Espionage, LSD and a man walking a rabbit – welcome to Europe's new Capital of Culture

Gavin Haines
Leeuwarden, a city of psychedelic festivals, is 2018's European Capital of Culture

A man walks his rabbit – yes, rabbit – in the town square, puffing on what definitely isn’t a cigarette as the floppy-eared bunny hops along the cobbles on the end of a leash. Welcome to Leeuwarden: a European Capital of Culture for 2018.

It takes six minutes for the rabbit walker to stagger across the square, which is 55yd (50m) long at a push. I time him from the second floor of the Fries Museum, whose enormous windows look across a pretty, orderly town that could only belong to the Low Countries. Looming over the scene is a not-so-pretty office block whose blandness is almost absolute. It is the architecture of economy and efficiency, bereft of sentimentality; that the accountancy firm, Deloitte, conducts its business here is entirely appropriate.

Yet we must be grateful for this charmless structure; or rather its architect, the late Abe Bonnema, who generously bequeathed Leeuwarden €18 million (£15.7 million) to build the wonderful Fries Museum, where I am now, watching a man walk his rabbit.

The gift wasn’t gratefully received at first, with locals objecting to the plans for the building. “We had a referendum and the people said no,” says museum worker Rouke van der Hoek. “But it got here anyway; we opened in 2013.”

The Fries Museum plays a starring role in Leeuwarden 2018, hosting exhibitions dedicated to two of the city’s most famous children: Escher, the graphic artist (April 28-Oct 28); and Mata Hari, whose dance shows seduced Europe in the early 1900s (until April 2).

The city is celebrating with a calendar of cultural events Credit: 4CORNERS IMAGES/ANDREA ARMELLIN

Also at the museum is the Phantom Limb exhibition (until Jan 2019), which features work from new artists who, like Escher, excel in the art of deception.

In 1917 Mata Hari was shot by firing squad in Paris for allegedly being a German spy, but she continues to seduce thanks to the Fries Museum’s fantastic exhibition, which tells of her rise and fall through 3D projections, newspaper cuttings and official letters, some of them only declassified in 2017.

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Like Mata Hari, Friesland has shown itself to be a master of reinvention: the province, of which Leeuwarden is the capital, used to be underwater, but hundreds of years ago its people started pegging back the sea with dykes and building on reclaimed land. 

But can they keep fighting the tide? As sea levels rise the dykes will have to get bigger if Friesland is to avoid a Mata Hari ending. One man responsible for bolstering flood defences is artist Joop Mulder, who I meet at Grand Café, where he strains ginger tea through a walrus-esque ’tache. He wants to turn humanity’s response to climate change into art, which is why, when he builds his first dyke in nearby Wadden, a Unesco World Heritage Site, it will be in the shape of a naked woman. 

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“It will represent the strength of Mother Earth,” he says. “She will protect us from the water.” Mulder is developing other ideas, too – for piers, swimming pools, amphitheatres  – with local communities as part of a project called Sense of Place.

The idea of finding artistic solutions to environmental and social problems is the cornerstone of Leeuwarden 2018, which is about not just one city, but a province: Friesland, a region shaped by people who moved the sea to build cities; it has its own flag, language and heroes, but no hills.

“I do miss hills,” says Claudia Woolgar, the creative producer of Leeuwarden 2018, originally from Sussex. Claudia and I met in prison, a beautiful, 19th-century clink in the centre of Leeuwarden recently converted into a theatre, library, restaurant and the Alibi hostel, where a night in a cell costs from €37.

Leeuwarden's former prison building Credit: STOCK.ADOBE.COM/SHAHID A KHAN

Many Capitals of Culture have been and gone, says Claudia, but Leeuwarden is different. “The cultural programme has been driven by the local community,” she says. “Professional artists have guided it, but this comes from the grass roots – it has not been top-down programmed.” Which is why, presumably, it features potatoes. Yes, really. Friesland is mad for tatties and has for many years grown them with a little help from Malta; farmers send baby spuds to the Mediterranean island, where they mature before being sent back to Friesland. It’s sounds bizarre, but then again, this is a place where they moved the sea to build cities.

Friesland is a region shaped by people who moved the sea to build cities Credit: RUDMER ZWERVER

Anyway, when Leeuwarden found out it was going to be European Capital of Culture in 2018 – along with Valletta, the Maltese capital – locals, including children, rather sweetly started sending poetry to each other; short lines of verse stuffed into sacks of soily spuds. These will now form part of a book set to be released later this year.

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Inevitably, Leeuwarden 2018 has its critics: some feel culture is not a priority in a city with the highest rates of poverty in the Netherlands. But local authorities believe Leeuwarden’s year in the spotlight could provide an economic stimulus for the region (as per Glasgow and Liverpool) and may help stop the “brain drain” that has seen many young inhabitants decamp south to Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. 

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Leeuwarden’s cultural programme also includes the screening of a documentary series, Look at Me, filmed by children from low-income families. These short films will be shown during the Northern Film Festival (Nov 5-11), which forms part of an impressive calendar of events that includes music festivals, immersive theatre and offbeat sports events, as well as world-class art exhibitions and street theatre courtesy of the Giants of Royal de Luxe (Aug 17-19). Riding on the coattails of Leeuwarden 2018 is Friesland’s annual Psy-Fi Festival (Aug 15-19), where revellers drop acid and immerse themselves in art and music. “I went last year and we had to enter the festival through the legs of a giant woman,” said Claudia. “It really is quite mad.”

As mad as a man walking a rabbit? Well, that remains to be seen. 

How to get there

Leeuwarden is about two hours by train from Amsterdam. From spring, Eurostar (eurostar.com) will begin a direct service to the Dutch capital from London St Pancras.

Occupying a former bank and post office, Post Plaza (post-plaza.nl) is the best hotel in town; doubles from €96. 

friesland.nl; leeuwarden2018.nl