Getting Around Gorgeous Groningen on Two Wheels

Amsterdam may be the most popular tourist draw in the country, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you miss out on the charms of Groningen.

Download article PDF

Published in Forever Young in May 2016

Pedaling along the perfectly paved bicycle paths of Groningen, I am channeling the spirit of my ancestors, specifically my Dutch grandfather, who used to traverse this same territory 75 years ago when he was courting my grandmother.

I imagine the rental bike I’m riding was much like his - simple, with no fancy gears and no handle brakes. When you need to stop you just peddle backwards. I’m not even wearing a helmet. No one is.

In Groningen, the largest city in the north of The Netherlands, just a couple of hours from Amsterdam, bikes rule the road and spinning your wheels is as natural as breathing.

Groningen is heralded as the cycling capital of the world - thanks in part to a youthful population - 50,000 of its 200,000 residents (who own a total of 300,000 bikes) are students at one of the two universities. Sixty per cent of all trips in the city are by bike.

Groningen boasts the largest bike share system in the world. Even the local IKEA parking lot has a dedicated bike path and rents special cargo bikes to shoppers so they can cart their bulky furniture purchases home.

Without honking car horns and exhaust-spewing trucks, there’s a peaceful hum in the centuries-old streets, a pleasant whiz of wheels along the tranquil canals and bustling shop scene.

Couples cuddle up two to a bike, mothers transport loads of groceries along with two or three kids in elaborate child carriers, businesspeople ride with purpose dressed in sharp suits and high heels, the elderly keep their joints in motion aloft their bicycle seats and there are students everywhere, happily breezing to and from class.

The mild climate, flat terrain and compact structure of Groningen makes it easy to get around by bike, but most of the credit for the city’s cycling-friendly reputation goes to a visionary 24-year-old politician, Max van den Berg, who was in charge of urban development for the city in 1977 when he started a cycling revolution by creating a traffic plan that limited car use in the city centre and diverted cars to a ring road around the city - thus paving the way for pedestrians and cyclists.

The idea caused an uproar - storeowners threatened to close their shops and petitioned city hall. But van den Berg held firm. Today Groningen revels in its two-wheeler status.

The commitment to cycling continues with plans for intelligent traffic lights that give cyclists the right of way, heated cycling paths in winter, new park and bike areas to encourage commuters to enter the city by bike and 5,000 new bike parking spots to be built next to the existing 10,000 spaces at the main train station.

Visitors can rent a bike for a day for a mere seven euros or hire a cycling guide for a two-hour tour around the city. Your first stop should be the Groninger Museum, which has an impressive collection of modern art as well as Dutch Golden Age artifacts.

Park your bike and climb up the 368 narrow curved brick steps (at one point you’ll practically have to hoist yourself up with a rope) of the city’s most popular tourist site, the 500-year-old Martini Tower, an almost 100-metre gothic structure whose 62 chiming bells create a pleasant vibe as they ring out across the city.

(Not so lovely, however, was the vicious ancient practice of tying up prisoners in the bell tower and driving them mad with the deafening gongs of the carillon.)

The outdoor platform offers a romantic view of the city by night (it’s a popular spot for marriage proposals). The tower provides views over the Grote Markt, a public square that was heavily bombed during the Second World War.

There is still evidence of the war everywhere - from the bullet hole in one of the tower’s bells to the plaque at Paterswoldeseweg 188a, which marks the spot where Fred Butterworth, a 23-year-old gunner from Winnipeg, was killed - the first of 43 Canadians to die during the four-day battle to liberate Groningen in April 1945.

Last year, Butterworth’s 90 year-old brother Stanley, who had fought alongside Fred during the war, came to this spot to lay a wreath in memory of his brother on the 70th anniversary of the liberation.

After our bike tour, I ride to the elegant Hotel Prinsenhof where I have the honour of lunching with none other than Max van den Berg himself. Now 68 years old, he serves as the King’s Commissioner in Groningen, after an illustrious career in Dutch politics, including a stint as chairman of the Dutch Labour Party.

Van den Berg is undeniably proud of his role in making Groningen the most bike-friendly city in the world - his ideas have been emulated in many places across Europe.

But he remembers a time when he wasn’t so popular: “I was under constant attack,” he says. “Even in my own party there were people who strongly disagreed with me. But to me, they were just lagging behind.”

Van den Berg recalls that after the war, as cars became increasing popular, city planners were going to rip apart 18 neighbourhoods in order to build more roads. “But we had a vision that the city centre would be like a public theatre where people could gather.”

He credits his youthful idealism with making it happen: “When you don’t see the wall, you just walk right through it.”

Van den Berg’s vision made his city one of the most unique in The Netherlands. Amsterdam may be the most popular tourist draw in the country, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you miss out on the charms of Groningen.

One of those charms is the happy disposition of its residents. In fact, according to a European Commission survey, people in Groningen are the happiest in all of Europe. Travelling around on two wheels seems to be one of the reasons they are so content.

Who wouldn’t want to live in a place like this - or, at the very least, come for a visit?

Download article PDF