After cycling to (and around) Amsterdam, I put the bike on a train (three, in fact) to Groningen, to make a flying visit to this relatively remote part of the Netherlands that I’d not seen before. It’s flat (of course) and agricultural, and quieter than the Randstad, the area between Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam and the North Sea that is the economic powerhouse of the Netherlands. Groningen is the country’s largest city north of Amsterdam, and a major educational centre (perhaps a quarter of the populace are students), so there’s plenty to do in the evenings.




 I was drawn particularly by the Groningen Museum, a post-modern riot opened in 1994 which covers both art and a bit of local history. There’s a small but excellent display of 25 archeological and historical objects which (in the style of Neil MacGregor) illustrate the area’s entire history from 10,000 BC (when reindeer hunters wandered across much of what is now the North Sea) via a brief Roman incursion, to medieval Christianity (when there were at least thirty monasteries here), conversion to Calvinism and then a brutal assault by the Bishop of Münster in 1672. There was also a larger display (temporary, I think) covering the city’s liberation in April 1945, by units with strange names such as the Fort Garry Horse – the Canadians stuck to the left flank of the allied armies after D-Day, pushing up the coast, which explains why so many Dutch girls migrated to Canada immediately after the war, and not to Britain or the USA. The regular Wehrmacht troops defending Groningen soon gave up but the SS did not and there was heavy fighting for four days before the city was liberated; unfortunately the civilian population insisted on coming out to meet their liberators (often bearing coffee and snacks) and many were caught in crossfire, no fewer than 110 being killed (and just 43 Canadians).

 On the art side, they’ve always been keen to be controversial, as in a 1996 poster of a woman peeing into a man’s mouth. It’s not immediately obvious, but in the West Pavilion there’s a fine little collection of Old Master paintings from Northern Europe, with lots of portraits of worthies (one by Cranach the Elder), a tiny Adoration of the Magi by Rubens and his sketch for a painting for Antwerp Town Hall (now in the Prado in Madrid), and a Man in a Helmet by the Circle of Rembrandt. There’s also lots of silver, and works by HW Mesdag and Jozef Israëls, who were both born in Groningen but moved south to become members of the Den Haag School of realist painters.

 In the twentieth century Groningen was known for a group of painters known as De Ploeg, meaning both The Plough and The Team. Founded in 1918, they were influenced by Van Gogh and then by Expressionism – Jan Wiegers travelled to Davos in 1920 and met Kirchner, and he, Alida Pott, her husband George Martens, Jan Altink, Johann Dijkstra and Hendrik Werkmann (who was active in the resistance and was shot by the Nazis just three days before Groningen was liberated) all produced excellent work. Another pavilion, displaying Applied Arts, was designed by Philippe Starck, with lots of gauze curtains; there’s an eclectic range of beautiful domestic items, for those that care about such things.

 The Groninger Museum has an outpost called Wall House #2 that I would have liked to visit, but it’s only open at weekends. It’s a very striking modernist house that was designed in the 1970s by New York architect John Quentin Hejduk, who had designed the original Wall House for a site in Connecticut, although it was never built. However Groningen’s city planners had the very clever idea of building it here, and it was completed in 2001, the year of Hajduk’s death. Another museum worth a look is the Northern Maritime Museum, in two fifteenth-century buildings in the city centre.

The Northern Maritime Museum, Groningen

 The north side of the Grote Markt (the main square) and some of the east side were destroyed in the fighting of 1945 and have largely been rebuilt, but with some very striking modern intrusions, notably The Forum Groningen just to the east of the square. It’s a cultural centre consisting of a library, an arthouse cinema, an outpost of the Groninger Museum, a tourist information office (called the Groninger Store), and bars and a rooftop terrace – it opened in 2019, after a two-year delay due to a risk of earthquakes after decades of natural gas extraction in the region. At the north-eastern corner of the square is the Martinitoren (St Martin’s Tower – nothing to do with James Bond’s favourite drink), a massive belfry, built in 1469-82, that dwarves the attached St Martin’s church. It’s possible to go up the 97-metres-high tower for views of the city – book at the Groningen Store.

The Forum Groningen and the Martinitoren

 Diagonally opposite it is the Stadhuis (City Hall, 1775-1810), the Neoclassical façade of which was hidden behind a screen with the image of that same façade on it – clearly some refurbishment work is going on behind. Then I saw the Korenbeurs (Grain Exchange), just to the west on the Aakerkhof, another Neoclassical building hidden by a screen bearing an image of… you guessed it. More refurbishment going on. The adjacent Aakerk (now used for concerts and events) is interesting because Groningen’s river is called the A, but the riverside quarter’s church is the Aakerk, for some odd linguistic reason.


