Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Introduction to Groningen

Irish singer/songwriter, Luka Bloom, who I once met briefly after a lovely gig, wrote a song about his time in this city of Groningen. It begins:

I came into this city on a cold winter's morn,
Needing human comforts just to move along.
I sang and played the music as in many towns before,
Here I sang my heart out, you gave me so much more-
Reminding me to live and love life with a smile
And all of my frustrations became worthwhile...
....In Groningen, in Groningen
You had so many beauties I will never know,
But your peace and your wisdom help me grow...

Perhaps I hope to find the same joy. I suspect Groningen can be a most enchanting place.

My new city is not one many may have heard of outside of The Netherlands. Certainly it is not as famous as Amsterdam or Den Haag (The Hague) or even Utrecht. For those of you wondering where on earth it is that I've actually taken up residence, let me explain:

Groningen, the city, is the capital of the province of Groningen in the north of The Netherlands. While it looks like it should be pronounced, "Groan - again" (which you may well do after a visit to one of the many bars...) it is in fact pronounced thus: Guh (the "G" sounds like you are coughing up phlegm...) - rrrr (roll the "r") - then "own", and then sort of add "again" to it. All together now: Groningen!

(I never said this was going to be easy).

Despite the city's name using muscles unbeknownst to me, it is an interesting place. I came through one day at the tail end of a visit to the Netherlands many years ago at the height of spring. Which is to say, it was still cold but everyone still made a point to sit outside cafes in the sunshine. It isn't much different from any other Dutch city: canals, koffie shops (yes, those kind), sex shops and a red light district, mad cyclists, cobble stone roads, and a rather impressive church. I think why I liked it is because it still has a market town feel (much like my old home, Cambridge). It is the only big city in the north, once a large trade hub, and yet it doesn't have the same grungy feel as other large cities do. It stuck in my mind because of this. It is also a student town, full of life and fun.

In fact, students makes up a fair bit of the population. Something like half the people living in Groningen are under the age of 35. The Rijksuniversiteit Groningen is 400 years old this year and is in the top 100 universities. With loads of international students and being close to family, I thought it would be a good fit. (Though nothing is far away here - you can drive across the country in about three hours. That's insane. In Colorado it takes six hours plus to drive from one end of the state to the other!)

The Martinitoren, just over the canal from where I live, chimes the hours merrily with its 62 bells, and looks rather grand on the edge of the Grote Market (literally, Large Market). It withstood the 'Battle of Groningen' at the end of World War II, and looks a lot like the Domtoren in Utrecht, but perhaps a bit less gloomy.

There's another kerk (church) at the end of the other square in Groningen, the Vismarkt (Fish market), called the Aa-Kerk. This one is more rounded, with a smaller tower, but equally beautiful. At one end of this kerk is a huge hall that used to be a Wheat Exchange which they have now, depressingly, turned into an Albert Heijn supermarket.

City Hall and Grote Markt (empty)
At the open air markets you can find everything you'd want; the train station is a work of art in itself; there is a sort of harbour at the end (or beginning?) of the canal system with the most magnificent ships; there are millions of shops and cafes. There is one cafe called 'The News Stand' which looks just like the sort of place expatriots would go to drink strong Dutch coffee and read English newspapers. I like it a lot because they let me sit at the bar and drink tea.

There are also a few museums. Not as many as I would like, being a museum afficianado, but one mustn't be picky. There is a rather lovely Nautical Museum which gives a concise look at Groningen's maritime history. There is the Groninger Museum which has lots of paintings, photographs and sculptures. The building was designed by an Italian and is often the first look of Groningen people coming off the train get. It's right across from the station, built in the middle of the canal. I think you either find the architecture inspired or off putting. For me it is the latter, but I will give it a go. There is also, oddly, a "Strip Museum" which is full of famous Dutch comic strips. Not exactly what I imagined when I first heard of it, I must say.

There is also a huge park called Noorderplantsoen where a huge music festival takes places each summer. I think Groningen will really come alive once the temperatures go above 18C (65F). It is half an hour from the coast, and also the border with Germany. It's quite exciting living so close to a border (not that they count for much these days in the EU...). But still, it is Germany

So, plenty to explore and read up on about Groningen. They have a dialect and a strong accent in this part of the country, so now I have to train my ear all over again. Mastering another language is tricky at the best of times... I realise I haven't given a very good outline of the history of the town. It will be my homework for next time. I think I've got enough to be getting on with: museums to see and old cobble stone side streets to be explored!