weißensee, Austria. Weißensee is a huge (12km long) lake in the south of Austria at 900m height. During winter, Weißensee usually freezes, making it a perfect location for the Dutch to find a alternative for the 200km Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities Tour). The alternative version exists because the Dutch Elfstedentocht is not held every year, mostly because not every Dutch winter permits skating on natural ice. The last editions were in 1985, 1986 and 1997. Adding to that, the tour currently features about 15,000 amateur skaters taking part, putting high requirements on the quality of the ice. Instead of waiting for the Dutch weather to improve, the skate fanatics drive 1100km to Austria to experience the same distance on natural ice.

Thousands of people from Netherlands in a small Austrian village…

Suna and me obviously weren’t trained for such a distance. Actually, we first had to buy some skates when we arrived in Netherlands. Both Suna and I didn’t have skates and I was aiming to buy Dutch speed skates so we could bring it to Shanghai for potential future practice. We bought the skates from a small dealer in the neighborhood of Utrecht and drove to Utrecht to try them out. We were ready for our holiday to Austria! After a drive with a break in a hotel in South Germany, where we met-up with a dozen familiar skate friends, we arrived at our hotel Nagglerhof. The Nagglerhof has a beautiful view over the lake and is quite traditional Austrian. (This is the third time I’ve been here and the first that they have Internet) You feel like you are visiting a austrian family. The hotel features a spa, small gym and a cozy restaurant. Every dinner is at least four rounds and breakfast always consists of amazing fresh bread and all sorts of dishes. A very cozy place with nice people.
Upon arrival on Monday morning, Suna and I noticed immediately that we felt great in the icy-fresh Austrian air. Temperatures were -10 degrees Celsius but would go down to -25 degrees Celsius in the end of the week. We realized the area is indeed a great place to do sports – as long as the sauna was warm upon return. A quick skate practice on the lake and we felt very excited about the rest of the week. It’s amazing to skate on such a large lake, thousands of people doing their high-speed rounds.

View from our hotel

Suna with Gretha Smit




Tuesday had a serious note: Just like a real Elfstedentocht, the 200km race starts early in the morning (before sunrise) and ends after the sun sets. Suna and I were intrigued by the sportive people, but weren’t members, so we decided to have a look at the opening.

The tour starts in the dark; many people sport helmets with light to see ahead

After the start, we had some coffee in the bar to warm up again. About a hour later, both of us felt that we just had to skate as well. Even though we didn’t have a official start license, so we put on our skates and also did a round. I realized that the weather was great, so decided to do another round, and another. In the end I was able to complete five rounds in less then five hours. (65km) The best part was that my body wasn’t so tired, so I decided to aim higher in the next opportunity. This ofcourse changed after the apres ski party (blarenbal), jumping on tables is standard after a 200km race, your hips will not get stiff that way. My dad and his friends Willen and Wilbert completed another 200km race and got the award, even though they completed the real or alternative elfstedentocht multiple times, they were very proud. I have a lot of respect for someone who skates 200km, especially now I have a bit of an idea how hard of work it is!

Wilbert, Johan and Willem after they finished their 200km ice skating tour for the day

The next day we went skiing at Weissbriach. Another first experience for Suna. We had a lot of fun teaching her on the baby slope. I was surprised to see her ski on the red slopes after dinner! Together with my dad I was able to explore the remaining ski areas.

Weissensee is a lake in the shape of a pear. Usually people skate in the smaller top part to guarantee the safety. (thousands of people skate on the ice which add a lot of pressure besides the cars that follow the race and clean the ice) We got used to the small lake and this was fine. But due to a steady cold front of -15 degrees celcius, we were fortunate enough to skate on the big lake on Thursday. If you’d ask me, i’d already consider the ‘small lake’ huge. According to our group, whom has come here since 1994, the freezing of the big lake only happens one in five times, so we were fortunate! I’ll remember skating on the big lake that there are almost no houses, just trees. Due to its steep shore, the eastern part of the lake is almost uninhabited. A fierce wind made it hard to skate the first half. We made a ‘train’ where one would skate in front to catch the wind and switch ever so often. The ice was pitch black, a indication that it’s smooth skating. I didn’t put much thought in the clearness of the lake until we got closer to shore where the pitch black turned green – I was actually able to see two meters down to the sandy bottom of the lake! Ofcourse the water in Weißensee is drinkable but living in China, it’s amazing to see such a clean waters. We head back to Netherlands one day early on Friday. This time we rode back in one time, to arrive home just before midnight., six hours later then planned, due to some bad weather. Actually, that night, the Netherlands experienced the coldest night in the last 30 years!

Drinking coffee in the freezing weather, enjoying the sun

Upon return, it became very cold in Netherlands.

I saw the thermometer on the car go down to -21 degrees celcius, extremely cold for a country so close to sea. The day after arrival, the night before we left to China, my friend Jing made us a feast meal for my entire family. Lobster and Oysters with great French white wine. The day of my departure from Netherlands, the entire country started talking about that the real elfstedentocht might happen this week, for the first time in 15 years! All tv/radio stations and newspapers don’t talk about anything else. Ofcourse we already tasted the experience a bit in Austria, and I’m not allowed to start this year, but I’d like to think that i’ll do a real elfstedentocht some day!