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The Martinitoren: a Groningen Landmark

About a year ago I wrote a post about Groningen, the small city where I live. I mapped out a route that started at the train station and wound its way through the city, ending at the landmark Martinitoren.

The Martinitoren rises above the clutter of market stalls on the Grote Markt in Groningen.
The Martinitoren rises above the clutter of market stalls on the Grote Markt in Groningen.

The Martinitoren

Today, for the first time in several years, I climbed the Martinitoren, and it was well worth the effort.

The “martini” in the Martinitoren does not refer to the drink, but rather to Sint Martinus (Saint Maarten). Toren just means “tower.” Completed in 1482, the tower used to be 127 meters high, but after a fire—set to celebrate a military victory … oops!—destroyed 69 meters of it, it was restored in 1627 to its current 97 meters.

Unlike many buildings around it, both the Martinitoren and the church next to it, the Martinikerk  (St. Maarten’s church), survived World War II relatively unscathed, though some shrapnel damage is visible.

The ever-so-slightly leaning sandstone and red brick Martinitoren is the bell tower for the Martinikerk. It contains a carillon with 52 bells, some of which are enormous bass bells that are 400 years old.

Make sure to also read my article about things to do and see in Groningen province!

Climbing the Martinitoren

Buy your entrance token for two euros at the VVV office, in the odd little building across the street on the Grote Market. This will admit you through the revolving gate at the base of the tower.

Climbing the tower is not for anyone with claustrophobia or a fear of heights. The spiral stairs are brick and very narrow. The only handrail is a thick rope attached to the central column. If anyone needs to pass in the other direction … just squeeze over to let them by.

Looking up the stairway of the Martinitoren, you can see the underside of the stairs above, and the "handrail" made of rope.
Looking up the stairway, you can see the underside of the stairs above, and the “handrail” made of rope.

At the first landing you can look down to the vaulted base you just entered through, and you can look up to see the internal construction of the tower: plain brick walls and enormous wooden beams supporting the bells above. Push the button next to the internal window to see how the arches of the church next door are constructed.

View between the ceiling arches of the Martinikerk and its roof -- as seen from the Martinitoren
View between the ceiling arches of the Martinikerk and its roof

The second landing also isn’t for anyone who’s afraid of heights: the floor here is just boards over beams, and you can see a long way down through the spaces between the boards. Stop here and admire the bells. The largest—Salvator—weighs 7850 kilograms (17,306 lbs) and measures more than two meters (six feet) across. A small panel allows you to hear the bells; push each button and hear a recording. The real bells are still played sometimes.

Some of the bells in the Martinitoren
Some of the bells in the Martinitoren

The third landing is as far as you’re allowed to climb: 251 steps. Inside, the spaces between the boards seemed even scarier to me, but here you can also go outside to see the view. Fifty-six meters up, you can see all of Groningen from here and, depending on the weather, much further than that.

The view from the Martinitoren

Above you, notice the gargoyles used to drain water, and the huge sundial. You can also spot what looks like very old graffiti carved into the sandstone walls.

carving on the Martinitoren
carving/graffiti on the Martinitoren

Now look out at the city. Nearby, below you, is the Grote Markt, the central square of Groningen. One row of lovely centuries-old buildings lines one side, now used as pubs and restaurants. The stadshuis (city hall) stands in the middle with the Golden Age goudkantoor behind it. The rest of the buildings around the Grote Market are newer, replacing buildings destroyed in the Battle of Groningen between the Canadians and the Germans in April 1945.

Buildings on the Grote Markt that survived the war. Those are sidewalk cafe tables in front.
Buildings on the Grote Markt that survived the war. Those are sidewalk cafe tables in front.
The stadshuis: the old city hall of Groningen, as seen from the Martinitoren
The stadshuis: the old city hall of Groningen. Behind it on the right side of the photo you can see a bit of the Golden-Age goudkantoor.

On the other side of the tower look down to see the green open space called Martinikerkhof, lined with historic buildings that survived the war.

Looking out into the distance you’ll get a sense of how completely flat Groningen province is, and also see how changeable the weather is. When I was admiring the view, parts of the city were shrouded in rain while other parts glittered in the sun.

Martinikerkhof. The roof on the right is the Martinikerk.
Martinikerkhof. The roof on the right is the Martinikerk.

After you climb the Martinitoren

Once you’ve climbed back down, take a peek inside the Martinikerk if it’s open: while it looks like an original door is inside the entrance to the tower, the entrances that are actually used are around the side.

Just inside the revolving gate of the Martinitoren is this unused entrance to the church. I think it translates as "Enter His presence with hymns."
Just inside the revolving gate is this unused entrance to the church. I think it translates as “Enter His presence with hymns.”

Don’t expect a Notre Dame or Westminster Abbey here: when the Reformation hit Groningen, it hit in a big way, and every bit of ornamentation was removed from this once-Catholic church. It’s extremely plain, but interesting nevertheless in terms of the architecture. You can also spot the gravestones of the “stinking rich” set into the floor (Do you know the origin of that phrase? Pretty grisly!). Mostly the church is used for events nowadays, but services are still held on Sundays.

Continue your walk around the church and turn left at its other end into Martinikerkhof. Some lovely older buildings remain and the open square offers a quiet stroll away from the careening bicycles of the Grote Market. You can even stay here on this square; one of the buildings has been turned into a hotel.

De Kostery, between the Martinitoren on the left and the Martinikerk on the right. Those white things are umbrellas, waiting for better weather.
De Kostery, between the Martinitoren on the left and the Martinikerk on the right. Those white things are umbrellas, waiting for better weather.

A natural stop after climbing the Martinitoren is the Kostery café at its base. I love how this house sits tucked into the angle between the tower and the church. It used to be the sexton’s house, but now it’s a pleasant café, and if you’re lucky and sun is out, it’s a great place to stop for a drink at one of the outdoor tables.

Have you ever been to Groningen? Did you climb the Martinitoren? What else would you recommend doing in Groningen?

6 Comments

  • Anita @ No Particular Place To Go

    April 10, 2016 at 9:29 am

    I really feel that I just finished a great tour of your city, Rachel. Such a great sense of history from many centuries ago and the recent past of WWII. And, thanks to you, I kind of fell down the rabbit hole of the internet following the origin of the phrase “stinking rich!” 🙂

    Reply
  • Eleanna @Damsel Adrift

    April 12, 2016 at 7:36 pm

    I love these old towns 🙂 There’s so much history in their buildings! The Martinitorren reminds me of the Civil Tower in Bergamo, where I went last October. Unfortunately in my case, it was pouring the day of our visit, so we couldn’t stay long. But the views were beautiful, even if half hidden in the low cloud!

    Reply
  • Tanya Gowell

    January 31, 2020 at 2:02 am

    Thank you so much for the informative story. I was born in Groningen but emigrated to Australia in 1952. My husband & I recently visited where I lived and we stayed in a hotel in the city square. We didn’t climb the tower but after reading your story we feel like we did. So many good stories and memories.

    Reply
    • Rachel Heller

      February 1, 2020 at 4:13 pm

      Hi Tanya, glad you liked it! It must have been really special to come back here! Some of my husband’s relatives emigrated there in the 50s too, part of that huge wave that left after the war.

      Reply

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