Gilly Pickup pays a visit to Groningen, the Netherlands happiest city

Think of the Netherlands and the name Groningen may not spring immediately to mind. However it does have plenty to offer visitors who look beyond the traditional Dutch tourist destinations and it makes an ideal weekend break.

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At 97 metres high, the Martini Tower has kept an eye on the city for more than five hundred years. I would love to say I’d climbed it and gazed with wonder from the top, but I can’t, not being in any way a fan of heights. Anyway, those of my group who did were apparently rewarded by king-of-the-world views far and wide.

The structure is known locally as ‘d’Olle Grieze’ meaning the ‘Old Grey One’ because hundreds of years of wind and sun have weathered it to a greyish colour. The nearby church, Martini Kerk, has as its claim to fame an organ dating before 1450, making it one of the Netherlands oldest musical instruments. Besides that, it is the only organ in the world that still has its original 32-foot principal pipes, built in the late 1600s. The name ‘Martini’ by the way, has nothing to do with the drink but refers to Saint Martin, the city’s patron saint.

Another look-at-me medieval edifice is the 11th century Aa-Kerk, its lofty, vaulted dark blue ceilings dotted with hundreds of golden stars. In the nave a simple poem in a frame commemorates the Canadian soldiers who liberated Groningen in 1945.

Then there are the city’s charming medieval almshouses. Tucked away behind ornate doors, these clusters of houses once provided shelter for the poor, sick and old. Although people now live there, the courtyards have open access and frequent tours are held.

However Groningen, although ancient, has a young heart. Indeed, where 50% of a city’s population is under 35 years old thanks to its university and thriving student life, you can expect plenty of nightlife, buzzy bars and restaurants. Night birds tend to head for the Grote Markt – the Great Market – where the whole of the south side has morphed into a huge bar complex. The Ellebogenbuurt is where to find bar/restaurant Soestdijk; legend tells that this was where many a prince of the Orange household courted his future princess. Jazz fans might want to indulge their passion at the De Spieghel in Peperstraat, while funky folks should head for the Buckshot at the Zuiderdiep. Early bed is for wimps in this town and most bars and clubs are open till around 3 a.m.

Those who want to hit the shops can make for the street named ‘Kijk in ‘t Jat’ where shoppers can ricochet from vintage shops and specialist stores to bakeries and cafes. ‘Black & Bloom’ is a specialty coffee shop offering wonderful blends including ‘Maltesers Latte’ and an ‘Oreo Cookie Special’ while just down the road, the shop ‘Bij Britta’ is where you can grind your own coffee at your table. Tea drinkers aren’t ignored either. The shop has a ‘sniffing wall’ with hundreds of small boxes of various tea blends. A sniffing wall? Yes, because that means you select what you want by its aroma.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by bicycles in Groningen. The centre is almost car-free with a network of bus lanes and cycle paths and abundant cycle parking. ‘Groningen is the bicycle capital of the world’ say some locals. It certainly looks as if it might be, to my mind beating Amsterdam hands – or spokes – down in that respect. It is certainly remarkable that students can find their own cycle from hundreds outside the pub at dawn and even more remarkable that they manage to get home without killing anybody.

The Groninger Museum designed by Italian architect Alessandro Mendini is the city’s flagship museum. The bizarrely-shaped building itself is a work of art, sitting on islands in the middle of a canal. A colourful mosaic staircase leads to permanent exhibitions including paintings from the Golden Age and an eye-catching collection of local silver. While there, we visited a temporary exhibition which runs until November 2015. Entitled, ‘Art is life, Life is Art’ by Chinese artist Song Dong, it is a chronology of his life. It includes a world map made entirely from Dutch sweets (visitors can pick them up to eat) and an installation of household effects which his mother amassed while abiding by the communist dictum of living thriftily. The installation is called ‘Waste Not’ and consists of 10,000 items carefully arranged by functions. Sub-collections include dishes, soft toys, cutlery and empty toothpaste tubes.

Quirky undoubtedly, but then Groningen does quirky rather well.

Take the hexagonal tower of St Josef Kerk for instance. However you look at it, you always see two clocks, hence the reason locals refer to it as ‘the drunkard’s tower’ because you might think you are seeing double. Then there is the Wall House which has as its central feature a thick wall which appears to be freestanding, though it is supported with a glass connection to the living elements which are attached to the outside. Groningen is also home to Ultra, the tallest woman in the Netherlands; she is eight metres tall. It seems that no-one really knows what this work of art is supposed to represent. Beauty perhaps? She is certainly striking with her luxurious mane of hair, long neck and sweeping eyelashes, but then again maybe not because her legs are too short – you can see them dangling behind her full skirt, while her ridiculously long stainless steel arms reach to the ground.

Weird and wonderful Groningen, the residents love it. Research shows that 97% of inhabitants are satisfied with living there and what’s more, it is the highest ranking city for quality of life in the Netherlands. The locals have a saying ‘Er gaat niets boven Groningen’ which loosely translates as ‘Nothing beats Groningen’. You know, they could be right.

Factbox
Stobart Air in conjunction with Flybe operates a daily service between London Southend and Groningen with prices from £34.99 one way. For more information see www.flybe.com.

While in Groningen, stay at the central situated Hotel de Ville www.nh-hotels.com/hotel/nh-groningen-hotel-de-ville

More on visiting Holland at www.holland.com/uk