Editor’s note: I am so excited to introduce you all to Hedy Maessen. I met Hedy (and her boyfriend Rudi) in Curacao, and we immediately hit it off. Travel is her biggest passion, and we are so lucky that she is willing to share her experiences with us. And, being from the Netherlands, she is able to offer a different perspective on the world. While this is her first article, you can click here to visit her index where all future articles will be linked.
As you all know and will have experienced, a pandemic can mess up your travel plans pretty badly. But when such things happen, you get creative. So I’ve decided to travel and explore my own country, the Netherlands, and visit the lesser known places. So no Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, or Utrecht. And for my first article I would like to take you to a place that has it all: a rich history, canals, beautiful buildings, one of the oldest universities in the Netherlands, a fantastic nightlife, and interesting museums. It is, for me, a better alternative to Amsterdam; welcome to Groningen!
First, a little geography. The city of Groningen, also known as Stad (city), is located in the province of Groningen, which in turn located in the northeast of the Netherlands. It is about two and a half hours from Amsterdam, and the nearest big city (Zwolle) is one hour away. For most of you, that will probably sound like a short time to travel, but by Dutch standards you almost cannot get any further away than that. And this “isolation” from the rest of the Netherlands has made Groningen the unique place it is. It had the chance to develop its own atmosphere and character without (much) interference from outside, and that is what makes Groningen Groningen.
So let’s begin our journey into this unique place at the train station of Groningen, which got voted “the most beautiful train station of the Netherlands” in 2019, and with good reason. It was build at the end of the 19th century and has neo-gothic and neo-renaissance elements in it. After your long journey, grab a coffee at one of the kiosks or the AH and sit down on one of the benches in the main hall of the train station for your first welcome to Groningen. Take in all the special details like the stained glass skylight and the tableau with the depiction of the virgin of Groningen. After you’ve had your little rest, put on your walking shoes and exit the hall.
You will immediately see Groningen in a nutshell. Centuries old buildings next to very modern ones, canals and students and stadjers (inhabitants of the city of Groningen) cycling everywhere. Take one look behind you to see the train station in its full glory and then go towards the most colourful building you see, the Groninger Museum. It is located on the canal and it looks like a piece of art itself. It has a permanent exhibition on art from Groninger artists, and always has an interesting rotating exhibition. They’ve had the David Bowie experience, Chihully, and one on Russian fairy tales in art. The Groninger Museum is always worth a visit if you have the time. If you don’t have the time, continue walking across the museum bridge and follow that path towards the city centre. If by any chance the museum bridge is open, please have a look and see the old Delft blue tiles underneath it, depicting very funny (read: dirty) activities.
When you get closer to the city centre you will go through the Folkingestraat. Now a busy shopping street filled with peculiar shops and small restaurants, it used to be the heart of the Jewish district in Groningen. Sadly this ended in World War Two, with the deportation of 2300 Jewish Groningers. Nowadays the only thing left is the synagogue from 1906, that still is active as a synagogue and also as a museum on the history of Jewish Groningen. To keep remembering those who lost their lives, five artists installed a piece of art hidden in plain sight in this street. The easiest to spot is Galgal Hamazalot, 11 bronze moons (from new moon to full moon and back), placed in the pavement across the entire street. It depicts the rise and fall of the Jewish community in Groningen. It was based on the Jewish calendar, which follows the cycle of the moon. The other monuments are a bit more tricky to find, so when going through the street, keep your eyes open. For me, the one that made the biggest impression is weggehaald. It is etched in the side of a building. Weggehaald means “taken away” in Dutch, and the artist was trying to convey that the lives and memories have been taken away. He purposefully put it in a hidden away place, because we’ve almost forgotten about it (or maybe we wanted to forget?). So when walking through this street, don’t just go window shopping; also look for the little monuments scattered all over and remember.
After exiting the Folkingestraat you bump right into another historic part of Groningen, the Vismarkt (fishmarket) with the Korenbeurs (the old grain-food trade market) on your left, and on your right, the square where every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday the students and stadjers come and do their grocery shopping at the market stalls. This is another example of the history of Groningen still shining through in modern times. The city became as big as it is by trading and was part of the Hanze-route. From the late middle ages, it had a large trading network all over Europe, and many buildings (warehouses, offices, and residences) in the city centre were built during these trading times. If you’re in Groningen when the market is open on the Vismarkt, get a herring with onions (both raw) or a portion of kibbelingen (fried codbits) to fuel the rest of your discovery tour.