 There’s more redevelopment going on out in the western suburbs, where the Suikerfabriek (Sugar Factory) site has been taken over by a range of alternative and youth-oriented cultural organisations, including lively bars and restaurants in and outside the former industrial buildings, and others such as the Rebel Rebel Hostel in stacked shipping containers. There was also a Ferris Wheel when I was there, but I don’t know if it’s permanent. Modern buildings are going up at the east end of Suikerlaan (by the ring road), and I imagine there’s pressure to develop the whole site. For the time being, see here (Dutch only) to know what’s going on; and if there’s nothing at the sugar factory, try the pudding factory or the machine factory, nearer the city centre. The liveliest student bars are on the Grote Markt, Poelestraat, the Vismarkt and Peperstraat – look out for beer from Baxbier Brewery (English info here and here) or De Prael.

 The best restaurants are by the canal just east of the centre, such as De Smederi, Eetcafé ‘t Zwarte Schaap and 2 Jongens uit Groningen eetcafé – when I was there they were all short-staffed but full (be sure to book) and none were great for vegetarians. Just west of the centre, Pizza Napoli is big and full of students, known for its well-loaded pizzas, and of course fine for vegetarians.

Getting around Groningen in a green way

Around 60% of all journeys in Groningen are done by bike and 57% of residents cycle to work – this is one of the highest levels in the world, but to be honest Groningen felt to me much like any other Dutch city in this respect. There’s plenty of good cycle infrastructure, but the key has been modal filtering, or Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, which have become a bit of a dirty word (ok, phrase) in the UK thanks to the machinations of the right-wing fossil fuel lobby. In fact people can get anywhere by car (and car ownership is pretty high in the Netherlands), but not necessarily by the most direct route, whereas of course cyclists and pedestrians can go directly to their destinations, and the filtered streets are peaceful and people-friendly.

 At least half the buses in and around Groningen are electric (you may see them charging their batteries via roof-mounted pantographs at some terminals) and hydrogen-powered buses are also being introduced – by 2030 the province’s bus fleet should be 100% carbon dioxide-free. Meanwhile in April 2021 Arriva started introducing a fleet of WINK (Wandelbarer Innovativer Nahverkehrs-Kurzzug or Convertible innovative short train for local transport) trains on the unelectrified rail network around Groningen – these are fuelled by vegetable oil that has been used for cooking, while in 2024 hydrogen-powered trains will also enter service on the line from Leer in Germany. When I left Groningen for Bremen, I took this route, but had to transfer to a bus to cross the border from Weener to Leer (fortunately I had a folding bike) – this was because the Friesen bridge, across the Ems river, was destroyed by a ship in 2015. Only in mid-2021 was a final agreement reached to replace it by 2024, at a cost of €125 million, about  double the initial estimates – the opening will be wider than before, and there’ll also be a pedestrian and cycle track.

[I’ll add more photos when WordPress decides to play nicely – for some reason I can only add small blurry photos at the moment.]

The Via Francigena – by e-bike from Siena to Roma

It’s easy to think nowadays that the Camino de Santiago has always been Europe’s pre-eminent pilgrimage trail, but other routes across the continent were just as important for centuries before the relics of St James were miraculously moved to northern Spain, and now, as the various caminos have become too busy and indeed something of a cliché, they are being rediscovered as an alternative option. (And let’s not forget that the Camino de Santiago itself was largely forgotten for many centuries – even in the early 1980s it only saw a few thousand pilgrims per year.) A couple of months ago I was in Conques and Mont Saint-Michel, both important pilgrimage sites before Santiago de Compostella became so dominant (and they both survived as stopping points on routes to Santiago). But foremost among these is, naturally, the main route to Rome, the city of the Popes, from northwestern Europe, known as the Via Francigena or French Way.

 It would be a long walk from Canterbury to Rome, but a great cycle ride – the most exciting section (leaving aside the challenge of crossing the Alps) is the last one, through Tuscany and Lazio to the Holy City. And what’s more, it’s now possible to ride this route with an e-bike. A one-way rental package allows you to drop the bike off in Rome, with accommodation and baggage transfers booked in advance – my friends at Live Breathe Hike do a great job of this. This ticks a lot of boxes, but can lead to a certain loss of flexibility, especially if you double up the shorter stages at the end, as I did. When I first cycled around the hill-towns of Tuscany, several decades ago, it was fantastic, but for the first couple of days we kept fuming, ‘Oh WHY do the hill-towns have to be on top of the hills?!’. Naturally, with an e-bike it’s easy to cruise up to the hill-towns, but in fact the Via Francigena route largely sticks to the valleys, apart from overnights in San Quirico d’Orcia and Radicofani, and you’d have to tinker with the itinerary to visit (and perhaps stay overnight in) other hill-towns. Montalcino would be the most obvious one, followed by Castiglione d’Orcia, while Pienza is fantastic but a bit more of a deviation. On the other hand, Buonconvento, which is on the Via Francigena, was a bit underwhelming. And Lucignano d’Arbia, which is tiny but lovely, is right in the valley but separated from the Via Francigena by a river – it would be an easy deviation on quiet roads and tracks, however.

