My middle school teachers always used to tell me not to trust Wikipedia. So, I've decided to make my own entry based solely on my personal experience in Nijmegen. Here's all you need to know (and, coincidentally, everything I've learned) about this city. To learn more, I recommend going to Wikipedia.
Nijmegen, (pronounced, more or less: NIGH-may-hen), is a little known city near the eastern border of the Netherlands, just a stone's throw away from Germany. Although very few Americans have heard of Nijmegen (or can pronounce it properly), it is acclaimed internationally (at least in Europe) as the home of Radboud University and the host of the annual Four Days Marches, held every July. Nijmegen has a population of about 160,000, a sizable percentage of whom are full-time students. The city claims to be the oldest in the Netherlands, but a little digging reveals that Maastricht, way down in the southern part of the country, is older. Archaeological evidence to prove Maastricht's seniority is inaccessible, buried under present-day homes and streets. No doubt, however, that Nijmegen is still really, really old -- at least 1,000 years.
Panorama of Nijmegen
2. Topography & Climate
3.1 Trains & Buses
4.1 The Arts
5. The Four Days Marches
8. Portrayal in the Media
With at least 1,000 (but probably more) years under its belt, Nijmegen has been through a lot. Remains of castles and strongholds can be spotted in a few locations around town. Evidence of a retaining wall which once protected the city's center until the late 19th century can be found by following the sloped streets -- and by looking at large, clearly marked restorations.
More recently, things took a nasty turn in Nijmegen during World War II. When Allied bombers attempted to push the Germans back into Germany, they mistook Nijmegen for a German city and laid siege to it. Countless buildings were destroyed; numerous historic homes, churches, etc. were razed. As a result, architecture in Nijmegen today features a healthy mix of classic and contemporary style.
Topography & Climate
By Dutch standards, Nijmegen is very hilly. For this reason it made an appealing spot for strategic city founders. Today, those hills are the bane of many of the city's bikers. The majority of Nijmegen's residents live within a few kilometers (or a couple miles) of the City Center. The city is quite sprawling, however, and there are very few high-rises. Nijmegen boasts an impressive park-to-person ratio.
Inside a Nijmegen Park
Because it lies in the northern half of Europe, farther from the equator, during summer months the sun is almost always shining. Most nights last from only about 10pm (sunset) until around 4am (sunrise). Average temperatures tend to be cooler than in the North Eastern United States. Many Nijmegenaars complain during the hotter, more humid days. In the Fall, Winter, and Spring there is also weather.
Trains & Buses
The train and bus system in Nijmegen is based out of the center station, aptly named Centraal Station. Most the trains running through the station are destined for other cities. A network of tracks also snakes through Nijmegen. Like other Dutch railways, Nijmegen's trains are very punctual and plenty of people take them. (For information on Nijmegen buses, see Bus Comparison.)
The Netherlands has 2.5 bikes for every person and in Nijmegen there are plenty to go around. Nijmegen is a cyclist's paradise: every road has a designated bike lane; there are traffic lights catered specifically to bikers; all intersections have a "green light" button for bikers to push that will influence the light cycle; bikes have the right of way over automobiles, pedestrians, and other bikes. A high volume of bikes also results in a high volume of of bike-thefts. Nijmegenaars who wish to keep their bikes lock them in bike racks, some of which are two-stories high. A special police bike-traffic control unit periodically hauls off unlocked bikes. Because of the risk theft and damage, almost all cyclists buy their bikes used.
Nijmegen's roads also allow for the driving of automobiles. Cars can be found driving both to and fro. Owning a car in Nijmegen is very expensive; almost no students own cars.
Nijmegen attracts an impressive range of musical talent, especially for a city of its size. During the Four Days Marches in particular, the city in inundated with music [link]. A few theaters offer live performances. A number of cinemas feature mainstream new-release movies; at least one art house features cult-classics and experimental films. Less noisy art forms such as painting, sculpture, and urban murals also can be seen throughout Nijmegen.
As a "student city," Nijmegen maintains a vibrant nightlife. Established destinations include any number of bars and clubs. Party people both young and old can also be found drinking in parks or on their front porches. Radboud University has its own on-campus bars. Unfortunately for the youngest Nijmegenaars, the Netherlands raised the minimum drinking age from 16 to 18 in early 2014.
