Groningen: Metropolis of the North
Despite its size, Groningen is one of the most vibrant cities in the Netherlands, from cosy restaurants to a shopping hub, a lively cultural scene and a long, and impressive history. Close to my heart – as a long time inhabitant of this great place, just a couple of hours from Amsterdam – I set out to show some of the best this Metropolis of the North has to offer.
Thanks to its large and distinguished university, Groningen is actually the youngest city in the Netherlands, with an average age of just under 35 years. This is no surprise, as one in five inhabitants is actually a student. This young population gives Groningen a very active nightlife – famous for having no closing times – and a vibrant and diverse cultural and music scene.
To start off my two-day journey, I take the train into Groningen. Welcomed by the magnificent station building built in 1895, I marvel at the intricate details on the ceiling of the main hall. Although it looks like marble, many are actually crafted out of paper mache. With the combination of renaissance and gothic architecture, the station is one of the most beautiful in the country.
The Groninger Museum
I move on to the Groninger Museum, just across the road. Completed in 1994 in a striking postmodernist style, the building itself is a work of art. The asymmetrical museum by architect Alessandro Mendini sits like an island in the middle of the canal, connected by a through bridge. When it opened it got mixed reactions (many thought it was god-awful), but everyone agreed the bridge, joining the city centre to the station, was rather useful. A very ambitious museum since its opening, it often displays prominent international exhibitions with world famous artists, from paintings to installations, interactive art and sculptures. Inside I walk down the colourful mosaic, winding staircase to visit The Secret of Dresden – from Rembrandt to Canaletto. On display until the end of May, it is a beautiful collection of renaissance paintings amassed by the Prince-Electors of Saxony in the 18th century, at the time some of the wealthiest rulers in Europe. The exhibition includes lush landscapes by Philips Wouwerman, animated views of Venice by Canaletto and some refined portraits by Rembrandt.
I continue on to the museum’s permanent collection that includes a brief history of Groningen through artefacts and a collection of modernist artworks by local painting collective De Ploeg. Walking through a corridor, with the canal outside at eye-height, I end up in a round hall. Here a collection of porcelain, paintings, silverware and furniture of Jan Albert Sichterman is displayed, who lived 300 years ago. Dubbed the ‘King of Groningen’, he used his wealth not just to collect stunning pieces of Asian art, but also to buy a rhino, Clara, as a pet, of which beautiful, detailed paintings remain.
For lunch I walk further into the centre or ‘binnenstad’, the inner city. At‘t Opstapje, one of the many lunch places where you can have fresh baguettes with a filling of choice, I order a crab salad roll and fresh orange juice. Refuelled, I walk to the Martinitoren, the highest tower in Groningen nicknamed the Olle Grieze, or old grey one.
The old grey Martini Tower
The church, named after Groningen’s patron, Saint Martin, has a stirring history. The oldest structure that stood here was a wooden church dating back to the 9th century. By 1040 Groningen became the northernmost outpost of the diocese of Utrecht, and thereby an important religious hub for the region. The first tower, built in the 13th century, was only a modest 30 metres high. When, two centuries later, a lightning strike had caused it to collapse and the second, partly wooden, tower had burned down, it was decided to build a new, grand tower to represent the growing wealth of the north. To emphasise the diocese’s power, the Dom Tower of Utrecht was used as an example – at the time one of the highest churches in Europe.
According to tales from around the time of completion of the newly erected Martini Tower (no one knows for sure when this was) it was said to be even higher than the Dom at an incredible 127 metres. Then in 1577, fate hit again. Bonfires were lit on the top of the tower to celebrate the withdrawal of the Spanish forces. The tower caught fire and was largely destroyed. In 1627 it was eventually rebuilt to a height of 97 metres, the structure which currently still stands. Marvelling at the history of the Olle Grieze, I feel it’s time for dinner. I make my way to the Schuitendiep, the canal on the east side of the centre. Here lies the Pannekoekschip or pancake ship. The 100-yearold clipper, one of the largest ever built in the Netherlands, has been turned into a cosy restaurant that serves large, wonderful pancakes with all the choice of toppings you can dream of – from sweet to savoury. The family-friendly ship is the perfect place for a hearty Dutch dinner.
Groningen, university town
The next day I visit the Universiteitsmuseum. Tucked away, round the corner from the main campus building, the free museum goes through the 400-year history of the university in Groningen. On the top floor, it has a collection of scientific items that were used throughout the centuries, ranging from minerals to fossils and intriguing Victorian contraptions, but also examples of the phase contrast microscope that won professor Frits Zernike the Nobel Prize. Next is a room that gives an ode to Aletta Jacobs, the Netherland’s first female graduate, physician and devout suffragette. Lastly I enter a former operating theatre, now full of conserved body parts and some disturbing examples of miscarriages, certainly not for the squeamish and I quickly move on.
In terms of shopping, Groningen also has plenty to offer. All the major brands have outlets in the busy Herestraat but I head for the characteristic Folkingestraat, where I am rewarded with many quirky, independent shops. I walk into De Bourgondier, a delicacy shop selling dozens of types of cheeses, gifts and Groninger specialities. Drawn to the golden goodness of the Dutch cheese, many readily available to taste, I follow the shopkeeper’s recommendation to try their new Groninger spiced cheese with cloves and mustard. It has the salty creamy texture of Gouda yet with a punchy flavour. I continue on to the Vismarkt, after the Grote Markt, the second biggest market square with regular food and textile markets throughout the week. At the top of the square sits the imposing Korenbeurs, built in the 1860s. Once a wheat exchange, now a supermarket, the neoclassical building has a beautiful and bright interior. The cast iron structure with large ceiling windows, helped traders to check the quality of the grains through their colour.
Silently towering over it, is the late-medieval church the Der Aa-Kerk. Painted in historic ochre yellow, the church was named after a former nearby stream, the Drentsche A. It is no longer in active use; the Der Aa-Kerk can be hired as a venue for events, conferences and even club nights. Alongside it, in the shadows of the church I find a tiny shop called Het Hanze Huis, after the Hanseatic trade league that helped Groningen to become a centre of trade.
Inside I am instantly handed a glass of hot kwast, a sour, wintery lemonade. The shopis almost too small for the wealth of colours and products inside. “All our products come from independent European companies that are at least 100 years in their trade,” the shopkeeper tells me. “We select only quality products from their place of origin, that don’t have a supermarket feel to them.” Certainly none of the brands I see look familiar, which is both disorientating and intriguing: marzipan from Lubeck in Germany, syrups from Lille in France, sweets from Turin in Italy…
Before long it is time for dinner again and I make my way to the Poelestraat. With bars and dance cafes lining the street – albeit currently shut – this is the centre for Groninger nightlife. For my meal I settle on grand cafe Time Out serving regional dishes with a twist that all have a title in the local dialect. In my best Gronings I order ‘Neem joen gemak’ (take your pick), the schnitzel, a dish of the day. Unfortunately the waiter is from the neighbouring province of Friesland so my attempt falls on deaf ears. After a fulfilling meal and an intensely sweet dessert of white chocolate brulee ‘Zo wit as snij’ (white as snow), I make my way back to the station to end the trip.
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