Nijmegen is an exceptional city. For no other city or town in the Netherlands can claim to have risen above sea level – something the city owes to its icy past. Approximately 12,000 years ago, huge masses of ice were blown from Scandinavia and pushed up the ground here. The river Waal formed soon after, as melt water forced its way from the German region to the North Sea and became a wide river belt over 5,000 years ago. A river that eventually laid the foundation for the Nijmegen area to become a Roman legion camp, a civic centre, a prospering trading place and a fortified town.
I did not know all this when my friend Josine offered me to take a walk through the ‘straten,’ and ‘wegen’ of the city. Frankly, I wasn’t impressed by Nijmegen’s little streets and closely packed houses at first. However, as I came to realise, there was more to it than meets eye. Especially for students who move to this small city from the four corners of the world, Nijmegen is about youthful freedom and independence. But it is much more than a mere student city. Nijmegen has a rich history – something which statues and street names in the city pay testament to.
There is for example the great Charlemagne who once looked over Europe from his castle in Valkhof Park or Mary of Nijmegen who entered into an agreement with the devil offering her soul for knowledge and wisdom or Joris Ivens who visited his first-ever cinema on one of Nijmegen’s squares before he became a pioneering documentary filmmaker. But what really shaped the city were wars.
Army camps and fortifications were a feature of the city since 19 BC when the first Roman soldiers arrived, but the year 1944 was a particular kind of disaster: months of shooting and bombing caused immense damage and the loss of many lives. Afterwards, Nijmegen had to be reconstructed from dust. And, as pointed out by author Godfried Bomans, a former student at the Catholic University of Nijmegen, Nijmegen’s cityscape came to be shaped by concern for the afterlife unlike anywhere else on earth. By the 1950s, no other Dutch city had as many monasteries, novitiates and convents – something that earned the city the nickname ‘Monnikendam’ on the Waal.
And now, when the university welcomes new faces on campus, the next generation of students will enter this city. Sooner than later they too shall visit the city centre to find the red and black shutters of De Waagh always open with stained glasses and strong coffee, like the welcoming arms of the city. They too will walk the uneven stones of the Burchtstraat, forcing you to slow down and taking a good look, with every stone having its own character, almost representing all those who contributed in one way or another to building this wonderful city.
They too might end up sitting under a chestnut tree in the Kronenburger Park or circling the Stevenskerk overlooked by the old walls that still stand strong and never fail to work their magic on you. They too will encounter a new face every time they walk past Nijmegen’s tiny homes. And if they tire out, they too might stop to hear the calming effects of the sound produced by the water streaming down the Grote Markt and into the mighty Waal like so many have before them.