Nijmegen. This small but vibrant city, located in the eastern part of the Netherlands close to the German border, has a couple of uncommon claims to fame.
It is the oldest city in the Netherlands and is more than 2,000 years old.
It was carpet bombed during World War II, meaning relatively few buildings more than 50 years old still remain.
And it is the self-described “summer capital of Europe.”
For its small size, Nijmegen has a thriving cultural life. Because of this, it has crowned itself with this title, though I’m not sure how widely it’s recognized outside of the Netherlands.
I went to Nijmegen this week on a business trip and had exactly one evening to explore the city, sandwiched between eight-hour workdays and five-hour train rides. I explored the downtown area a bit, grabbed a bite to eat, then made my way down to De Kaaij, which had been recommended to me by my boss.
De Kaaij turned out to be a sort of semi-permanent festival or fair, located under a bridge and open throughout the summer months. My boss described it as a sort of “Woodstock-like atmosphere,” and it looked like a cross between a government-sponsored art program and a squat or a hippie commune.
Food stands, now closed, offered snacks and sausages to hungry visitors. Makeshift bars with straw roofs sold cocktails, longdrinks and German beer. A large covered area looked at first glance to be someone’s living room, filled with old sofas gathered around dented coffee tables and an ancient piano, but it turned out to be a stage, and was later occupied by a small jazz band. Metal barrels dotted the area, and as the sun went down and the air began to cool, unknown hands lit cheerful campfires inside them. As it cooled off, people sorted themselves into small groups huddled around the fires for warmth. I sat on a chair made of a wooden frame woven through with scraps of old bicycle tires.
My favorite part, though, was a small band of older people playing some cheesy, funky schlager-type music in the corner of one makeshift bar. They played the entire time I was there and just had looks on their faces of such joy, completely oblivious that very few people were watching and the jazz band was taking center stage. A single older woman stood next to their stage, grinning and dancing and clapping her hands. Every one of them looked like there was no place they’d rather be right in that moment, than sitting on the beach playing songs with their friends on a warm summer evening in a makeshift bar in Nijmegen. It was beautiful.
Going back into town, I was surprised to see large groups of young people hanging out in odd places after dark – a steep staircase in a public park, a parking lot next to the casino. I found out they were playing Pokemon Go, and the staircase in question was home to no fewer than four Pokestops. Go figure!
Another highlight of the trip included a brief trip to the church during my lunch break for a quick selfie. I had actually been there once before, during a pipe organ tour four years ago with my undergraduate organ professor. One of his former classmates from his college days was now the organist at the church in Nijmegen, and she treated us to a small organ concert on a cold January day back in 2012. She played a piece by the late Bert Matter, a famous Dutch organist who was their teacher and professor. I remember it clearly – the piece was “Von Gott will ich nicht lassen,” and it was a minimalist arrangement of a hymn that was slightly less than ten minutes long. The church was closed for winter, and its emptiness and its high ceiling allowed the sound of the organ to hang audibly in the air for a full seven seconds before fading. It is one of my most cherished memories.