When I first arrived in the Netherlands back in 1997, one of the first bits of sightseeing I did, besides exploring my new hometown of Groningen itself, was to go on a driving tour of village churches in Groningen province.
The idea came from my favorite guidebook: the Michelin green guide to the Netherlands. The book—my copy dates from 1995, but that makes little difference when you’re visiting obscure historical sites—recommends a 118-kilometer (73 miles) driving route through Groningen province and lists 12 churches and a couple of port towns along the way.
Last week a friend and I wanted some distraction one afternoon, so we set out on this route again. I had vague memories of a beautiful countryside drive, but that was about it. We didn’t do the whole route, which is why this post is only part 1.
Michelin’s first stop, and ours, was Garmerwolde. This 13th century church is one of few with a separate belltower, which looks distinctly more recent than the church. Inside we could see the vestiges of 16th century frescos. In many of these medieval churches, the frescoes were painted over in the Reformation and have more recently been rediscovered during renovations.
Stedum’s church is quite large and grand. Built in the 13th century, it’s mostly original except for general renovations, and also has some remnants of frescoes inside. Like several churches on the route, it’s usually locked, but you can ask for a key at one of the nearby addresses listed on the door. Be sure to lock it again and return the key before you move on.
Loppersum church’s interior is big and light and airy, but somehow I didn’t find it as interesting as many of the others. The floor of one chapel is covered with memorial slabs from the 16th and 17th century. Do you know the origin of the term “stinking rich”? They could afford to be buried inside churches rather than outside in the churchyard, and worshippers suffered long afterwards as the stink of decomposing bodies filled the church.
As we were driving out of Loppersum, headed toward the next town, Zeerijp, we spotted another church tower and decided to check it out as well. The countryside here is very flat, and the villages are very small, with low-rise farms and houses. Just as was intended back in the Middle Ages, the church towers do just that: they tower above the villages.
This is accentuated by the fact that most churches were placed on wierden, also sometimes called terpen. A wierd is an artificial hill, built long before the Christian era to rise just above potential floods. Churches and the cemeteries next to them were added later on the existing wierden, but continued to be places of safety in a flood.
Eenrum was built in the last half of the 12th century and the tower was added in the 16th century. I don’t know why this one wasn’t in the guidebook, and I found it particularly charming because of its slight lean. Inside, the roof is supported on heavy wood beams, and recent renovations have revealed frescoes here too.
Zeerijp’s church is the latest of the ones we visited, dating from the 14th century, and has a separate tower from the early 16th century. Go ask for the key at one of the addresses listed on the door (The word for key is sleutel.) and go inside to look at the ceiling.
It’s not the original paintwork, but it’s based on the original. You’ll see that each section of each dome is painted with a different pattern of imitation brickwork painted onto plaster, which covers actual brick.
The inside of the church, with the faux brickwork, dramatically placed 17th century organ, and Renaissance pulpit, creates an atmosphere of grandeur despite the church’s relatively small size.
Another 13th century church with faux brick interior painting, Leermens sits on an unusually high and large wierd, so that much of the village is above the farm fields and above the ancient flood level.
Like many of these churches, a small graveyard surrounds it, with stones from the 19th and 20th centuries for the most part.
I visited one more that wasn’t on the list in the book: Oosterwijtwerd. I presume it wasn’t included because the inside has been “modernized” over the years, with a stove and its stovepipe plunked down incongruously in the middle and an odd wooden paneled wall that was added in the 1800’s dividing the altar from the pews.
Nevertheless, the building itself dates from the 11th century, which makes it worth at least a brief stop.
Despite my focus on medieval churches, I should also point out that the countryside we drove through is absolutely lovely. My gps sent us along narrow lanes, often with water-filled ditches lining both sides, through fields and past farmhouses and barns.
Farmhouses in Groningen province are generally a combination of barn and house. In the Middle Ages the farmers probably lived in the same space as the livestock. These days the houses are on one end, with the barn attached under a huge roof behind, if it hasn’t been repurposed in some way. Some of the smaller houses you’ll see were originally built for the farmworkers and don’t have barns attached. And of course many were built more recently.
Groningen province is green and quiet and extremely flat countryside. If you stop for a picture, the most you’ll hear is the wind through the corn or the bleat of a sheep. You might get stuck behind a tractor, but don’t get annoyed. Accept the slow pace and take in the scenery.
That’s the first half of our tour. I’ll venture into Groningen province again sometime soon to finish it. I hope you’ve enjoyed the trip!