Utrecht, located in the heart of the Netherlands on the banks of the flowing waters of the Rhine, offers visitors a fascinating insight 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, winding canals, numerous museums and a huge selection of trendy bars, lively cafes and restaurants. Utrecht has been the religious center of the Netherlands since the 8th century and today it is the seat of the Archbishop of Utrecht, the country’s oldest Roman Catholic ruler. The city’s skyline is dominated by the Domtoren bell tower, located opposite the imposing Gothic Cathedral of Saint Martin in Place Domplein; it is the tallest church tower in the Netherlands, rising 368 feet into the sky. Construction began in 1321 when the tower was to be part of a new cathedral which, due to lack of funding, was not completed and the tower remained freestanding. Energetic souls who negotiate the 465 steps to the top of the tower will be amply rewarded with spectacular panoramic views of the city.
For those of us who intend to stay on dry land, the DoMunder, an old excavation site under Place Domplein, is waiting to be explored. I walked leisurely through the underground area using an interactive flashlight while looking at archaeological finds dating back to the Roman Castellum ‘Trajecturn’. Be sure to walk between the massive pillar foundations of the cathedral above and experience the power of the tornado, which destroyed its nave in 1674.
For a more relaxing excursion that allowed me to fully appreciate the beauty of Utrecht, I went to Oudegracht, I found the embarkation point for the 1 hour canal cruise. The curved canal follows the main arm of the Rhine and on either side of the river there are a number of warehouses, which date back to the 13th century. If you prefer to be the captain of your own boat, you can rent a “canal bike”, which is a pedal boat that can accommodate four passengers, and if the weather is unreliable, a soft top, which fits over the boat, is provided.
For those of us who like to rummage around for that elusive little gem and quirky gifts for loved ones, Oudegracht is full of charming little antique shops that attract even the most resistant shoppers. Be sure to take a stroll through the Lapjesmarkt, located on Breedstraat. It is the oldest fabric market in Holland, drawing crowds every Saturday between 08:00 and 13:00. And to embellish your life with color, the Bloemenmarkt on Janskerkhof, also held on Saturdays, is Utrecht’s largest flower and plant market.
To see more of Utrecht’s treasures, I headed to Lange Nieuwstraat, the location of the Catharijne Convent Museum, 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 outstanding example of gothic architecture. Exhibits include unique works of art dating from the early medieval era to the 21st century. Visitors will get an in-depth 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, scintillating images, elaborate book bindings, gleaming gold and silver artifacts and spectacular examples of Dutch art, including the masterpiece by Jan Steen, The Feast of Saint Nicholas.
The Centraal Museum, the main museum in Utrecht, was founded in 1838. I headed for the exhibition “The World of Utrecht”, which focuses on the history of the city through works of art , created locally by resident artists past and present. The vast collection is divided into sixteen themes and is spread over two floors and includes ancient and modern art, applied arts, city history, fashion 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 looking for a central hotel, the NH Utrecht, located on Jaarbeursplein, is only 0.5 km from Utrecht Central Station. The rooms are spacious, comfortable and have contemporary furnishings. I was lucky enough to get a junior suite, measuring 48 square meters, and the ultra-comfortable king bed, wrapped in crisp white linens, ensuring a deep sleep after a hectic day of exploring the city. Up with the morning larks, I took advantage of the room espresso coffee machine, which provided a welcome caffeine shot before a rejuvenating shower. I then headed to the hotel dining room on the ground floor and after a hearty breakfast I was ready to embark on further explorations.
Utrecht is the location of one of the most popular universities in the Netherlands and the tens of thousands of students ensure that the city retains its cultural “vibe”, with a wide variety of places where you can mingle to the inhabitants. Pop into one of the many local restaurants and enjoy a plate of stamppot, the Dutch national dish, which consists of creamy mashed potatoes tossed with carrots, kale or sauerkraut with the option of smoked sausage or bacon, and of course the cheese platter should offer generous portions of Gouda and Edam. To quench your thirst, order a juniper glassthe local liqueur flavored with juniperknown as Dutch gin, and toast to Utrecht, it really is a welcoming city.
Tip: On November 11, Utrecht celebrates the life of Saint Martin of Tours, the city’s patron saint. It is said that Saint Martin approached a beggar and gave him half his coat. It is believed that the beggar was a manifestation of Jesus. St Martin’s Day is a major event for the city and preparations begin in early November. A wide variety of events take place throughout the city leading up to the St. Martin’s Day Parade when an illuminated horse leads locals carrying handcrafted lanterns illuminating the way as they ride through the medieval town centre.