d’olle Grieze

2022 will be the 540th year anniversary since its completion in 1482

The “d‘olle Grieze” has stood watch over the houses of the city and its nearby lands [1] for over 500 years. In all kinds of weather and seasons it looked proud and tall [2] on the north east corner of the center of the great square (‘Grote Markt’). The ‘kerk’ was snuggled up beside it, touching its eastern side to almost halfway the height of the first tower balcony and fanning out with its ten peaks, five back to back on each side like separate buildings joined together with their black slate roofs and brick walls, and in each peak a large window.

The far eastern end of the church was narrower again with a slate roof on which perched a choir loft straining in height and towering over the ten peaked roofs like a massive stone tent.It looked like a church should look. Majestic and grand, with its tower reaching up to the heavens, taller than any other structure around it. Against the south side and beside its main entrance way were two smaller houses called ‘het brood & boter huisje’ [3] while just around the corner on the south side and tightly nestled into the corner of the church and against one leg of the tower was the house of the ‘tower watch’, guarding the entrance to one of the three stone portals, on the south, west and north side that gave access to the tower. From here one could enter through a door to the stairway leading upwards. The stone steps worn by the thousands of shuffled footsteps, turned like a coiled snake inside the brick structure of the tower going round and round. A rope was attached in the center for support as one circled up the tower. Narrow slits in the walls gave a little light in finding the next step. At the first balcony one could see the massive bells [4] hung on large and thick beams and directly outside on the south side, a sun dial was hung to check the accuracy of the towers clocks situated just above the second balcony, their clock faces turned to the north, south, east and west. Above that and just below the gleaming golden crown the bell carillon was hung which played during the day at the top of the hour and could be heard over the ‘Grote Markt’.[5]

At the top – what a view one had of the city and beyond to the country side!

Back at street level, on gaining entrance to the church through its large doors, one was struck by the vastness of the place. It was large and stately, reminiscent of a great cathedral. In front against the tower wall, one could see the great organ built originally in 1480 by Rudolphus Agricola and rebuilt and expanded by the famous F.C. Schnitger in 1834, beautifully decorated with gold leaf in the decor of its time. It had been and has again become world famous. Organists have traveled from the Americas to ask for permission to touch it ivory keys and hear the pipes speak in their clear and germanic tones.[6] As it was played, the sound would travel through the walls and could be heard clearly as one climbed the worn out steps of the tower. Huge stone slabs covered the floor and as was common, contained the last resting places of those who had been a somebody in the city going back to 1550 or even before that. During the last renovations a discovery was made of 8 Christmas and 6 Easter scenes painted in the ceiling of the choir loft. Although for a short time Catholic, the populace turned with the Reformation into a solidly Reformed people who in 1672 defeated the attempts of the Bishop of Munchen (also known as ‘Bommen-Berend’)[7] even though he had launched a series of bombs to force it to surrender and take-over the city. That victorious event is still celebrated each year on the 28th of August [8] with a civic holiday and much festivity enjoyed by young and old.

The tower of grey stone, blackened over the years, was originally over a 100 meters high and boasted as the highest structure in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Its height and it grand stature was the proud emblem of wealth and economic wellbeing of the northern province (‘t golden laand’) with the same name as the city, Groningen (‘áin wondre stad’). By the locals the tower was known as the “olde grieze” (the old grey one) That expression conjured up the idea that there was wisdom, strength and life experience in the structure that many a ‘Grunninger’ could look up to from a long distance away. Yes, there was even more, a feeling of comfort, of home and of family. This was their tower, their ‘Martini tor’n’, and their city. The only city (stad) of status [9] in the northern provinces of the Kingdom. Invincible, energetic, strong and proud. Like its citizens, reflecting the true Calvinistic work ethic which said that ‘van hard werken ga je niet dood’ (you do not die from working hard). They were a people with a conservative bend, quiet, industrious and yet with a dry humour that made them seem real and believable, deep but true and steadfast. Their dialect was hard to understand and had various variations as one traveled through the province, but they were all one.

In Groningen you either ‘goan noar stad’ or ‘komt oet stad’. (‘go to the city’ or ‘you come from the city’)

Around this setting my parents grew up and lived most of their lives. It provided for them a shelter, roots, a place of identity, a place that spoke of who they were and where they had come from.

This place was their home!


[1] Also known as ‘Stad en Ommelaand’. The Groninger folksong mentions this phrase in the song meaning the city and its nearby country lands. Gruninger Volks Lied. [2] Built around 1250, rebuilt in 1469 and restored during 1889-94 and then again in 1926 with major work done over a 20 year period to 1948.  In 1465 the tower was struck by lightning and in 1468 it collapsed, causing it to fall and destroy a large portion of the church, except for the extreme eastern part which remained intact. In 1469 the building of a new tower was begun taking 80 years to complete. In 1627 the wooden crown was placed on top of the structure. Its height is 96 meters. [3] ’’Butter and Bread’’ house. [4] First bell was made in 1627 and weighted 7850 kg. [5] ’Grote Markt’ means ‘large market or square’. This was directly to the south-west of the tower. At the west end stood the City hall started in 1777 and not completed till 1810 (due to the Napoleonic wars, when the Kingdom of the Netherlands became a province of the French Empire) in the grand gothic style with four massage stone pillars in front and two large stone steps leading up to the first floor front balcony. To me it looks very Napoleonic like. Right behind it stood the ‘Collecte huis’ also known by the locals as ‘Goud Kantoortje’ (Gold office) because here the citizen had to make their city tax payments. Above the front was fixed in Latin the saying of Jesus, ‘Date Caesar quake sent Caesar’ (‘Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar’ Gospel of Mark Chapter 12 verse 17) [6] Some of J.S.Bach’s organ works such as his trio-sonatas were recorded in the church in 1989 for the Naxos label. The organ was played by the famous organist Wolfgang Rubsaum. [7] The city was ably defended by General Rabenhaupt who refused to be intimidated by the Bishop’s fire power. [8] One of those festivities was a fireworks display on the market “Grote Market” in front of the tower every 28th of August. It started sharp with the striking of 10 PM on the tower clock. An event that I was allowed to watch several times, although my mother didn’t think I should stay out that late being only 10 years old. [9] There were others who had also been granted the privilege of city status but the ‘Groningers’ always tried to dominate the entire northern part of the Kingdom so that already in 1473 there was a law that forced the farmers to bring their grain to ‘stad’ to be milled and processed. In 1487 the city received authority from the German emperor Frederick to establish its own mint.