Monnickendam is a beautiful village in North Holland, part of what is now Waterland. It’s a short drive from Amsterdam, through some beautiful countryside that, at this time of year, features wide fields of pure white snow dotted with picturesque Dutch country houses and small copses of leafless trees.
The village officially became a city in the 1300s. Today, it is a beautiful pocket of a town. Narrow streets where every building is a postcard. Pretty cafes each of which seemed to offer warmth and comfort. And ice.
The ice had been tested by the local ice master and deemed deep enough for skating. The ice had been swept free of snow and any debris; wide, sweeping paths formed out of clean ice and low banks of snow. Near the bridge a small tent was set up, selling erwentsoep (pea soup) and hot dogs. At home, it’s Australia Day, but here in Monnickendam it’s also something else that’s historically significant, and a strong expression of national identity – skating on natural ice.
My cousins invite me to step out onto the ice, after warning me that it will be slippery. It seems safe enough – a whole crowd of smiling Dutch folk are out there – so down I go. Temporary wooden steps have been put in place. My first steps on the ice are tentative. I’m surprised by how wary I am about the ice. How deep is the water here anyway? Not very deep at all. But still, when the ice creaks and pops beneath me I feel nervous.
I blame my cousins, who tell me just before we step down that, as children, their swimming lessons include learning how to swim under ice while holding one’s breath and searching for a hole so that they can break through to the surface and live.
Here, at the edge of the dyke, the snow hasn’t been cleared away, so the ice is obscured by a dusting as delicate and pretty as icing sugar. But I can see the hard, clear ice, and the bubbles trapped beneath it. I am walking on water! We traipse under the bridge to the open area. A field of ice, opening out from the old bridge. The ice master’s tent is nearby, and I can smell the pea and speck soup, the hot dogs and hot chocolate.
Out on the ice, the skaters are swooping, in pairs and singles, and in small groups. Their pose is the classic one I remember from my childhood. From picture books about Hans Brinkner and his silver skates, and from the traditional prints hanging on the walls of our home in Australia. Bent forward slightly, knees bent, hands clasped behind the skater’s back. But the skaters aren’t racing. Everyone is smiling, nodding at each other. Greetings are called out across the ice. Laughter. It’s a beautiful day. A blue sky, natural ice, no wind.
This is a friendly, aimless, social form of skating.
A perfect Dutch winter’s day.
Stay tuned for Monnickendam, Part Two, photographs 🙂