Heading south towards Castiglione d’Orcia

 The Val d’Orcia was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2004 (following Siena, which was listed in 1995), and in 2020 the Via Francigena in Italy itself became an official candidate for listing (‘There goes the neighbourhood’, said my friend who lives on the Via, while I have my own doubts about WHL inflation). The rationale for the listing of the Val d’Orcia is that it developed as a bread-basket for the city-state of Siena, and then when that was taken over by Firenze (Florence) it stagnated and was thus preserved over the next four centuries. Renaissance artists portrayed the valley’s beauty, presenting it as a utopian ideal of the well-managed landscape, with small farms producing a mix of grain, vines, olives, fruit, and vegetables, as well as hay meadows and grazing. I made the minimal deviation to the fortified granary of Cuna, but admired the fortified hill-top  farms without riding up to them. Meanwhile the pilgrim traffic on the Via Francigena has left abbeys and resting-places for pilgrims, such as the Castello di Spedaletto, now an agriturismo (rural B&B) with a pasta mill. It’s a useful reminder that almost all of Europe’s landscapes are man-made, one way or another, and if the green desert of the Lake District can be granted World Heritage status, why not the Val d’Orcia?

 Anyway, I started from Siena, but there’s a good case for starting further north in Lucca, a lovely walled town full of cyclists – you’d pass through San Miniato and Poggibonsi (but perhaps overnighting in the less attractive Castelfiorentino). Siena, of course, is a wonderful historic centre of art, history and gastronomy where I’ve spent time in the past, but on this occasion I just had a brief evening wander through the centre. Heading south, I was very soon cycling on gravel roads through classic Chiantishire countryside (yes, the Chianti region is to the north of Siena, but the area just south fits the scenic cliché, with its rows of cypresses, wheat fields, olive groves, vineyards and blue remembered hills). However, on the second and third days, the southern end of Tuscany turned out to be much less densely populated, and rather on the dry side for agriculture, I’d have thought.

View towards La Selvella from the fortezza of Radicofani

 The highlight in terms of food and accommodation was La Selvella, an agroturismo outside Radicofani which is an impressive organic farm and also a rallying point for local female entrepreneurs and others working to boost the local economy and stop young people from leaving – all of which seems to be going very well. It’s a lovely spot, and the food is spectacular (including something like a small Cornish pasty, which I’ve not seen in Italy before – and yes, I do know about calzone and panzarotti).

 Crossing a low ridge, I entered Lazio, the region surrounding Rome, and soon arrived at Proceno, another cute little hill-town – this area is much less well-known than Tuscany (and much less visited) but there’s plenty to see. There are some big lakes (and the town of Bolsena, on the lake of the same name, was a highlight) and then there’s Viterbo, the largest and most interesting town between Siena and Rome, at least on this route. Arriving on a gravel track that ended suddenly at a bypass and a new retail park, the sudden onslaught of motor traffic was a bit of a shock, and the road surface was terrible (not to mention the one-way system in the old town). But it’s a lovely place, full of history and fine buildings (with distinctive external staircases) – it was the seat of Frederick Barbarossa and then of the popes from the thirteenth century, and is still the main centre of military aviation in Italy, with Merlin helicopters buzzing around just as they do over my family home in Cornwall.

The loggia of the papal palace, Viterbo

 From here to Rome the route largely follows the ancient Via Cassia, with a couple of stretches of Roman paving still in use, as well as a lot of gravel tracks, and it seems to be downhill for a surprisingly large part of the way to the capital. In Tuscany there are often separate routes for walkers and cyclists on the Via Francigena (overall I think the cycling route is likely to be closer to the original, as walkers are diverted away from roads), and both are well signposted; but in Lazio they mostly follow the same route, which is poorly signed – look out for tiny blue and white markers (and GPS, of course).

A Via Francigena route sign on an actual Roman road south of Montefiascone

 The approach to Rome itself is far more pleasant than you might expect – there are no sprawling suburbs, and then from Labaro station there’s a remarkably quiet cycle route on a flood levee alongside the Tiber. The final stage to the Vatican is on a good-quality segregated cycleway with light-controlled crossings that only ends a few blocks short of St Peter’s Basilica, journey’s end of the Via Francigena. Although in fact a week later I was way down south in Taranto and Lecce and was surprised to see references to the Via Francigena there – evidently some pilgrims, having made it to Rome, pushed on to the southern ports to catch a ship towards Jerusalem. That would take a few weeks even on an e-bike.

 I had a very enjoyable ride from Siena to Roma, but I was very aware that this wouldn’t really be a good trip for a total beginner, despite the general image of e-bikes needing no effort or experience at all. In this case, there’s a lot of loose gravel, and some of it on steep descents that I took very carefully (there are some horribly corrugated sections too). And of course an e-bike is actually an electro-assisted bike – you really do have to pedal, the battery just gives you a lift up the hills and an extra couple of kilometres per hour on the level – unless you opt for sport or turbo settings and drain the battery in half a day. Almost everywhere I stayed let me simply plug the bike in to charge it overnight – only once did I have to actually remove the battery and charge it in my room (along with camera battery, phone and laptop, of course….).

In San Quirico d’Orcia