Also present in Nijmegen are "Coffee Shops," which do not, as their name suggests, focus on selling coffee, but rather on legal marijuana. Dutch laws concerning marijuana sales are murky. The official ruling is a tacit acceptance of its use. Due in part it its legality, marijuana consumption is markedly less popular in the Netherlands than it is the United States.
Nijmegenaars are serious about their physical health. There are more fitness centers in Nijmegen than there are McDonald's. Outdoor fitness classes can be spotted doing calisthenics in public parks in broad daylight.
The Four Days Marches
Almost in its centennial year, The Four Days Marches (in Dutch, Vierdaagse Afstandsmarsen), is the city's biggest event of the year [link]. Over 40,000 people from dozens of countries sign up to complete the marches: four straight days of 40 to 50km of walking. Army units and geriatrics comprise the majority of marchers, as they have the most time to train. Other age groups and professions get in on the fun as well.
Surrounding the event itself is an elaborate, citywide party which starts the Saturday night before marches begins and ends the following Friday night. During every day and night of this seven day festivity, Nijmegenaars and visitors flood the city center for free music, dancing, an array of international cuisines, kid-friendly entertainment, adult beverages, carnival rides, and creatively decorated public restrooms.
Fireworks just hours before the marches begin
The marches and the parties do not solely function as a fundraiser nor do they have one beneficiary. The marches go on for the sake of marching. The parties go on for the sake of partying.
Attending school in Nijmegen, as with other Dutch cities, is compulsory. Students test into one of seven "tracks" at a fairly young age, around the beginning of high school. Although there is room for movement from one track to another, only the most academically inclined students -- those in the top track -- can go on to a university. Others will graduate en route to a college. Still others will be go on to vocational training. Some will graduate and then spend time taking advantage of the Netherlands' generous welfare system.
Universities in the Netherlands are not free for Dutch citizens, but are fairly affordable. Government subsidies are available to most students. Nijmegen is host to Radboud University, one of the most prestigious institutions in the country. Many Dutch students earn bachelor degrees at Radboud. The university also boasts many masters and doctoral programs. Germans come across the nearby border in droves to study at Radboud University. The campus is large, modern, and well maintained. Radboud has an excellent linguistics programming spanning across multiple labs, including the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguists [link]. Research opportunities for international students abound, especially during summer months.
The dominant language in Nijmegen is Dutch. Nearly all Nijmegenaars are bilingual or better, with English being the most popular second language. Many departments at Radboud University function in English. For foreigners attempting to order food or buy a bus ticket, there are no shortages of Dutch to English translators available. For foreigners attempting to learn Dutch, there is little hope. Besides some common ancestry and certain cognates, Dutch and English are not mutually intelligible. Dutch people are the first to declare that Dutch is difficult to pick up. Dutch people are also the first to switch into English when a foreigner is struggling, e.g. trying to order a "pizzadag," which is not a food, but a promotion meaning "pizza day."
Stereotypically, Dutch people, including residents of Nijmegen, are friendly, helpful, and humble. The Netherlands has a comparatively small wealth gap and this is evidenced by only slight differences in Nijmegen home sizes. Dutch culture promotes the idea of social equality and scoffs at the notion of showboating or putting on airs. A famous Dutch saying ("Doe maar normaal, dan doe je al gek genoeg.") translates literally to "Just act normal, then you're acting crazy enough as it is!" which translates to "Even though you're weird, it's better to just roll with it."
Throughout history, outsiders have also voiced their opinion on Dutch culture. In the early 1600s, the Japanese interpreted Dutch forthrightness and lack of social hierarchy as a lack of social grace, suggesting that "Where a Dutch person has walked, not even grass will grow." However, there are acres (and hectares) of grass growing in Nijmegen.
Portrayal in the Media
Mainstream American media has not heard of Nijmegen. However, Dutch culture in general has been a punching bag for the uninformed. Movies and TV shows in the United States have poked fun at the Netherlands for decades.
Examples of Dutch-shaming:
- A 2011 episode of South Park referenced a farcical Dutch folk song about American musician Slash called Vunter Slaush.
- The character played by Portia De Rossi in the short-lived show Better Off Ted repeatedly besmirched the Netherlands.
- The 2002 movie Austin Powers in Goldmember featured a Dutch character who proclaimed the notion that he was "from Holland" was "weird."
1. Magerman, Daniel. "Two Months in Nijmegen." A unwritten short story.
2. Google Translate: https://translate.google.com/#nl/en/
3. Cranendonk, Tristan. A walking tour of Nijmegen.