The Fortress of the North

I live in Groningen. It's a city of about 200,000, about 50,000 of whom are students at the universities. So I sort of thought it might resemble Kitchener-Waterloo, the college town where I did my undergraduate degree, but in fact I've never been anywhere quite like this before.


The picture to the right shows the train station, the usual place you arrive in Groningen. It actually does have a small airport, though it mostly does short-hop flights (including, I'm told, one that has a very memorable landing at Innsbruck, in the Alps). The weird uneven concrete apron I was standing on to take that picture is actually the roof of a parking garage that accommodates several thousand bicycles. Because yes, there really are that many bicycles on the street. I'll point you at a lovely video about Groningen as a cycling city, but in short they put up one-way signs and otherwise rearranged traffic so that you can't drive a car from one side of the inner city to the other without going outside the canal.

Yes, Groningen has canals. They were of course the easiest way to move goods for a long time, but they also helped serve as a defense for the city. In 1672, the archbishop of Munster besieged the city as part of the Third Anglo-Dutch war. I've been told that you can still see the cannonballs embedded in one of the buildings on the Gedempte Zuiderdiep, but I don't know which one. It earned him the nickname "Bommen Berend", and there is a festival every August 28th to celebrate the lifting of the siege. I'm not sure when they knocked down the city walls, but there is a ring of newer buildings along the canal right where you would otherwise have put fortifications. The canal apparently served as a defense again when the Canadians were trying to take the city back from the Nazis; in fact, the only bridge that wasn't destroyed was the one near my house, and German machine gunners occupied buildings that are now an ING bank and an art-house cinema to try to hold them off. It's very strange, as a North American, to think of all this happening in living memory, in the place I live now. These days that circle is just a roundabout, with a weird crooked-house art installation.

The final battle to liberate Groningen happened in the Grote Markt, the Great Market, a public square that really is a market - on Saturdays it fills up with stalls selling everything from bike accessories to fabric by the yard to empanadas. And fresh stroopwafels! The nearby Vismarkt (Fish Market) is a lovely place to go browsing, from the stall with heaps of wild mushrooms to the five or six cheese stalls (all of which offer tastes of any cheese you're thinking about buying) to the fish and chips place I usually eat lunch. And the bread! If I can plan it right (fridge empty on Saturday) I pick up my bread from a bakery stall that bakes its bread on the spot in a portable oven. One week they asked me to come back in a few minutes when the bread had cooled enough that they could slice it for me.

Beyond the markets, though, there is some other good food to be found. This despite people telling me, from before I arrived, how boring Dutch food would be. Okay, not so many green chillies, and even the Indonesian food has been toned down, but they do take their mustard seriously. I like the mustard soup, and the apple pie was not exactly a tough sell. And okay, I've been spoiled by living in Montreal, near the Jean-Talon market, but there's a decent selection of foreign food on offer, even if you don't consider Germany and Belgium foreign. The Souk has a lovely selection of North African food, prepared and ingredients, and their spices are in the traditional pile-on-a-dish. There's lovely fresh French baguettes plus cheese to go with them in all the supermarkets. There are Thai and Mexican places within a couple of blocks of my house. And for beer and liquor, there are fancy shops, but my local grocery store has about five kinds of trappist beer, about five kinds of weissbier, plus the generic imports. I really can't complain.

The Grote Markt is the center of the city, presided over by the Martini tower. There's a (hideous) tourist information kiosk there, and they're building some huge no-right-angles modern monstrosity next to the Martinikerk. But on the other side of the square is a long string of bars and clubs and midnight falafel shops, extending down to the Peperstraat, where the clubs don't close down until, well, I don't know when, but I have staggered out to see the sun rising. Apparently on the weekends people come from all the little nearby villages to experience the Groningen nightlife; the first morning train is often full of dazed-looking people in evening wear.
It shows that Groningen is a student town, though. Beyond the night life, and the music scene, the place is full of art supply stores and bookshops. Plus, all within a couple of blocks, a fantasy-paraphernalia, a Warhammer, and a board-game shop. Not to mention the very cool Okaphone, which has been an electronics tinkerer's resource since that meant building your own crystal set. These days they sell Arduinos, Raspberry Pis, and LED lighting. And a little further north there's a shop that sells time on their 3D printers, laser cutters, and electronics benches. Sadly all my tinkering energy is currently used up by work.

The university is not just an undergraduate school; there is a medical school, which is perhaps one reason the hospital is quite so large and modern. Though McGill has a medical school too, and Montreal's hospitals all have that dingy run-down Canadian-hospital look. The university here also has a radio astronomy group, which means several of my fellow post-docs take a day or more a week here in Groningen. Not me; one of the downsides of living in Groningen is that I'm rather far from the Anton Pannekoek Institute, the nearest university group with people doing high-energy and pulsar work.

I wasn't sure what to expect from winter here. In fact I worried, being from Montreal, that I would miss the cold and snow. In the event, though, the few days I was in Montreal it never got above twenty below, so I got my fill of winter. In Groningen, it never got much below zero, and there was really only one snowfall. They didn't really clean it up, and in fact the brick-paved streets would be a nightmare to plow, but it melted soon enough. And by the end of February flowers were coming up.

I really like living in Groningen. It is big enough to have a nice variety of foods, some night life, and many of the things I got used to living in a city of three million, but it's small enough that I regularly bump into people I know, at a sale in an outdoor shop, or on the street on a Koopzondag. And I know from experience that if I go for a drink at the local Aussie pub there's a decent chance there will be a friend there already.

1 comment:

Roland Smith said...

Most of the beers you mentioned aren't actually Trappist bears. That's not to say they aren't tasty! :-)

IMO, a lot of Belgian beers are top notch.

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