Don’t come the raw her­ring

Ross Bil­ton de­vel­ops a taste for the strange cui­sine and in­ge­nious res­i­dents of Gronin­gen in The Nether­lands

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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; travel@theaus­tralian.com.au 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

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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

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