Before I came to study in Groningen, the only time I ever visited the city (or the province really) was when my parents drove through it to cross the German border at Bad Nieuweschans. But let’s suppose that this time when driving back into the Netherlands, the holiday isn’t over yet and you’ve got some spare time on your hands. Bad Nieuweschans is not the only exceptional name on the map of the North, this will be an interesting road trip.
Bad Nieuweschans, at the edge of Groningen is both the easternmost settlement and northernmost border crossing in the Netherlands. It was founded in the 17th century as a defensive structure, and was at the time on the coast of the Dollart. Due to more and more polders being built however, the village lost it’s strategic coastal function. Nowadays, the village with approximately 1500 inhabitants is truly nothing special except for one thing. Aside from the main attraction of the village being the German border crossing, the wellness centre located in Bad Nieuweschans has also proven to be a major visitor’s attraction. On a depth of 630 metres, a well was found, and a wellness centre was opened in 1985. This centre became of such importance to the village that, in 2009, to improve the village’s reputation of a bathing place, the prefix “Bad” was added to the then-name Nieuweschans, just like a lot of German towns have “Bad” (bath) in their names. Driving from Germany into Groningen, this name indeed seems more like a German one than a Dutch one.
A place, especially a smaller town like Nieuweschans changing it’s name is not really exceptional. Taking the United States as an example, names of places have been changed due to various reasons. Names were too complicated (though Lake Chaubunagungamaug, Massachusetts is still a thing), too racist or were changed simply because of a radio show. Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, changed its name because the host of the radio show Truth or Consequences (jokingly) said that he would broadcast from the town that named itself after the radio show. The town of Hot Springs decided this was the time to act, and the 10th anniversary of Truth or Consequences was indeed broadcasted from the renamed town.
Enough talk, let’s hit the road!
Our first stop is the infamous disaster town of Blauwestad (Blue City) which has both an unusual place name and an unusual story. Following newly engineered cities in the Netherlands such as Almere and Lelystad, plans were made in 1988 to create a new centre for the eastern part of Groningen, which had been in a economical decline for quite a few years by then. The plan was to take a large plot of agricultural land, flood it, and create an attractive place where rich and well-educated people from the Randstad, in pursuit of a more quiet place to live, could settle and winch the region out of the economical mud. The idea was that people could buy a spacious plot of land and design and build a house themselves. Turns out that Blauwestad was just too far away, and had too little to offer by means of facilities and was too harsh on potential buyers with architectural guidelines. Of the more than 1400 homes planned, just a small fraction has been built. It’s kind of ironic that a town called city only has 300 inhabitants, but who knows what the future will bring for Blauwestad.
Somewhat more north is the village of Hongerige Wolf (Hungry Wolf). Stories circulate about the town being called this name because The Netherlands’ last wolf was killed there in 1794. The more common story, though, is that the village is named after an inn located nearby. As small and boring the actual village of Hongerige Wolf may be, because of the name being so interesting, there is an annual festival held, which the municipality of Old-ambt proudly advertises on their website. Who would have thought.
Picture 1: Hongerige Wolf (Hungry Wolf). Source: below.
Speaking of things you never thought existed, the journey continues to Nooitgedacht, Groningen. The place that literally translates to “Never thought”. The reputation of people form the province of Groningen having a sober character really holds up here, it is commonly assumed that the place earned its name because nobody ever thought that people would found a town in a place that uninhabitable. Close to Nooitgedacht is the small village of Polen (Poland). The village consisting of just a handful of buildings, information about the origins of the name is not widespread. The only available explanation is that the town was in fact named after the country of Poland, because it felt so far away from other towns in the area that it might as well have felt as far away as being in another country (more than 500 kilometres away).
Continuing our journey in a westwards direction, we stumble upon the village of Doodstil, which translates to “Dead silence”. Given that just over a hundred people live there, that kind of makes sense. The village has, however, been celebrated as the place in the Netherlands with the most beautiful name in 2005. Although the election was won because of the promoted alternative interpretation of the name as “flawlessly silent” (volmaakt stil), the origin of the name is much less dark than one may expect. Dood is derived from a Frysian name, Doede or Doode, and the stil part of the name also turns out not to be about the low volume level, but as an old synonym for bridge, which boils the actual translation down to “Doede’s bridge”. If you want to impress some friends at the campfire this summer, you can also tell the dark theory about the name origin: Legends say that before there was a bridge, there was a ferry to cross the Boterdiep, which needed to transport a coffin to the other side one day. Due to an unknown cause, the ferry made a weird turn and the coffin fell into the water (you can add some more spooky stuff to spice things up from here). In order to prohibit something like this happening again, the people built a bridge. Time for some cof-fee.
Picture 2: Doodstil (Dead Silence); They already mentioning they do have the most beautiful place name in the Netherlands by themselves… Source: below.
The first stop after visiting the Coffee Room at Zernike is Amerika, Drenthe. Just like another Dutch town in Limburg bearing the same name, some people think the place was called Amerika because of the heather fields in the area. “Am erica” means something like “with the heather” in the spatial meaning of the word. The village being found in 1909 however, the explanation that the place earned it’s name because the heather fields and open spaces made the workers think of the plains in the United States is easier to believe. It is said that some of them also lived in similar shacks as the pioneers in the U.S. did back in the day.
Going further south, after briefly stopping in another town called Nooitgedacht, close to Hoogeveen, we find another notable example of a foreign sounding place name in the north of the Netherlands, Nieuw Moscou (New Moscow) in the province of Drenthe. Falling just one kilometre outside of the scope of this issue of Girugten, De Krim (Crimea) in the province of Overijssel can also be added to the list of (debatably) Russian place names. Although nobody knows for sure, it is commonly stated that these places (located in close proximity to each other) were named their names during the Crimea war of the 1850s.
Other honourable mentions were De Veenhoop (The PeatPile), Moddergat (Muddy hole), Kleine Huisjes (Little homes) and Zoutkamp (Salt Camp). This tour only scratches the surface of all weird and interesting place names in the Netherlands. Next time you’re bored, get yourself a cup of tea, a good chair, your atlas of choice and a magnifying glass. There’s plenty left to explore!
This article was published in the Northern Netherlands edition, May 2018.
Top photo: by Author, 2018.
Source Picture 1:
CC-BY-SA 4.0 By: Handscarf, 9th of september 2010, Wikipedia Commons
Source Picture 2:
CC-0 By: Gouwenaar 29th of march 2011, Wikipedia Commons