The best way to see this year’s joint European Capital of Culture is to ask the residents to show you their city – for free
Sun 18 Feb 2018 10.00 GMT
It’s just after 10am and I’m cycling through the narrow cobblestone streets of Leeuwarden in the Netherlands, past canals with ivy-covered banks and perfectly preserved 17th-century merchant houses, thanks to Mila and her boyfriend Wilmar, our guides for the day. “Bike is by far the best way to see the city,” says Mila. “The only rule is you’ve got to bring us back afterwards. And in the same condition.”
Leen een Fries – in other words, borrow a Frisian – sums up the spirit of Leeuwarden. It’s a free scheme of 90-plus visitor experiences, where locals lend their time to show you the sights, help you find your way and offer tips. This year the city is joint European Capital of Culture (along with Valletta in Malta) and there’ll be lots of events to celebrate. Friesland, in the northwest of the Netherlands, is the most authentic, if unknown, of its provinces, full of meadows and forests; Leeuwarden, its capital, is like Amsterdam without the crowds. It has survived since the early 10th century on the dairy farms that surround it. Nowadays it’s a pastoral town with an enviable number of national monuments (600, to be precise), epicurean cheese shops (Zuivelhoeve on Kleine Kerkstraat is a particular treasure trove) and cycling lanes that are as civilised and effort-free as you’d expect.
We park up at Blokhuispoort, a 19th-century prison museum; with its gothic arch, high masonry and intimidating Wormwood Scrubs turrets, it doesn’t immediately feel that welcoming. It’s not until you get inside that you appreciate its transformation. The old courtyards have been completely converted – there’s a stylish youth hostel, a lively waterside restaurant called Proefverlof and a designer library (no portcullis, but Porridge-style cells double as wonderfully kooky reading rooms). On the ground floor is a bookworm’s haven, Café de Bak, but right now I’m in need of more sustenance and an hour alone with Dostoevsky isn’t going to do it.