Discover Uncrowded Nijmegen and the Rest of the Netherlands!
By Anne Braly
Driving south from Amsterdam toward the city of Nijmegen, you’ll pass through the bucolic countryside of green pastures, cows, horses, and farmhouses. It’s a peaceful scene that contradicts the tumultuous past of the 2,000-year-old city that lies ahead, the oldest in the Netherlands.
Now a vibrant, beautiful city of 170,000 and home to Radboud University, one of the largest in the country; several manufacturing plants; retail shops; restaurants; and modern housing, Nijmegen’s past includes invasions from the Romans, Germans, French, Vikings and others all fighting for the city’s strategic location on the Waal River, a tributary of the Rhine.
An Eclectic Blend
The city is an eclectic blend of architecture and culture, a heterogenous town that doesn’t take for granted the role its past played in making it the city it is today.
The Netherlands is a small country about the same size as Maryland. So you can spend a week driving around and see most of it but plan on spending a night or two in Nijmegen as you hopscotch around and learn about its history, first settled by a West-Germanic tribe around the year 100 B.C., in this modern-day city.
A Look Back in Time
There are several museums in Nijmegen that take visitors into another world. In the late 1800s, the city created a lovely park on a quiet hilltop that, centuries ago, was the location for Kasteel Het Valkhof.
Now in ruins, the castle was built by Charlemagne in the year 777; partially destroyed by Vikings in 881, and restored by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I in 1155 before being destroyed once and for all in the late 1700s by the French.
Only a shell of the former palace remains, but next to it and still standing is the small, octagonal Chapel of Saint Nicholas, circa 1030, open daily except for Mondays.
Stones from Roman buildings, unearthed during the chapel’s construction, were used in the walls and can be seen today. Just ask one of the volunteer guides to point them out.
Adjacent to Valkof Park is Museum Het Valkhof, a museum filled with archeological artifacts from the days of Roman occupation to more “modern” times, including artwork from the Old Masters onto works of art from today’s Dutch artists.
Unfortunately, the information cards next to the exhibits are in Dutch, but with your 12.50 euro fee comes a walking tour pamphlet in English.
When construction began for a new museum for nature and culture, De Bastei, at the bottom of Valkhof Hill and on the banks of the River Waal, workers discovered ancient Roman walls, tunnels, and more artifacts.
After consulting of all those concerned with the construction of the museum, it was decided that work would continue and the traces of more than 2,000 years of Nijmegen history would be incorporated in the design.
The result is a museum that takes you underground, partially through some of the ancient tunnels, and offers an education into the city’s past, including ancient walls, wells and the skull and tusks of a wooly mammoth that once roamed the land.
Upper floors above ground show the area’s flora and fauna.
“Just pick up a shovel and dig and you’ll find 2,000 years of history in this city,” says Joost Wennink, a volunteer guide at Nijmegen’s History House.
Rebuilding the Town from U.S. Bombs
World War II was a turning point in the history of Nijmegen. Throughout its years near the borders of Germany and France, it’s often been a target of foreign occupation.
But never did it suffer such devastation is that which happened on the afternoon of February 22, 1944. Whether it was by mistake or some sort of secret mission gone wrong, the city was bombed by friendly fire–from the Americans.
Rather than bombing the railroad yard which would hamper German control of Nijmegen, the central city became a mistaken target. Hundreds of buildings were destroyed, creating a huge void in the center of the historic town.
This, in turn, has had interesting architectural consequences, with ancient churches, such as St. Stephen’s Church and the Marienburg Chapel, home to the History House, circa 1431, juxtaposed with modern establishments, For example, a TK Maxx, the European version of TJ Maxx, will open soon across from 17th-century buildings fronting the town center.
They’ll Never Forget
Though Americans mistakenly bombed Nijmegen, they were also part of freeing it from German control just seven months later. Making a bold daylight move, 700 soldiers bravely crossed the river Waal just a few kilometers from the German border.
Their boats were flimsy, and, on the opposite side of the river were the Germans, picking them off like sitting ducks.
Forty-eight American soldiers lost their lives that day and are now remembered with a daily bridge crossing by Dutch soldiers, either active or veterans. Private citizens of Nijmegen also take part in the daily crossing when they’re in the area.
A new bridge, De Oversteek, which translates into “The Crossing,” was completed in 2014, connecting the old city with the rapidly growing new sections of town.
Every night at sundown, rain or shine, 48 lights come on in slow succession. One after another the lights light up the bridge, honoring the 48 dead, as a single soldier, or multiples, walks slowly beneath.
The walk culminates in a salute of remembrance at a monument on the ground below the bridge, bearing the names of 48 soldiers from Massachusetts to California, Florida to Delaware and Texas to Washington State.
“We’ll be here every day,” says Regimental Sgt. Major Cor Van Sen Dungen. “Those 48 Americans gave their lives. We can give them a few minutes of our time every day.”
Eating out in Nijmegen
“There really isn’t such a thing as ‘Dutch’ cuisine,'” says Wilma Tielbeke, office manager of Arsenal 1824, a former city arsenal that’s now home to two restaurants, the modern, hip Grand Cafe and an adjoining restaurant with a more laid-back vibe.
Due to the crossroads of cultures that call the country home, many different foodways have entered the Netherlands. You’ll find chicken satay, a Maylasian dish, on restaurant menus next to croquettes, which originated in France; and cheese toasties and pea soup, both Dutch favorites.
The repurposing of old buildings is of note in other city restaurants, as well. De Wagge, built in the 1600s as the town’s butter-weighing station, is now a restaurant serving steaks, ribs, and seafood on the town square. Note the original scales overhead as you dine. Butter was weighed here, as were cheese and other agricultural products, so it could be taxed and prices could be established.
Do you want Fries with That?
Both restaurants at Arsenal 1824, as do many restaurants in town, offer a mix of flavors, from an American burger to steaks, nachos, spare ribs, and fries, the latter of which you’ll find as a side dish with almost every entree in the Netherlands.
You’ll need to ask for ketchup, though. In the Netherlands, as in most European countries, fries are best dipped in mayonnaise.
Eat your Fill
You won’t go hungry in Nijmegen. Restaurants line the old streets. Prikkels, located on the bottom floor of a boutique, five-room hotel by the same name, is a popular place for breakfast _ and servings are generous, starting with freshly squeezed orange juice before a board of bread, cheese, granola, and yogurt arrives at your table.
Prikkels has an interesting history as it marks the place where construction began following the bombing of the city in World War II.
“It’s the border between old and new Nijmegen,” says hotel owner Michiel Vries, who also owns the sister Hotel Linnen, once the offices for the Allied Forces during World War II.
Other good choices for dining are Parkzicht across from Valkhoff Park; Blonde Pater; and New Dutch Streetfood in the Marikenstraat outdoor “mall.” Whatever your palate demands, you’ll find it somewhere around the city–even KFC and McDonald’s, if you must.
You can easily travel to Nijmegen by train or car from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport and its attached mall of hotels, restaurants and retails shops _ convenient if you need to pick up any items you may have forgotten to pack.
It’s also the place to rent a car or hop on board a comfortable train _ destination Nijmegen, about 125 kilometers (about 77 miles) south of Amsterdam.
As with most other cities in the Netherlands, the easiest way to get around Nijmegen is by bicycle, and you’ll find several places for bikes for rent. Check with your hotel for arrangements.
Bring your Walking Shoes
The most convenient way to get around the city, though, is on foot, so bring your walking shoes and get some exercise. The town is small enough that walking is a wise mode of transportation.
Park your car in one of the city lots, starting at 7.90 euros per 24 hours.
For the most part, the city is flat and walking is easy.