City of contradictions
A very distinctive thing about the Northern city is also one of its major contradictions. Groningen never backed away from development or modernity (perhaps due to its heritage from the times of the Hanseatic League ), but managed to preserve a unique face. As a result, the city combines seemingly unfitting sights as easy as a cocktail mixer. Unlike other Dutch places, more or less drowning into pop culture, here the spirit of the Middle Ages is to be felt best, but always with a touch of today’s world. No bar, cafeteria or public office in Groningen is built by demolishing the previous building – instead, the new is integrated in the old and benefits from it remarkably.
Even the quite ugly regular building of the (recently bankrupted) V&D store chain doesn’t look that bad! A good example of such clash of history and modernity may be shocking to many, but is a casual event up North – the central church, Martinikerk, hosts regular parties, concerts and cocktails.
A night out in Groningen
Speaking about clubs and parties, the place is Peperstraat. Otherwise short and narrow backstreet, it offers an impressive variation and mixture for any taste, including for those willing to experience how does it feel like to pass a metal detector before entering a club.
On the “fun axis” Peperstraat – Grote Markt many places make you wonder how come that many people can fit on this small space (some bars are truly very tiny) – part of the experience is to be caught in the throng. Ironically, Europe’s largest bar (De Drie Gezusters) is located in the very center of this same city. Whenever you are sick of one crowd, you can move to the next one in a blink of an eye. In some clubs, you can just change the floor and find a completely different world in music and ambiance. That’s why bar hopping is so popular around there.
A big city, relatively separated from others, where the most vivid group of people is there only temporarily, can easily be abused. But this seems to have never been the case with Groningen, as if everyone who has ever set foot there was handed a code of conduct. The party peak is of course on weekends and at the end of an exam period (the city is after all, run by the most active of its inhabitants, the students). In the rest of the time, Groningen keeps you calm and comfortable. The capitol of the province is both impressively large and conveniently cozy – you can get your everyday dose of crowds at Grote Markt’s always busy cafes but you can also get completely (and willingly) lost, say, while jogging, in the Stadspark’s peaceful alleys, or while biking along the long straight lines down towards the Zernike campus. You can have all the unpretentiousness and simplicity of a packed hamburgers and coffee in plastic cups around the university library and in the cafeteria of the lovely Harmonie building nearby. But should you crave for some soul food and culture, it’s just a step away, around and along A-weg – elegant buildings, quiet flowery streets, charming cafes and galleries, canals harboring magnificent ships, which look as if taken out of a pirate novel.
Still feeling small or lost in Groningen? Then look for a place close to your home culture – there must be at least one, if not exactly the same, close enough. Seems like everyone who has ever been around there felt the absolute necessity to leave a trace. This counts for both multispread cultures – Italian, Spanish, French, and for smaller ones, to be found in the many grocery stores from nearly anywhere in Europe. Some come from quite distant places – an Australian bar comes first in mind. As called by Toerisme Groningen, this is the most Italian city north of the Alps . But the nickname could very successfully be attached to any other culture. In no other major city of The Netherlands, cultural/national communities are that active and visible, often drastically different, yet existing in pure unison. A simple scroll through a designated student associations’ page of the University of Groningen will give you the idea – African, Asian, Turkish, British communities…
There is no way to present an all-embracing picture of the far north of The Netherlands. And is, in fact, not needed – a personal view is, after all, very subjective. The usual cliché would go something like “you need to experience it yourself”. True that, and highly recommended (the least because one cannot be indifferent to the fact that there is so much life there!). But be aware – Groningen is indeed an enclave, and goes by its own rules. It’s not a place for a non-Dutch, who wants to dip in a comfy expat/international student life (it’s not such place also for many Dutchies! Outsiders are instantly noticeable). It doesn’t offer you a carefree existence in a bubble of your own world transferred to another country. It offers you much more than that, if you have the guts – a realistic, full-scale plunge in the Dutch life as is done in the Low Lands. No escapes or short routes – Schiphol is two hours away, there are no major international organizations settled there to offer you a shoulder, it doesn’t work to change it for a nearby big city. The many communities and delicious foreign food shops know that very well – everyone is part of a complete picture, not an unfitting appendix. Groningen gives you the whole stuff of a true Dutch life outside the postcards, the clogs, the tulips, the waffles – realistic and beautiful in its functionality and small things, in its cultural characteristics and worldview. It’s not about “you need to experience it yourself”, there is a much better expression for the city of the North – wanna go full Dutch? Go to Groningen.