Utrecht, located in the heart of the Netherlands beside the flowing waters of the river Rhine, offers visitors an intriguing glimpse into a vibrant culture and a rich and colorful history.
The city, which was founded on a Roman Fort in 47 CE, features a charming medieval old town, meandering canals, museums galore, and an extensive selection of trendy bars, buzzing cafés, and restaurants. Utrecht has been the Netherland’s religious center since the 8th century and today it is the see of the Archbishop of Utrecht, the country’s most senior Roman Catholic leader. The city’s skyline is dominated by the Domtoren bell tower, located opposite the imposing Gothic Cathedral of Saint Martin on Domplein Square; it is the tallest church tower in the Netherlands, soaring 368 feet into the sky. Construction began in 1321 when the tower was to form part of a new cathedral, which, due to lack of funding, was not completed, and the tower remained free-standing. Energetic souls who negotiate the 465 steps leading up to the top of the tower will be richly rewarded with a spectacular panoramic view of the city.
For those of us intending to remain on terra firma, the DoMunder, a former excavation site underneath Domplein Square, is waiting to be explored. I took a leisurely stroll through the underground area using an interactive flashlight whilst viewing archaeological finds dating back to the Roman Castellum ‘Trajecturn’. Be sure to walk between the enormous pillar foundations of the Cathedral above and experience the power of the tornado, which tore down its nave in 1674.
For a more relaxing excursion and one which allowed me to fully appreciate the beauty of Utrecht, I made my way to Oudegracht, I found the embarkation point for the hour-long canal cruise. The curved canal follows the main branch of the Rhine and on each side of the river, there are a number of warehouses, which date back to the 13th century. If you prefer to captain your own vessel you can rent a ‘canal bike’, which is a pedal boat that seats four passengers, and if the weather is unreliable a hood, which fits over the boat, is supplied.
For those of us who love to rummage for that elusive little trinket and unusual gifts for loved ones, Oudegracht is crammed with charming little antique shops enticing even the most resistant shoppers. Be sure to wander around the Lapjesmarkt, located on Breedstraat. It’s the oldest fabric market in Holland, attracting crowds every Saturday between 08.00 and 13.00 hours. And to enhance your life with color, the Bloemenmarkt on Janskerkhof, also held on Saturdays, is the largest flower and plant market in Utrecht.
To view more of Utrecht’s treasures, I headed for Lange Nieuwstraat, the location of the Museum Catharijne Convent, where I discovered a spectacular collection of medieval religious art. Housed in a former monastery, which was built in the 16th century, it is another exceptional example of Gothic architecture. Exhibits include unique pieces of art dating from the early medieval era right up to the 21st century. Visitors will gain a deep insight into Christian art, the cultural history of the Netherlands, and its significant impact on Dutch society. I feasted my eyes on intricately illuminated manuscripts, glittering images, elaborate book bindings, sparkling gold and silver artifacts, and spectacular examples of Dutch art including Jan Steen’s masterpiece The Feast of Saint Nicholas.
The Centraal Museum, Utrecht’s main museum, was founded in 1838. I headed for the exhibition ‘The World of Utrecht’, which focuses on the story of the city through works of art, created locally by resident artists past and present. The extensive collection is divided into sixteen themes and is spread out over two floors and includes old and modern art, applied arts, city history, fashions, and period costumes. Admirers of Joachim Wtewael, one of Utrecht’s most gifted artists, will be delighted with the museum’s collection of his work, which is the largest in the world.
For weary travelers seeking a centrally located hotel, the NH Utrecht, situated on Jaarbeursplein, is only 0.5km from Utrecht Central Station. The rooms are spacious, comfortable, and feature contemporary furnishings. I was fortunate to secure a Junior Suite, measuring 48 sq meters, and the ultra-comfortable king bed, swathed in crisp, white, linens, ensuring a deep slumber after a hectic day of exploring the city. Up with the morning larks, I took advantage of the in-room espresso coffee machine, which provided a welcome caffeine hit prior to a rejuvenating shower. I then headed for the hotel’s dining room on the ground floor and after a hearty breakfast, I was ready to embark on more explorations.
Utrecht is the location of one of Holland’s most popular universities and the tens of thousands of students ensure that the city retains its cultural ‘vibe’, with a wide variety of venues where you can mingle with the locals. Pop into one of the many local restaurants and sample a plate of stamppot, Holland’s national dish, which consists of creamy mashed potatoes mixed with carrots, kale, or sauerkraut with the option of smoked sausage or bacon, and of course, the cheeseboard should offer generous servings of Gouda and Edam. To quench your thirst, order a glass of Jenever, the juniper flavored local liquor, known as Dutch gin, and make a toast to Utrecht, it really is a welcoming city.
Tip: On 11 November Utrecht celebrates the life of St Martin of Tours, the city’s patron saint. It is said that St Martin approached a beggar and gave him half of his cloak. The beggar is thought to have been a manifestation of Jesus. The festival of St Martin is a major event for the city and preparations begin in early November. A wide variety of events take place all over the city leading up to the St Martin’s Parade when an illuminated horse leads the locals carrying homemade lanterns lighting up the way as they walk through the medieval town center.