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How travel helped me explore my heritage

Groningen, the Netherlands

Hi, I’m Janine. I was born into the melting pot of culture and nationalities that is Cape Town, South Africa. My mother is English (the country I live in), and my father is of Dutch and South African (plus some Irish) heritage. My eyes are the same colour as his, and his are the same colour as his father’s, genetically connecting me directly to my Dutch heritage. But other than photos of my grandfather, knowing why he left Holland, and the colouring of my eyes, I had no other connection to him. Nor could I comprehend his historic part within my present self.

My South African heritage is a typical colonial cross-pollination. I am part of the South African diaspora and simultaneously disconnected by it. My travels in Groningen, the Netherlands, was a journey of self-discovery and familial exploration. 

Discovering my Dutch heritage

I am fascinated by the idea of families with generational ties to the land. Their history sometimes stretches all the way to the Normans and beyond. Some even have homes that have been within the family for generations. They grow up with cousins and a solid knowledge of where they come from and where they are. 

People like me grow up with stories, and these stories are like family myths. One of the stories I grew up with was that my grandfather’s mother was a terrible woman. She was so awful my grandfather left Groningen to escape her and ended up in South Africa. So, Groningen became the site of his past struggle and eventual liberty. But this site also lacked concrete substance to me. It was only an idea, a concept.

I wanted to see the physical roots of my grandfather’s story and the place that launched my own existence and imagination. I wanted to walk the streets he might have walked, sit by the canals he may have passed, and feel that connection to his and my past. Groningen would no longer be a myth but a tangible place rooted in my past as well as his.

Janine and her father

Image source:Janine Magnin

Exploring my place in history

Heritage tourism is where the traveller visits a physical place, while cultural tourism is more about the experience itself. Although there is a distinction between heritage and cultural tourism, the two weave together into a tapestry of place-situated experience and discovery. 

When I visited Groningen, I walked the whole of the old town, visited churches, sat by canals, and walked the many sideroads. I imagined that, decades ago, my grandfather must have walked through the same old markets and passed the same old kerke (churches) when he was a boy and young man. Although the city must have changed in many ways, the old buildings were the same.

Travelling to this old city offered me an incredible opportunity to connect with my familial history and help me better locate myself in the world. It helped expand a personal understanding of my complex South African heritage. 

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Some things I saw and did

Martinitoren

The Martini Tower has stood within the Groot Markt for centuries and is 97 metres tall, making it the tallest building in the city and a familiar feature of the Groningen skyline. If you are willing to climb the 300 stairs, you get to see its loeizware (heavy) bells, hear the hourly tolling right above you (so loud, I had to block my ears), and look out at the most incredible views of the city.

Groningen, the Netherlands, Martini Tower

Image source:Janine Magnin

Pieterpad

The Pieterpad, also known as the Dutch Camino, is a 498km (309 mile) trail that runs from Pieterburen (north) to Maastricht (south). Established in 1983, it is now a popular trail for walkers and cyclists and is well-signposted. Taking a bus to Paterswoldsemeer (a vast area of lake and outdoor activities), I walked back along the Pieterpad into the old city, stopping for lunch by the lake and later an ice cream. Other than having to dive into the bushes now and then to avoid near collisions with path-owning cyclists, it was a gentle, flat, and well-maintained path.

Groniger Museum

The Groniger Museum offers visitors a fascinating and comprehensive history of Groningen’s rich, if chequered, past. Moving from curated room to room, it depicts in photos, portraits, landscapes, and relics the numerous sieges and international invasions of its shores, as well as sad acknowledgments of the city’s part in the Dutch East Indian Company’s slave trade. Contemporary exhibitions offer visitors more modern artworks and colourful visual feasts.

Groninger Museum, The Netherlands

Image source:Janine Magnin

Why should we explore our histories?

Travel offers us incredible opportunities to understand historical traditions unique to our families. We gain historical perspectives of where they came from and the cultures they were part of. Where and how my grandfather grew up and was raised would have intrinsically impacted how he raised my father and how he, in turn, raised me. We do not grow up in a vacuum. Our histories are deeply embedded in our values and choices, and our roots are intrinsically part of our present. By exploring that past, we better understand our present selves, which, in turn, informs our future selves.

Exploring Groningen allowed me to pull a curtain from the myth of Groningen and see it for myself. To experience it and imagine a man I had never met but who was very much a part of who I am now. 

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Travel can unlock new knowledge and meaning

Travel is an incredible learning opportunity. It fills us with new experiential knowledge and exposes us to new cultures and insights. We travel and explore and discover new things and new insights and are, in turn, motivated to travel and explore more. This is known as wanderlust

Heritage travel also helps to make us aware of those historical ripples within us. We experience and see firsthand the sights, sounds, and skies our ancestors saw, felt, and experienced. When we return to those places, we better understand those ripples and thus better understand ourselves and our place within the world. 

Contiki can help you explore your heritage

Contiki has an extensive selection of curated travel destinations and experiences. What I like the most about organised tours is, simply put,  they’re organised. I know what the budget and itinerary is. I just have to pitch up and enjoy the experience of somewhere new and exciting. Transport, accommodation, and life-changing experiences led by local guides are all arranged for you.

Many of us have ties to other cultures and places we’ve never seen and only heard of. Maybe you live in America, but your ancestors are from Ireland and arrived on the Mayflower. Many of you may be curious to know more about their English roots. Others may want to explore their South African heritage or learn about their Kenyan ancestors. Instead of toying with the idea of self-discovery, go and book that trip and uncover the past’s echoes within you.

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