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1917 ~ The Twenty Towns Tour

The Zuyder Zee Flood that struck the Netherlands in the night of 13–14th  January 1916 cost the lives of dozens of people living in the region to the north of the IJ. Only one year later, that same area became the setting for an idyllic skating tour.

The ‘war winter’ of 1917 The winter of 1917 produced enormous problems in Europe, which by then had been suffering the ravages of the First World War for over two years. The extreme cold made the conditions at the front even more horrific than before. Even in the Netherlands, which was neutral, food and fuel were scarce, and water and power lines literally froze solid. Amid this malaise, skating provided a welcome note of joy, since the country was covered by a thick layer of ice for the first time in almost 25 years.

The Eleven Cities Tour was held, thousands of locals glided around on the rink behind the Rijksmuseum, and skating girls from Marken posed for what were billed as ‘typical Dutch pictures’ for illustrated magazines. The daily newspaper Algemeen Handelsblad contributed to the enormous number of winter events with its Twenty Towns Tour of 3rd  February 1917. Skaters were challenged to ride 55 kilometres, starting from the tollbooth in North

Amsterdam. The route led through Buiksloot, Landsmeer, Den Ilp, Oostzaan, Zaandam, Het Kalf, Wormer, Jisp, Wijdewormer, Neck, Purmerend, Kwadijk,Middelie, Edam, Monnickendam, Broek in Waterland, Zunderdorp, Nieuwendam, Buiksloot, and then back to the tollbooth.


In this period, before the major Amsterdam annexation of 1921, all these places were still independent municipalities. Approximately 600 people registered to take part in the Twenty Towns Tour, much more than the 150 who had joined in the Eleven Cities Tour the week before. ‘The telephones at the Handelsblad didn’t stop ringing for days, with people calling in to register from far and wide’, recalled a spokesman for the paper. At the tollbooth registration desk, hundreds of people waited for three-quarters of an hour, packed like sardines, to get starting cards. After a period of confusion, everyone finally made their way onto the ice.

Pure joy

The Handelsblad had a skating reporter on the ice that day, who greatly enjoyed himself.

‘We glided along wonderfully just like in the old days, over the long, smooth course. It was pure joy, a glorious thing. And on we went, constantly with cheerful groups at the back, quickly getting our cards stamped at the first checkpoint at the kiosk, and then on again, and the scraping, singing music of our skates on the ice resumed, and everything around us became a whirl of pleasure – and as we went along we would greet any number of dear friends – on the ice, everyone is a dear friend! – who could not keep up with us.’

The tour also prompted recollections of the recent flood, with all its suffering. The reporter wrote:

‘As we passed Monnickendam and rode through the water-filled district that is now frozen over everywhere, memories returned of those same landscapes a year ago, when the boat took us past new scenes of flooding misery every day; when dark, menacing skies hung heavy over ramshackle farmhouses and areas completely submerged in water.’

The Twenty Towns Tour was never ridden again.


1934 ~ Sonja Henie in Amsterdam

Sonja Henie is one of the most famous skaters of all time. Starting in 1927, she won ten world titles and three Olympic gold medals, after which she pursued a career as a film star and at the Hollywood Ice Revue. In 1934 she came to Amsterdam to open the first Dutch skating rink, at the Sportfondsenbad swimming pool on Linnaeusstraat. Even her arrival in Amsterdam was front page news. Dutch people would finally have a chance to see the world champion with their own eyes. ‘Sonja Henie will arrive in Amsterdam on the train from Paris at 9.50 this evening,’ wrote De Telegraaf daily newspaper on 21st November 1934. ‘Sonja wore an elegant tiger fur coat,’ the same paper told its readers the next day, ‘and a coquettish velvet pillbox hat – a high model, the latest fashion – crowned with a playful feather, a feather that never stopped dancing for a second, as its owner flitted from one person to the next.’

Peerless and compelling

The official opening took place in the weekend of 24–25th November with festivities on the ice. Thousands came to watch Henie, and she took their breath away. De Telegraaf reported:

‘Frisky, tripping steps were followed by audacious, rapid turns and leaps. Lightning pirouettes alternated with gracious arcs, and everything marked by an elegance so peerless and so compelling that by the time she had finished her demonstration of figure skating and had accepted her flowers with a radiant beam, she had conveyed to the Amsterdam public, which stood applauding and cheering, something of her  matchless artistry.’

To the delight of Amsterdam’s children, it was announced on the radio the next day that Henie would perform for them, free of charge, at 3.30 p.m. that afternoon. ‘This announcement was received with such enthusiasm that it was almost alarming,’ wrote the regional paper Het Nieuwsblad van Friesland. ‘No fewer than 16,000 children turned up, and several hundred had to be turned away. Special police measures had to be taken to receive this avalanche of children and later to help them on their way. The event showed that Sonja Henie is enormously popular with the youth.’

 Me too!

Annie Verlee was there that day in 1934, as a nine-year-old girl. “I was totally mesmerised”, she said in 2014 to the skating historian Marnix Koolhaas. “I had never seen anything like it. That you could dance and leap so magnificently on the ice, and those pirouettes! I wanted to do it too.” At the shoe shop Zwartjes on Utrechtsestraat, Verlee found some ice skates, which her parents gave her for her tenth birthday. She practised at the ice rink almost every day, until financial problems forced the rink’s closure in 1940. Fortunately, an ice rink was created at the Apollohal sports centre for the days when there was no natural ice. There she met the little Sjoukje Dijkstra, just eight years of age, in 1950. Recognising her talent, Verlee took her under her wing, along with another protegée, Joan Haanappel.

This laid the foundations for later skating triumphs: especially those of Dijkstra. What started as a peerless performance in 1934 led to the Netherlands’ first gold medal at the Winter Games in 1964. We will take a closer look at Dijkstra’s career later in the series.

Article © Jurryt van de Vooren 

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