Tucked away in the far northeast corner of the Netherlands is the erstwhile Hanseatic city of Groningen. Dripping in history, this charming provincial capital with bubbling arts scene is awash with green spaces, cultural attractions, fine restaurants and gabled houses reflected in the miles of scenic canals. Gilly Pickup explores this little Dutch gem.
Groningen is sometimes referred to as the most Italian city north of the Alps and it can’t be denied that Italian architects have left their mark. Fine examples of of this are all around from Alessandro Mendini’s Groninger Museum and the Waagstraat Complex by Adolpho Natalini, to the public library by Giorgio Grassi.
One in five residents in Groningen is a student, and with this comes a flurry of bicycles and bells on the streets. The centre is almost car-free with a network of cycle paths and bus lanes and plenty of cycle parking. There’s little wonder that Groningen has the highest quality of life ranking in the Netherlands and 97 percent of inhabitants say they are satisfied with living here.
There are a score of brilliant museums for those with a lust for learning. The Grafisch Museum is for anyone who loves typefaces and scripts, bookbinding and every printing technology under the sun. Better still, many of the old presses and graphic machines are still in working order.
There is the University Museum too, which describes itself as ‘a museum for man, nature and science’. If you like all that’s gory, you’ll love the torso which was frozen then sawn into sections, plus the blackened lung – bound to make smokers think again.
Meanwhile the Groninger Museum, an oddly shaped modernist structure which may not be to everyone’s taste, houses archaeological finds, portraits of prominent Groningers from days of yore and examples of regional arts and crafts including Groningen silver.
Standing 97m-high, the Martinitoren (or Martini Tower – named after the city's patron saint, St Martin) has kept a watchful eye on the city for more than five hundred years. If you want to hoof it to the top you are rewarded by views that are riveting from all angles. Locals refer to the structure as ‘d’Olle Grieze’ meaning the ‘Old Grey One’ due to the colour of the weather beaten sandstone.
A church of the same name, Martinikerk, was where – or so the story goes – pilgrims in the middle ages came to view a relic, the arm of John the Baptist. There again, several different locations lay claim to portions of John including Jerusalem, Alexandria and Bulgaria, while Damascus, Rome and Munich say they have his head.
The Martinikerk's organ has its own true claim to fame. It dates from before 1450 and is one of the Netherlands’ oldest musical instruments.
When fifty percent of the population is under 35 years old you can expect great nightlife. Nightbirds should head for the Grote Markt – the Great Market – where the whole of the south side has morphed into a huge bar complex.
De Drie Gezusters (The Three Sisters) is Europe’s largest pub. It holds 3750 people and is made up of four connected buildings which house around twenty bars. Jazz fans might want to indulge their passion at the De Spieghel in Peperstraat, while funky folks will like the Buckshot at the Zuiderdiep, open till 3am most days.
Groningen has countless festivals too. The Noorderzon is a summer highlight where over eleven days the town attracts an extra 130,000 people who come to enjoy this celebration of music, dance, visual arts, multimedia and theatre. In the second week of January, more than 250 pop acts descend on town for the Eurosonic Noorderslag festival which showcases Dutch musical talent.
Groningen has several ‘coffeeshops’, some are set up like a full service café that just happens to sell cannabis and allows patrons to smoke it. Although some also sell space cakes, pastries with the drug baked into them, alcohol is not served in any of these coffee shops and rather incongruously, smoking (normal) cigarettes is frowned upon.
In a narrow cobbled street close to a canal there is a public urinal. Granted, this isn't your usual tourist attraction, but this particular facility is not only functional but also decorative. Designed by architect Rem Koolhaas, this look-at-me public loo is a work of art, its milky coloured glass decorated with blue and black figures.
Another unusual building is the Wall House on the banks of the Hoornsemeer. It has come to be recognised as an icon for Groningen. A thick wall is its central feature while the entrance and living elements are literally attached to it. Its current function is to house artists in residence.
Then there are the almshouses, more than thirty of them. Hidden behind ornate wrought iron doors, these clusters of dwellings once provided shelter for the poor and sick. The fifteenth century St Geertruidsgasthuis has two courtyards and was originally where pilgrims stayed. The bars on some windows are reminders that part of the building was once a mental home where on Sunday evenings, patients were exhibited to the public in exchange for a fee.
Visitors can take guided walks through the inner courts of these almshouses but remember don’t peer through the windows; nowadays these are private houses.
Gilly Pickup travelled with Stobart Air in conjunction with Flybe who operate a daily service between London Southend and Groningen from £34.99 one way. Explore more of the Netherlands with the Rough Guide to the Netherlands. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, find tours and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.
Top image: Groninger Museum Netherlands © TellyVision/Shutterstock