What you should not miss in Groningen
The northernmost tip of the country: De Hemelpoort (Heaven’s Gate)
The northernmost tip of The Netherlands is located in Groningen, at the Noordkaap to be exact. This special place, where a few more steps to the north will put you on the mud flats, is marked by the 2.5-metre high ‘De Hemelpoort’ work of art. The Heaven’s Gate is at a desolate place on top of the dyke and provides a magnificent view of the surrounding area, with the Wadden on the one hand and the Groningen countryside with its sheep and wind mills on the other.
You might think that this impressive view would also explain the name of Heaven’s Gate, but this is by no means the case. The gate consists of four pillars you can stand between and look up to, indeed, heaven. The work of art was created by René de Boer from Usquert. De Boer consciously chose to create the sculpture from corten steel, a very weatherproof material, the rust colour of which resembles the colour of earth.
Amsterdam school in Delfzijl
Except for Amsterdam, there is no other place or region in The Netherlands where the Amsterdam school style is seen as much as in the province of Groningen, and mainly in Delfzijl, where in the 1920s and 1930s an entire residential area was constructed according to the Expressionist style. The district is called Oud-West, and is also known as the Zeeheldenbuurt because some of the streets and squares were named after old sea heroes. The district includes dozens of houses and buildings in the Amsterdam school style. Characteristic of this style is the use of bricks and the decorations in the façades, also mainly brick or stone. Another distinct feature are the ladder-type windows, steep roofs and turrets. The Delfzijl Tourist Information Office has a walking route available that takes in 36 houses and buildings. The route is 2.5 kilometres long.
The highest climbing wall in Europe
At the Bjoeks climbing centre, literally nothing tops Groningen, because it has the highest climbing tower in Europe. The Excalibur – the name of the tower – is 37 metres high and hangs over 11 metres. Climbing it is quite the challenge, but luckily you are not required to climb back down right away: you can simply spend the night on top of the tower. If one single day of climbing is not enough, you can also pitch your tent at the foot of the tower. The Excalibur is suitable for experienced climbers only. Those who are less experienced can climb in the Bjoeks indoor halls with various climbing walls, the highest one of which is 18 metres. Another option is bouldering, climbing at a low altitude. There is a small bouldering hall indoor and outside is a giant bouldering wall measuring 450 square metres and a bouldering park with over 200 boulders fixed in concrete.
White-tailed eagle in the Lauwersmeer National Park
When entering the Lauwersmeer National Park via the N361, you see a giant white-tailed eagle by the side of the road. Not the real specimen, but instead a profile of the bird of prey cut from a steel plate. This immediately shows the immense size of the white-tailed eagle: the flying door, another name for the bird, can reach a wingspan of about two metres and a length of one metre. With a bit of luck you may see one in the wild here, because white-tailed eagles brood in the Lauwersmeer area since 2010. Around the Lauwersmeer lake are various birdwatcher’s huts from which you can spot the white-tailed eagle or one of the many other bird species in this nature reserve.
Hanging kitchens in Appingedam
There are only three, but nevertheless among the most frequently photographed spots in Groningen: the hanging kitchens over the Damsterdiep in Appingedam. Only two cities in the province of Groningen date back to the Middle Ages: the city of Groningen and Appingedam, which in 1972 received the designation of conservation area. The city centre features numerous mediaeval buildings, with the three hanging kitchens and the bridges over the Damsterdiep as the highlights. The reason for building the kitchens over the water was sheer lack of space. They probably date from 1877, because once the Eemskanaal was opened, the Damsterdiep became a less important shipping route. Tip for photographers: walk to the bridge at the Kniestraat, where you can see the kitchens best to photograph them.
Walking and playing in the De Heemtuin
The Heemtuin in Muntendam is a gigantic scenic area measuring about 50 hectares and which hosts various activities. This is a wonderful hiking area in any case which includes heathland, wooded areas and sand flats as well as water. There is the Mammoth path for young visitors; an exciting hiking route with all kinds of wooden obstacles on and beside the water. Children can play and horse around in the nature playground and in the small animal garden, which features a real worm tunnel, so this is the ultimate place for them go on an exploratory expedition.
A walk is even more fun with forest bingo, for which children set out with their bingo card. And as soon as the find one of the plants or animals that are on the card, they can yell: bingo! The area also includes various ‘do cabinets’ with assignments related to nature.
Dogs are welcome in De Heemtuin. Indeed there is a special hiking route for the four-footed friends and their bosses, ‘De Natte Neuzen-route’ (the wet nose route). The route is about 3.5 kilometres long and the dogs can run free and play in the wooded area or in the water.
Once you have done enough playing or walking, go to the pavilion, which is open all year for a drink and snack. The pavilion also has a tiny shop that sells regional products, such as Hannies Hakhoning chopped honey and special table salt.
Niehove: a typical Groningen ancient artificial dwelling hill village
The ancient artificial dwelling hill village of Niehove is a typical Groningen village. The village, a protected rural area, has a long history. It was once an island: after the Lauwerszee developed circa 800, Niehove (called Suxwort at the time), came to be on the island of Humsterland and it became the chief town of it. It was not before 1500 that dykes connected Humsterland to the mainland.
