Stood atop the Forum, you can’t help but feel like a medieval traveller surveying the realm. Groningen, with her glimmering spires, rising up from a vast sea of emerald.
That is, if you ignore the very thing you’re standing on. Clearly some kind of spacecraft that’s inadvertently crashed into a 19th century village with the airs of a 21st century city. It’s only later that you begin to notice the bizarre harmony of the buildings around you.
The contrast confronts you unassumingly when you first set foot here. The stately station, flanked by an unsightly office complex, facing a fantastical-looking construction perched on a moat from the middle ages. And the further you bicycle into the city, the more bewildering it begins to get.
Cafés and restaurants catering to every conceivable type of client. A synagogue a stone’s throw away from brothels. Market stalls full of goods from far and near. Cinemas, Scandinavian houses and abandoned factories. Libraries, lecture halls, gyms and shops, nestled neatly in the midst of cosy rows of houses interlaid with canals.
The city’s population embodies this diversity. Every nationality and tongue is represented in the streets. Flutists chat freely with construction workers, and professors mingle unreservedly with barkeeps (of the as yet unbridged Stadjer-student divide it’s best not to make any mention).
No matter who you are, you’re sure to find at least one place or the other that’ll pique your fancy. It’s a state of affairs unthinkable in any other age. Streams of variegated people with hectic lives, all perfectly settled into the easy rhythm of Northern life.
Not to suggest that you’ve arrived in a sugarbeet-scented utopia though. The rialto is brimming with news of crisis after crisis. Yet it’s that indomitable spirit of Old Grunn that gives us some cause for optimism. A hardy and sensible attitude, with a wry humour and a heart of gold.
I wonder which jewel Geert Teis had in mind when he described the city as ‘a jewel set in gold’ in the Song of Groningen. A rare sort of multi-layered agate certainly. One with warm inviting colours, as if to say, Welcome!