Old-world charm

Gem Of A City

Old-world charm

“Welcome to Nijmegen,” Mariet enthused, before kissing me on the cheek. Unfortunately, this time, there was no greeting, no kiss, no beautiful young Dutch woman to greet me. My heart sank a little as the memory of Mariet reverberated down the years, but at least I was back in Nijmegen.

While Amsterdam may be the jewel in the crown of Dutch tourism, Nijmegen is an overlooked little gem of a place that I recently returned to, after a 23-year gap. Nestled in the Dutch countryside, some 140 kms to the southeast of Amsterdam and near the German border, Nijmegen is the oldest city in the Netherlands.

I first visited Nijmegen in 1986, hitchhiking part of the way there and back from northern England to meet a young Dutch woman who I had met in the UK. I was strapped for cash, but you don’t mind enduring hardship to go to meet a potential love of your life when young.

There is little chance that I would have ever set foot in Nijmegen in the first place if I hadn’t gone to see Mariet. Nijmegen is a small city (about 160,000 inhabitants) with a big history, which dates back 2,000 years when the Romans occupied the site. The city is surrounded by a wonderful wooded countryside, hills and polders and there are some pleasant villages nearby, including Berg en Dal and Groesbeek, where walking or cycling is highly recommended.

Trendy and traditional

My abiding memory of Nijmegen from my first visit was the Waal river sliding past the city and the lights of the suspension bridge glistening on the treacly, black night-time water. As I arrived by train and glanced towards the bridge, the memories came flooding back.

Nijmegen is a big student city. Trendy students are still here en masse and lend the place a definite youthful vibrancy. The ambient bars selling glasses of mouth tingling Grolsch and Heineken with creamy heads brimmed with early evening anticipation and excitement as they did 23 years ago. Are the students getting younger? Or is it that I am just so much older now?

A lot of Nijmegen was destroyed during World War I and subsequently rebuilt by modern planners who throughout Europe in the 1950s and 60s, had great affinity for bland functionality and scant regard for tradition or character. However, the old town has some very photogenic architecture, such as the Market Square and St Stephen’s Cathedral.

On exiting the railway station, my heart sank a little — no kiss, no welcome, just the hum of traffic. I passed through tranquil Kronenburger Park, ideal for picnicking in during summer, before happening upon St Stephen’s, the Gothic place of worship, slap bang in the centre of the city. It’s a fine building, made all the more imposing because it stands on a hill overlooking the river. There are similar styled buildings within the immediate vicinity of the church, including the 15th century ‘Latin School’, and not too far away is the 16th century town hall.

Close by is, for me, Nijmegen’s crowning glory — the Market Square, with an abundance of buildings in the highly impressive Gelrian renaissance style. It’s a fine location, where I stopped to have a cappuccino and slice of apple pie at one of the cafes while drinking in the atmosphere of the square.

This triangular Square lies in the centre of old Nijmegen. If you travel through the Netherlands, you will soon come to realise that every older Dutch town has a market square, but Nijmegen’s is particularly appealing. In Nijmegen, it was the place where people came to sell goods, from corn to meat and from textiles to fish. The old Weigh House (Waag) and meat market, a lovely renaissance red brick building with black and red dormer windows and two arched doorways, is now a restaurant where you can sit outside during the summer.

Medieval meets new

Just a little beyond the old city is the medieval Valkof (castle), framed by pleasant trees and parkland and originally built by Charlemagne in the 10th century. While much of it has been destroyed, it still merits a visit and was something that was lodged in my mind from my first visit to the city.

As night fell, I stopped off at a bar, where I was half hoping that the lovely 20-year-old Mariet (who would now be 43) would be sitting as she used to. She wasn’t. After I left, I hoped that she would appear around the next corner. She didn’t. Although I must admit to being in love with the memory of a young woman from another time, some say you should never return or attempt to recapture the past and that it is best left where it is. Maybe.

But not as far as Nijmegen is concerned. My return made me realise that I still love the city, and not just the memory. I wasn’t disappointed by the 2009 version. It still has a great bar scene and the city retains its laid back, relaxing character. I would certainly recommend a trip to this part of the Netherlands. After all, although it may have taken me 23 years to come back here, it’s only one hour by train from Amsterdam. Looking at the new buildings beyond the old town, like many European cities, it’s most certainly a place where the past catches up with the present. For me, I guess in more ways than one.

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