You would be forgiven for thinking that Heerenveen is the main city of Friesland, a defiantly independent province at the northern tip of the Netherlands.
Its consistently successful football club, Sportclub Heerenveen, not only wear the blue-and-white stripes of the provincial flag, but before each home game ‘De Alde Friezen’ blares out to be sung in unison. This is the national anthem of Friesland, learned by everyone in a region where half the population is first-language Frisian.
But SC Heerenveen, ‘De Superfriezen’ (‘The Super Frisians’) represent a modest community a third the size of the actual capital, Leeuwarden. While the Friesland patriots have been regular European competitors, Heerenveen’s local rivals SC Cambuur of Leeuwarden have spent most of this century in the lower-tier Eredivisie.
Heerenveen’s support is traditionally widespread and rural. Cambuur’s solid and significant fanbase is linked to the city tasked with the most prestigious responsibility in Friesland, hosting the start and finish of the 11-city speed-skating event Elfstedentocht. Sneek, IJist and Hindeloopen all take part – Heerenveen, though speed skating mad, is bypassed due to lack of historic significance.
The nationwide profile of its football club, too, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Known until 1977 as VV Heerenveen, they were preceeded by various mergers of village teams – Victory, Achilles, VAC – from 1902. VAC folded in 1918, many of their players moving to newly formed Athleta in 1920, the date generally given for the foundation of today’s SC Heerenveen.
Athleta and another local outfit, HBS, then merged to create Spartaan, Friesland champions in 1923 and 1924. Promotion to the third tier meant that the club had to drop the name ‘Spartaan’, used by others elsewhere in the Netherlands, and become VV Heerenveen.
First based at canalside Leeuwarder Straatweg then the nearby Sportpark Noord, VV Heerenveen made the top tier of the regionally organised Dutch game in 1938. This was when a local teenager by the name of Abe Lenstra joined the club.
Lenstra led Heerenveen to nine northern provincial titles during and after the war. Though he skedaddled to Enschede as soon as the professional game was introduced in 1954, Lenstra is revered in Heerenveen – aka ‘Abeveen’. The Sportpark Noord and the 1994 new-build stadium that replaced it were both given his name.
A short walk east of the compact town centre, today’s Abe Lenstra Stadion was to have been a host venue for the 2018 World Cup, along with Amsterdam, Rotterdam and select main towns in Holland and Belgium.
But for Russia’s successful lobby, this honour would have been bestowed upon a town that did not witness top-class football until 1990. And, had the Dutch-Belgian bid succeeded, Heerenveen would have owed its prominent role not to Lenstra but to an astute chairman who transformed the game here from 1983 onwards: Riemer van der Velde.
By then, Heerenveen’s amateur and professional divisions had split. Amateurs VV today play lower-league football at the Sportpark Skoatterwâld – also a training ground for the youth teams of SC Heerenveen, just over the A32 motorway from the Abe Lenstra Stadion.
The professional outfit soon struggled with the expense of salaried football. An entrepreneur from nearby Bakkeveen changed all that. Business-savvy Riemer van der Velde had once played for Groningen’s Be Quick in the late 1950s. Seeing promise in Heerenveen’s former youth coach Foppe de Haan, van der Velde created a management team that took debt-ridden provincial underachievers to profitable European contenders.
Ten years into his tenure, van der Velde built the Abe Lenstra Stadion. Fellow Frisian de Haan went on to lead Holland’s under-21 side to two European titles. While van der Velde is respected around Friesland, de Haan is, like Lenstra, revered. Not only did he step in during Heerenveen’s flagging campaign of 2015-16, de Haan has twice attempted speed-skating’s Elfstedentocht, completing the course in 1985.
In May 2018, a last-minute Feyenoord goal in front of a full house at the Abe Lenstra saw Heerenveen fail to finish higher than eighth in the league. Paired with the stronger Utrecht in the Dutch play-offs for the Europe League, the Friesland side lost out on away goals, meaning another season of only domestic football in 2018-19.
Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport is 138km (86 miles) from Heerenveen. An hourly train from the terminal runs direct to Heerenveen or another service just after the half-hour requires a change of platforms at Zwolle. In each case, journey time is just under 2hrs, a single ticket €24.
Dutch trains and public transport run on the nationwide OV-chipkaart (€7.50) system.
Heerenveen train station is north-west of the centre – the stadium is south-east. While the stroll over the canal into town takes less than 10min, the trek to the Abe Lenstra Stadion would be at least 20min. To the right of the train station as you exit is the bus terminus, services run by Arriva on the chipkaart system. You can also pay on board, €2 per ride.
The centre is compact and pedestrianised. If you need a taxi for any reason – for example, for the three out-of-town hotels – Taxicentrale Heerenveen (+31 513 203 333) is based near the station and has a fixed rate for Schiphol airport of €149.
There are no hotels in the centre of Heerenveen. The closest one to town is the mid-range Hajé, near the junction for the A7 from the Businesspark Friesland-West and the A32 for the stadium, with 55 guestrooms and 12 rooms for meetings and conferences. To walk to the stadium about 1.5km away, a canalside path runs by the motorway. The centre of Heerenveen is the same distance.
Way south-east of both town and stadium, the Golden Tulip Tjaard Oranjewoud offers classier facilities – a spa, indoor pool, quality restaurant and terrace café – but it’s all a taxi journey away. Similarly, the four-star Fletcher Hotel-Restaurant Heidehof can provide three tennis courts, a bowling alley and French-inspired restaurant. It’s connected to town and stadium by the hourly No.115 bus that runs until late in the evening.
If you just need a reasonably priced room with a town-centre location, there are a few options in Leeuwarden, including the Oranje opposite the station. From there, a frequent train to Heerenveen (€6) takes 20min.
For a small provincial town, Heerenveen is reasonably well endowed for bars, many clustered where Vleesmarkt meets Oude Koemarkt, tucked inside a bend in the canal. Sport is usually a prominent feature – and that sport is usually speed skating.
Typical is the long-established Café it Houtse on Oude Koemarkt, a shirt signed by Eric Heiden taking pride of place. The five-time Olympic champion ended his skating career in Heerenveen. As a lively, atmospheric sports bar, you won’t find better, although the management at what was the popular Café Paul Kruger next door will be trying to win over custom. It reopened as an extension of food-oriented De Lachende Koe in 2017.
Also squeezed amid this bar strip, Café Bleeker performs a solid job of pouring beers to ensure Saturday nights get lively, as does similar De Blauwe Kater diagonally opposite, on the corner with Achter de Kerk. Both open from mid afternoon.
Beside the Blue Cat, Eetcafé de Buurman concentrates on providing a top-quality meal, particularly grilled meat, but beer drinkers are by no means neglected. Nearby De Swetser on Vleesmarkt attracts a younger crowd with late-night party fun.
A short stagger along the canal, Heerenveen’s football fraternity gather at Café de Skoffel, an honest, hard-drinking bar on Nieuwstraat where music tends towards guitar-driven rock (think Rammstein tribute bands), darts is taken seriously and match days (particularly derbies) turn into a street party. It’s raucous, rarely threatening and welcoming to random strangers.