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 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.
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.]