Don’t come the raw herring
Ross Bilton develops a taste for the strange cuisine and ingenious residents of Groningen in The Netherlands
AT this and you become an honorary Dutchman,’’ says my Dutch friend Marinka, proferring a paper plate on which sits a raw herring topped with raw chopped onions. The fish has just been beheaded, gutted and boned by an unshaven man whose shirt appears to double as his tea towel. We are at the market in Groningen, in the far north of The Netherlands, and this is the curious ritual of maatjesharing.
Getting to grips with a slimy herring demands a certain technique, so Marinka demonstrates. She grabs it by the tail, cranes her head right back, lowers the fish into her mouth (I am reminded briefly of feeding time in a penguin enclosure) and bites off a chunk. This she follows with a handful of the raw onions.
Her breath is now a weapon that could lay waste to entire towns. She pushes the plate in my direction. Which raises the question: how badly do I want to be an honorary Dutchman?
Pretty badly, actually, as there’s much to admire about her countrymen. They are funny and gregarious, and endearingly blunt. They export some of the world’s finest cheeses and soccer players. And they have a flair for ingenuity. Perhaps that’s a trait born of necessity; they live, after all, in a country that has been reclaimed from the sea. They have been holding the waters back for about 2000 years with a system of dykes, or earth embankments, along the coast. If it weren’t for Dutch ingenuity, we’d be standing here waving dead herring at each other with the North Sea lapping at our armpits.
You see that ingenuity everywhere in Groningen, a lively place where one in every seven people is a student at the city university. Pedestrian crossings don’t just beep when you press the button: they have a digital display that tells you how long you must wait until the lights turn red. In urinals, the image of a fly is built into the centre of each porcelain bowl; it’s a cunning way to improve the aim of beered-up students. And on the roof of the Groninger Museum, a repository of fine modern art, stands a huge model vulture, hunch-shouldered and brooding, staring out over the rooftops. It’s not an exhibit, but a means of scaring nuisance pigeons away . . . and it works.
Of course, no one likes a smart-arse, so it’s good to Our themed Destination series appears regularly in Travel&Indulgence. Series editor: Susan Kurosawa Editor: Michelle Rowe Deputy editor: Barry Oliver Production editor: Sue Milne Design and layout: Warren Melksham Editorial liaison and picture research: Sharon Fowler Contributors: Ross Bilton, Ley Butterworth, Leonie Coombes, Judith Elen, Richard Griffiths, Rachael Howlett, Lenore Nicklin, Jonathan Ray. Advertising: Bob Rickey (02) 9288 3073; Max La Brooy (02) 9288 3628 Editorial inquiries: Sharon Fowler (02) 9288 2419; firstname.lastname@example.org Website: www.theaustralian.com.au/travel. DestinationThailand appears next week. note that Groningen suffers from graffiti like any other city. Bicycle theft is also rife here. And, while we’re on the subject, the Dutch invented clogs. What were they thinking?
Groningen is three hours from Amsterdam by train, which usefully keeps at bay the capital’s roaming hordes of stag parties and weekend sleaze-seekers. Visitors come here for its rather more refined charms: its historic churches and grand market squares, its upmarket shopping streets and cosy pubs. They come to climb the famous Martinitoren, a 15th-century church tower, and to wander in a state of mild bafflement around the Mustard Museum.
Of course, you can still find sleaze if you want. There are half a dozen coffee shops’’, selling more than your average selection of refreshments, plus a smattering of sex shops that display their wares with a bluntness you could only imagine from the Dutch. One of these is right outside the front gate of the town synagogue, which means worshippers going in and out are confronted by a shop window full of alarming-looking dildos. (Maybe it’s good for business.)
Exploring by bicycle is the way to go. This is how everyone gets around in Groningen and no matter whether they’re a lawyer, a housewife or a student, they all ride the same sort of bike: a 1950s-style, sit-up-andbeg model with a single gear and a basket on the handlebars.
These are the sort you brake by back-pedalling. I must admit to being sceptical at first — when I was growing up, you’d be pelted with vegetables for riding a bike like that — but you know what? As soon as you get on one you feel like you’re in a FamousFive book, and the world seems like a better place.
In the spirit of Enid Blyton, we pack our baskets one day with ham-and-cheese sandwiches, piles of tomatoes and lashings of gin and tonic, and head further afield. We get as far as the island of Schiermonnikoog, a short ferry-hop from the mainland. Bike trails crisscross this windswept blob, 16km long and 3km wide. Its claim to fame is that it has the widest beach in Europe; indeed, it stretches almost to the horizon at low tide, although signs announcing Drijfzand! (quicksand) warn against wandering off the beaten tracks.
Dutch treat: The curious ritual of maatjesharing
Cars aren’t allowed on the island, which makes it a popular weekend retreat for families and stressed-out city folk.
Back in April 1945, Schiermonnikoog also hosted a unit of stressed-out SS troops who fled here after German-occupied Groningen fell to the advancing Allies. The Nazis’ stay was short-lived; they, and the 800-strong German garrison on the island, surrendered a month later. An interesting relic from that era is an enormous German bunker complex embedded in the highest dune on the island, one of a chain of radar installations along the occupied North Sea coast that warned of Allied bombing raids heading for Germany.
We spend half an hour snooping around the bunker, looking for secret doorways and other mysteries, but alas, all we discover is broken glass and the faint whiff of urine. Even Blyton would be hard pushed to make something of that.
While waiting for the ferry back to the mainland we seek out the island’s pub. It’s not hard to find as the entrance is marked by a huge arch made from the jawbones of a 30m blue whale, caught by hunters in 1950. We sit at a table on the beer terrace, soaking up the last of the sun.
It’s good to be an honorary Dutchman, I reflect while watching the bubbles jostle to the surface in my glass of golden pilsner. I passed Marinka’s maatjesharing test in the market that day, you see. It was a rite of passage that delighted her and the stallholder, too. He hugged me like a brother. It was a mixed blessing. My shirt smelled of fish for a fortnight. Trafalgar has a seven-day Best of Holland tour that includes Amsterdam, Keukenhof, Scheveningen, The Hague, Delft and Rotterdam, from $1975 a person, land only, with breakfasts, most dinners and airport transfers. Departures from March 28 to September 26. More: www.trafalgartours.com.au. www.toerisme.groningen.nl www.groningermuseum.nl www.holland.com/global