What lies beneath Groningen’s surface

By Edward J Szekeres and Gabriele Cruciata

There’s more to Groningen than just Vismarkt and Sunny Beach. Those who live differently, in places we see but don’t notice, are forced to the fringes of society. Fiona is trying to tell their stories.

A stately, brick-walled building looks over Hereweg, in the southern part of Groningen. Dotted with rows of windows neatly arranged under the cover of battered roof tiles, it reminds passers-by of its old age. Quirky motorbikes with oversized trunks hanging over their front wheel, nearly block off the entrance with their haphazard parking.

As you come in, hesitant at first at the sight of darkness lurking behind the front door, a long but narrow corridor opens up right in front of you. The dim light is not enough to conceal the pervasive bleakness of the place. White walls on your right, on your left and above your head. “A countless number of people lost their lives in these corridors. Can you imagine it?” says a deep voice coming from a tall woman with a few sporadic freckles under her eyes. “This used to be a hospital.”

Her name is Fiona van den Bergh (30). She’s touring a group of young international students eager to explore the hidden parts of Groningen. But the former medical institution is not just another stop on a hop-on hop-off tour. It’s also Fiona’s home.

The hospital

Fiona runs the Alternative Groningen Tour, a three hour long cycling excursion around the city with an eccentric twist to it. Instead of climbing up the Martini tower and indulging in spectacular views of the surrounding architecture, Fiona takes her guests to the raw, unpolished backside of the city. Guests, not clients, as the tour is only supported by voluntary donations from participants.

“These are places a tourist would never find. Autonomous communities, squats built from scratch with imagination and street art, are the essence of this tour,” she says.

The former hospital where Fiona lives, has been occupied by squatters for nearly half a decade. It is now home to more than 200 people from all over the world. But most of them do not consider themselves squatters anymore. “We are a unique and close-knit community, but we are living here legally. I have my own apartment in the building that’s officially registered with the municipality,” she explains.

The imposing building Fiona calls home, now has its own bike repair stand, a restaurant that cooks up dishes from recycled food, and a vegetable garden. “We all have a role to play here. Some people cook, others help out with general maintenance or tend to the garden. We all do this for free. As a true commune,” explains Fiona as she walks through the rows of vegetables resting on the cultivated soil.

Nothing above Groningen

Fiona, a history graduate, became fascinated by the underground scene after she had travelled around Europe, only to realise how forgotten this group of people had become. “A world without consumerism makes life all the more interesting. People do things not for money, but for idealistic and moral reasons. It makes everything so much more real. Yet, no one seems to care.”

Non-commercialism is Fiona’s main inspiration. She is convinced that a do-it-yourself lifestyle can help people get out of their misery. She serves up her own experience as the best example. “I didn’t have a job before, so I came up with this tour,” she giggles.

But the monthly cycling journey she’s been taking along with a dozen or so participants for three years now, is more than just an extra means of income. It gives Fiona a sense of personal liberation. “It’s an intimate tour about my life. I can be a history teacher and speak about things that I find important and interesting.”

According to a popular local saying that refers to the city’s position in the very north of the Netherlands, there is nothing above Groningen (er gaat niets boven Groningen). But Fiona is on a mission to expose what lies beneath. During the tour, participants visit several spots of street art and alternative living spaces.

Inevitably, they take a peek into the most private parts of complete strangers’ lives. The tour, Fiona says, is the embodiment of personal trust. ”I am not showing monkeys in the zoo. We’re not just visiting buildings on the tour. We’re visiting people. They are all aware of the non-commercial, educational background of the tour and trust me as well as the participants.”

“I love these people”

Although Fiona’s home has now been officially recognised by the municipality as a living space, other squatters and independent communities were not so lucky.  Squatters in a trailer park in Betonbos, a small forest in the east of Groningen, are facing eviction threats from the municipality. Another community occupying an old glass factory in the city’s industrial area, has already received a note of eviction.

Fiona tried to help the squatters by setting up a petition to delay the ejection. She succeeded. The squatters were allowed to stay in the factory for a couple months longer.  

Her activism has had other positive impacts too. People’s interest in Groningen’s alternative scene is growing, and more and more of them offer to volunteer for the tour. “I have become an offbeat information point for several groups of people. A circus and a feminist reading group recently asked me about squatters in the city,” she says.

Fiona cherishes returning customers who are often long-time residents of Groningen. “It shows that there’s always something to be surprised about and inspired by, in this city. Sometimes I learn more from the participants than they learn from me.”

She talks of the city as if she was singing a lullaby to her child. She points to a coffeeshop where she works part-time. Just behind the squeaky front door, a customer tries to tap his credit card onto the payment terminal. It makes an error sound. He tries again.  Error. And again. Error. On the fifth try, he rolls his eyes and says: “Oh, it’s the wrong card”. A sudden stoned laughed fills the room.

Fiona is smiling. She looks up and whispers: “I love these people”.