In the centre of the village and on its highest point is the 13th-century church, encircled by all of the houses in two rows with their backs to the surrounding countryside. This is also referred to as a radial lay-out.
Despite its tiny size (Niehove only has circa 300 residents), the village does have a visitors centre and even a café with a restaurant. Niehove church is not always open, but if you would like to have a look inside, you can simply borrow the key from the neighbours.
Het Waarhuis, which was built in 1706, is magnificently located in the north of Groningen on the junction of the ancient Aduarderdiep canal and the original Reitdiep, one of the oldest existing meanders in Europe.
The listed building has had various functions through the centuries. In ancient times, this was where the ‘schepperij’, the predecessor of the current district water board administered justice. In later times, whether or not legal, the occasional drink was served to bargemen, cattle roamed and vegetables were grown.
The bargemen now belong to the past, but the cattle are back and drinks are served again too, because today ’t Waarhuis is a small cultural paradise where exhibitions, concerts, dinners and cabaret performances take place and where people can get married. It is inhabited by ‘The King and the Lady’, or musician Wouter de Koning and singer Rita Dijkstra.
Smallest hotel in the world
You might think that hiring an entire hotel is reserved for the richest people in the world, but anyone could actually do it in Eenrum, where there is a hotel with just one room: De Kromme Raake, the smallest hotel in the world.
In addition to a breakfast kitchen, the Art Deco-style hotel also has a living room and foyer. Hotel guests sleep in a king-size box bed.
King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima almost spent their wedding night at the hotel. They were invited, but had already booked another hotel. Their reaction, including a picture, is above the oven.
The hotel has not gone unnoticed in China: De Kromme Raake once featured the front page of the South China Morning Post.
Church door locked? Go to the neighbours for the key
If you have come to visit one of the special churches and find the doors locked, no problem: for many churches in the province, a key can be obtained from the neighbours, allowing you to explore an ancient church by yourself and at your leisure. Sometimes you can get your own drink or play the organ.
So if you find the doors locked, you will find a note next to the door with the name of the neighbours who have a key.
A divine view of the mudflats
It is all equally magnificent: the surroundings, the monumental church and the gigantic chandelier by Studio Job. But there is nothing like the view from the Hornhuizen church tower. In the distance is the Wadden Sea and on clear days you might see the island of Schiermonnikoog and Simonszand, Rottumerplaat and Rottumeroog to the east.
The church tower can be seen from afar, because the upper part of the tower is covered in ‘Groningen gold’, a deep yellow to resemble leaf gold. The colour refers to the past, when the tower still functioned as a lighthouse for the ships on the Wadden Sea. In those days, no large lighthouse lamps were available yet, so a fire was lit in the top of the tower to point ships in the right direction. The bright yellow tower still is a beacon for ships at sea.
The church interior at the foot of the tower is also worth visiting. In the entrance hall is a huge design chandelier by Studio Job and an exciting and instructive cupboard with hatches for children.
Dudok filling station
Located at the Turfsingel in Groningen, this just might be the most special filling station in the Netherlands because it is the only one by architect Willem Dudok that has remained unaffected by the ravages of time. Dudok designed the building in 1953 by order of the Esso oil company. In those days, filling stations were a relatively new street image in the Netherlands and renowned architects were commissioned to design something as modern as a filling station. In those days, there were about 112 comparable buildings in the Netherlands, but the one in Groningen is the only one which has been retained and which still functions as a filling station. In Groningen popular speech, the building is still referred to as the ‘BIM station', even though the station has been exploited by Gulf for years.
The leaning tower of Bedum
It is an odd fact that there are not just as many tourists at the Walfridus tower in Bedum as on the grass surrounding the Tower of Pisa, because the tower in Bedum actually leans more than its Italian equal and has the dubious honour of being the most off-plumb (2.61 metres) tower in the Netherlands. If you would like to feel how much the tower leans, just stand with your belly against it and look up. You’ll be in for a dizzying experience. In the church, you will be left with the same feeling: the walls are leaning and the floor is sloping down.
Learning and shivering in the University Museum
Wander among skeletons, stuffed animals, stones and scientific instruments in the University Museum of the University of Groningen. There is enough to give you the creeps in the anatomy room with dozens of large and small pots holding all kinds of different human parts in formalin. The Siamese twins and cyclops (an early model of a pulse oximeter) are quite impressive. Another exciting thing to see is the ancient mummy Janus in the display case. Next to the mummy is the head of a young man with frizzy hair; according to the University scientists, this is what Janus must have looked like. It seems as if time has stood still in the consulting room of feminist Aletta Jacobs, the first Dutch female physician. Many items in the room, including a cabin trunk and the desk, belonged to Jacobs.
In Groningen city centre are dozens of almshouses, often hidden behind ancient gates and doors. Be sure to visit them and find an oasis of mediaeval tranquillity behind the walls. The almshouses demonstrate that Groningen was also a social city in former days, where widows, the sick, poor, orphans and pilgrims found shelter in the almshouses, which are also referred to as hospices. Each court of almshouse has its very own history, such as that of the Geertruidsgasthuis, where on Sundays people could go ‘gekk’n kiek’n’: for a fee, people were allowed to look through the bars at the mentally ill.