As the Dutch will readily tell you, 2019 is a highly significant year in the art world.

It marks the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death, and galleries and museums are commemorating this with a series of eye-catching exhibitions and activities.

One of the first to be staged under the theme of Rembrandt and the Golden Age actually began towards the end of last year so it could overlap with the prestigious award to Leeuwarden-Friesland in being chosen as 2018 European Capital of Culture.

Many people in the UK have probably never heard of Leeuwarden, because it is not along Holland’s normal tourist trail taking in the historic cities of Amsterdam, Haarlem, Den Haag, Oxford’s twin town Leiden, Delft and Rotterdam.

But that only makes it an even more intriguing place to visit, and particularly from now until March 17 when you can catch Rembrandt & Saskia: Love in the Dutch Golden Age in the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden.

One of Rembrandt van Rijn’s most intimate portraits, Portrait of Saskia Uylenburgh in Rich Apparel is on display here as the exhibition’s centrepiece, having come back to the Netherlands for the first time in more than 250 years.

Rembrandt completed this portrait of his first wife shortly after her death at the age of 29 in 1642 and he kept the painting among his prized possessions. In 1652, however, financial difficulties forced him to sell the portrait to his friend, the collector Jan Six.

Around 1750 it was bought by the Elector of Hessen-Kassel and since then the painting has never been back in Holland. Until now.

The exhibition includes marriage portraits, intimate sketches and personal items that reveal the joys and sorrows of living in the Dutch Golden Age.

So where exactly is Leeuwarden, and how do you get there?

We flew to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, and from there it is an an easy two-hour journey on Holland’s excellent trains, heading north-east.

Friesland has very much its own identity. Its landscape is interesting, from the mud flats on the Waddenzee to the forests and heathland of the Drents-Friese Woud National Park, to the east.

If you can visit before mid-March, and you are very lucky – because, with global warming, it has become quite a rare event – you could even get to witness the famous Elfstedentocht, a winter ice skating marathon around 11 Frisian towns that literally brings the country to a standstill.

This event has acquired almost mythical status in the Netherlands and keeps millions glued to their television screens.

But it requires very cold temperatures, as the ice needs to be at least 15cm deep for the 200km-race to take place.

Because of this, it has been held only 15 times in the last century, and its last staging was back in 1997.

If you do a walking tour of the city, as we did soon after arriving, one of the first sites you see emerging from the railway station is De Elfstedenrijder, a bronze statue of one of the winners.

Dominating the skyline further on is the Oldehove, a kind of Frisian leaning tower of Pisa. When building began in 1529, this church tower was going to be the tallest in the Netherlands, but unfortunately the foundations began to sink.

Work stopped three years later but it is safe to climb and from the top there’s an excellent view over Leeuwarden, its multitude of waterways, and as far as the coast. There is also a statue of Mata Hari, and the Fries Museum tells you more about this legendary dancer, who grew up in Leeuwarden, and whose life came to a tragic end when she was executed by a firing squad after a French tribunal found her guilty of spying for the Nazis. You can see Mata Hari’s former home at Grote Kerkstraat 12, and she is included with the dozens of famous people, past and present, like the painter MC Escher, who were born in Leeuwarden and who are immortalised in a portrait gallery in the city’s Historisch Centrum. Like many things in Leeuwarden, artistic and otherwise, it is memorable.

The facts:

  • Jon travelled to Leeuwarden as a guest of
  • Stay: Try the Post-Plaza, a boutique hotel and cafe in a beautifully converted heritage building that used to be city’s central post office. It has a stunning Grand Cafe where you can eat well and relax over a coffee.
  • Art: Fries Museum in
  • Information: