The most exciting city in the northern Netherlands, Groningen comes as something of a surprise in the midst of its namesake province’s quiet, rural surroundings. It’s a hip, rather cosmopolitan place for the most part, with a thriving student life that imbues the city with vim and gusto. Competitively priced restaurants dish up exotic curries and fresh falafel alongside the standard Dutch staples, and the arts scene is particularly vibrant, especially during the academic year. Virtually destroyed during the Allied liberation in 1945, the city focuses on two enormous squares and is now a jumble of styles, from traditional canal-side townhouses to bright Art Deco tilework along the upper facades of the shopping streets – an eclecticism that culminates in the innovative Groninger Museum sitting on its own island near the station. Finally, one of the nice things about Groningen is that the centre is almost car-free, the result of huge investment in traffic-calming measures and a network of cycle paths and bus lanes. Today two-thirds of residents travel regularly by bike, the highest percentage in the country.
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The Groninger Museum
The Groninger Museum
The town’s main draw is the excellent Groninger Museum, set on its own island on the southern edge of the centre, directly across from the train station. Aside from a very cool information lounge with computers and touch screens, the museum is mostly given over to temporary exhibitions and what you see really depends on when you’re here. If you’re lucky, a rare work by the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Carel Fabritius – Man in a Helmet (probably the museum’s most prized possession) – will be on display, or Rubens’ energetic Adoration of the Magi and Isaac Israëls’ inviting Hoedenwinkel from a modest sample of Hague School paintings.
Most people, however, visit as much for the building itself as for what’s inside, which consists of six pavilions, each designed in a highly individual style: think Gaudí on holiday in Miami, and you’ll have some idea of the interior decor. Once inside, between the stylish café and museum shop, the striking mosaic stairwell sweeps downwards, depositing you among bulbous lemon-yellow pillars and pink walls, from where moat-level corridors head off to pavilions either side: east to Mendini, Mendini 1 and Coop Himmelb(l)au, west to Starck and De Ploeg.
De Ploeg and the Starck Pavilion
The museum’s collection includes a number of works by the Expressionists of the Groningen De Ploeg school, housed in their own pavilion, a trapezium constructed from red bricks. The De Ploeg movement is characterized by intense colour contrasts, exaggerated shapes and depiction of landscapes – often of the countryside north of Groningen. As founding member Jan Altink put it: “There wasn’t much going on in the way of art in Groningen, so I thought of cultivation and thus also of ploughing. Hence the name De Ploeg.” As well as Altink, look out for the paintings of Jan Wiegers. Upstairs from De Ploeg, the Philippe Starck pavilion is a giant disc clad in aluminium plating and houses the museum’s wonderful collection of Chinese and Japanese porcelain, beautifully displayed in circular glass cases, softened by gauzy drapes.
The Mendini Pavilions and Coop Himmelb(l)au
On the other side of the mosaic stairway, the Mendini pavilions are dedicated to temporary exhibitions, while a large concrete stairway links Mendini 1 to the final, and most controversial, pavilion. Designed by Wolfgang Prix and Helmut Swiczinsky, who together call themselves Coop Himmelb(l)au, it’s a Deconstructivist experiment: double-plated steel and reinforced glass jut out at awkward angles, and skinny aerial walkways crisscross the exhibition space. It all feels – probably deliberately – half-built. Look out for the glass-walk holes, where the concrete floor stops and suddenly between your feet the canal gapes, two storeys below. This pavilion is also given over to temporary exhibitions.
Liquor fit for a queen?
Liquor fit for a queen?
Although Groningen does not have a rich culinary tradition, the Hooghoudt brewery (w hooghoudt.nl) is known throughout the country and dates back to 1888. It’s best known for its Graanjevener, but they also produce Beerenburg and other liquors like the Wilhelmus Orange Liquor, which is traditionally served on Queen’s Day.
Every year in mid-August, Groningen hosts the increasingly popular Festival Noorderzon (w noorderzon.nl), a ten-day blend of theatre, music, film and performance art. About a third of the events are free, many of them staged in the Noorderplantsoen park, a fifteen minute walk north along Nieuwe Kijk in ’t Jatstraat. Come night-time, food stalls and drinking-holes surround the lake in the park, while folk stroll along the lantern-lit paths or chill on the lake’s stone steps to the sound of Afrobeat, Latin, funk, rock, jazz or ambient music. Other entertainment includes circuses, mime, puppetry, videos and installations. Hotels get busy, so if you’re planning to visit around this time you’d do well to book in advance.