Walk along the Vismarkt, and go between the buildings, and you will end up at the Grote Markt (big market) looking at the symbol of Groningen, the Martini Tower. Every Groningen heart beats a bit faster upon the sight of it. Also lovingly called “d’olle Grieze” (the old gray one), the Martini Tower has always been the heart of the city. It was built at the height of the trading times as part of the Martini Church. It has been a witness to the best and the worst times in Groningen history. The history of Groningen is filled with people trying to claim reign over the city, but most of them have failed quite miserably. Groningers were – and are – very proud of their town and have tried to stay independent for as long as possible. The greatest example of this was in the summer of 1672 when the bishop of Münster put Groningen under siege, as he wanted to claim the city for his diocese. For a month he shot with many canons, giving him the nickname “Bommen Berend” (bombs Berend). But the Groningers were defending their city to the teeth and defeated the bishop (with a little help from the Dutch rain, which caused a lot of illnesses in the bishop’s camp). To this day “Bommen Berend” is a holiday in Groningen celebrating the retreat of the bishop and the survival of the city. Unfortunately, in the Second World War, just like the rest of the Netherlands, Groningen was seized by the Nazis. During the liberation of Groningen, the entire Grote Markt was very heavily damaged by gunfire, except the Martini Tower. Nowadays it still stands proudly on the Grote Markt and functions as a bell tower. You can climb to the top and see the insides of the tower. If you are claustrophobic or have difficulty walking stairs, maybe skip this visit because the stairs are very narrow and uneven. But maybe it is even better to enjoy the symbol of Groningen from another tower.
The newest landmark feature in Groningen is the Forum. You can find this very modern looking tower right behind the Grote Markt as it sticks out as a sore thumb. Yes, the outside doesn’t really fit in with its older surroundings. But what it lacks in appeal on the outside it makes up on the inside. It was designed as a living room for all Groningers, stadjers, and students and boy did they succeed. The Forum has an open concept and all the different levels are connected with escalators and stairs intertwining. It houses an arthouse cinema, a huge library with many nooks to enjoy the view of the city with a good book, a museum, and creative play spaces for kids. It also has two restaurants and a fantastic rooftop deck. And here at this rooftop deck, which you can visit free of charge, is where I leave you to discover your own Groningen. Look over the city and decide your own path – to the university, the shopping streets, the exceptional nightlife (there is always a bar open somewhere), or a walk around the tiny cobblestoned streets you see beneath you.
But before you go on your Groningen adventure, a few warnings, because of course every place has its downsides as well. As it is in the middle of nowhere and the surrounding Ommelanden (countryside) is very flat, Groningen is always very windy. In my opinion, you shouldn’t visit the Netherlands for its climate anyway, but be warned that it can be chilly in Groningen and the weather can change from sunny to pouring rain in a second. Just pack a raincoat and a sweater with you and you’ll be fine.
Also, because it is very flat and because it is a student city, most transport is done by bike. And there is a mutual disrespect between cyclists and walkers. So make sure you look around you all the time when walking (or cycling) through Groningen because they don’t care if they crash into you. It will be your fault because you weren’t looking. My tip for walking around is to look them in the eye and let them know that you have seen them but this is your spot and they had better cycle around you.
The last downside to Groningen is that it is always under construction. Being old and new at the same time means that there are always roads or views blocked by construction. Just walk and photograph around it; everybody does.
Don’t be discouraged to visit Stad after hearing this; just go with the flow and you will fall in love with it, and you will even love the downsides eventually. I speak from experience; every time I arrive there and feel the first gust of wind, I think “finally, I’m in Groningen again.”
How to eat your way through Groningen:
– Groninger Mosterdsoep is a soup made of, you’ve might have guessed it already, Groninger mustard, with leek and – if desired – some bacon bits. My favourite place to eat it is at the historical Goudkantoor at the Grote Markt.
– Groninger eierbal is basically the Groningen version of a scotch egg, eaten as a snack when done clubbing and partying in the city.
-Groninger notenkoek van Knol’s koek is a spice cake with an assortment of nuts on one side. It is best eaten as a sort of sandwich with a lot of butter in between.
– Visit Droppie, a Dutch candy store with a lot of licorice and old retro Dutch sweets. It is not necessarily Groningen food, but for me it is my favourite candystore in the Netherlands and who doesn’t get happy when eating a boterbal (butterball)
So next time you’re in the Netherlands and have a day or two to spare, visit Groningen and enjoy all it has to offer, because whatever you look for in a town, Groningen has it. As they say “Er gaat niets boven Groningen” (nothing above Groningen).
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