Eating and exploring Groningen, Scot Whitlock eventually got cycling .... but don't mention Amsterdam.
I was completely in love with the Netherlands before my trip to Groningen. The pragmatic approach to life is one that consumes all that are lucky enough to visit. My experience was to be short; I only had a full day to explore. My journey began in the laid back surroundings of London Southend Airport; the surreal tranquil setting is in complete contrast to the usual chaotic offerings of an international departure point. I was in the air for just over an hour and we descended into bright blue skies and buoyant sunlight.
Like other Dutch cities, you are immediately exposed to a cavalcade of cycling and cyclists, cars are at a premium, the city is definitely ruled by the bike. All ages, genders, smart or casual dress, there is no rules, just the simple pleasures of two wheels.
My hotel was central to everything and everyone, the Asgard sells itself as a green, environmentally conscious property with a trendy youthful interior, decorated with natural elements. The building dates back to 1935 and blends the old and new perfectly.
Dinner was a gastronomic explosion of traditional Dutch fare, no menu just plates of beautifully constructed food chosen by my jovial host at the Brasserie Midi conveniently located on the renowned Folkingestraat (credited as being the nicest shopping street in the whole of the Netherlands 2015) Folkingestraat 42, 9711 JX Groningen - 050 - 55 321 58.
I retired early with my already heavily pawed city map, the city’s geographic makeup promotes exploration, the old part is protected effectively by a mass of water. Known as the Diepenring it was created in the Middle Ages and covers approximately three kilometres, easily manageable by bike and foot.
I awoke early with the city stuck to my face. After a hearty breakfast, I had a meeting with Annebel from Marketing Groningen at Het Feithhuis. She explained passionately the history of the city, bizarrely it is not uncommon for the surroundings to tremor from earthquakes, which is evident with several buildings being refurbished to make them quake proof. Over coffee, we were joined by Pamela who was to show me the city on a guided walk and then a ride north of the city. The heat was now overpowering.
The city is a historical feast, and Pamela’s enthusiasm and passion was infectious. We encountered a multitude of historical places, among which the House of Province and the Prinsenhof were the highlights. In the middle ages, Groningen was a mecca for pilgrims, due to a relic in the Martini church: the arm of John the Baptist. This influx of visitors generated the construction of no less than 32 guest houses (hofjes in Dutch) in the city. However, during the iconoclasm, 18 arms of John the Baptist were discovered throughout Europe. After a light lunch at Het Feithhuis, it was time to stretch the legs, to be fair it was much overdue. However the heat was more of a concern than the potential of a tremor.
We hired our bikes from Fietsverda Groningen, Poelestraat 56, 9712 KC Groningen
email@example.com, +31 50 – 311430, our steeds were stereotypical Dutch, the only thing missing unfortunately was a basket.
We set off through the quiet streets, increasingly dominated by semi clad locals enjoying the sun. Our destination was the Reitdiep, the waters lie north of the city and offer a unique ancient environment. We had already experienced the Reitdiep in the city, at the Hoge (High) der A and Lage (Low) der A. These are two streets that run parallel, with the Reitdiep in the centre. As long as Groningen had an open connection with the sea (until 1877), ships had to take into account the tides in the city! During low tide, they could not moor at the Hoge der A, but had to choose the Lage der A instead. Otherwise, the ships would lie very low to the water, in fact too low to leave the ship.
In the north of the city we crossed the Zernike Campus. Groningen is a city of students; 25 percent of its inhabitants are students, hence the mass of bikes. Just a short ride from the urban setting you are exposed to mass of greenery and a waterscape of unparalleled beauty. The routes are well signed and the surface is exemplary, it was good to see plenty of octogenarian’s enjoying the fine weather and the pedalling. The concentration of obvious retirees was surprising but commendable and highlights the Dutch obsession with cycling. It’s no wonder I adore this country so much!
The landscape is enhanced by the occasional windmill, their sails a theatrical addition to the horizon. Most of the mills have unfortunately become redundant, replaced by modern (less romantic) alternatives. However, some are still in good order and synonymous with people’s perception of the Netherlands, not to mention clogs, tulips and perfectly spoken English!
Mills in the Netherlands are in the capable hands of volunteer millers, all of whom have acquired extensive knowledge in their maintenance, the weather and how to handle the large and powerful structures. There is a national Guild of Volunteering Millers (Gilde van Vrijwillige Molenaars: http://www.vrijwilligemolenaars.nl/), and every province has its own miller magazine. For Groningen, this is De Zelfzwichter – named after a system called ‘spring sails’, which was invented by Andrew Meikle, a Scottish mechanical engineer and millwright, in 1772. Mills with spring sails are typical in Groningen (since 1891), hence the name of the magazine.
We pedalled over countless cattle grids, the local bovine inhabitants completely oblivious to our presence. The occasional ‘moo’ the only interaction. We stopped at the tranquil church in Oostum, the shade was a welcome distraction, the views of the open countryside were mesmerising. Continuing at a fairly sedate pace, we halted in Garnwerd on the banks of the waters, and in the shadows of a meticulously restored and maintained windmill called ‘De Meeuw’, which translates as the seagull. History dictates that a local man called Jan Rijzinga hid from the Nazis in the mill, eventually the Germans searched the structure, however Jan clambered onto the roof to escape, unbeknown to the soldiers, but in a romantic fashion his fiancee, Dieuwke Schaap was the only one aware of his lofty location. The mill has saved the lives of several people in hiding (though not all survived). Reciprocally, the mill has been saved several times by the inhabitants of Garnwerd.
The waters at Garnwerd used to be salt but are now fresh due to extensive water pump systems at Zoutkamp in the west of the province. As a result, there are no more tides in Groningen. However, there are still several small harbours in the city, which are visited twice annually by hundreds of ships during nautical events.
Next on our adventure was the village church,. Like so many it has a tale to tell. An organ was due to be shipped to Aduard, unfortunately the ship transporting the instrument got stuck in the ice, the inhabitants of nearby Aduarderzijl helped the captain and somehow persuaded him to bring it to Garnwerd.
From Garnwerd, the watery extravaganza continued, as I was exposed to a unique journey on a ferry at Aduarderzijl. The captain and his humorous wife happily accommodate bikes and enthusiastically abused this Englishman, all in good nature. I don’t think I helped with my vocal appreciation for Amsterdam, however the banter was a great distraction from the sun and I thankfully didn’t feel the potential of a bucket of refreshing cold canal water, promised on every mention of Amsterdam.
As we headed back to the city, the distinctive crown of the Martini Tower was luring us in. At a height of 96.8 metres, the Olle Grieze (the old grey one) is undoubtedly the highest tower in Groningen, it’s not difficult to imagine the structure being a beacon for pilgrims from all over the world.
Dinner was expertly provided by Eetcafé,
Schuitendiep 70, 9711 RG Groninige. Once again I was in heaven, the food was a Dutch ensemble, to be fair I had been spoilt and slightly confused by the Dutch palate.
PUBLISHED JULY 2016