When we were in the Netherlands a few weeks back we absolutely loved it and now we had yet another long weekend with Monday being a holiday, so we decided to go back. However, we decided not to go to Amsterdam this time, we wanted something a little more relaxed so we decided on Utrecht. The way the public holidays were positioned made it a little more relaxed than we had hoped for, but that wasn’t a problem at all.
Utrecht is the fourth largest city in the Netherlands with a population of 330,772 in 2014. Utrecht’s ancient city centre features many buildings and structures, several dating as far back as the High Middle Ages. It has been the religious centre of the Netherlands since the 8th century. Utrecht was the most important city in the Netherlands until the Dutch Golden Age, when it was succeeded by Amsterdam as the country’s cultural centre and most populous city. It also has the second highest number of cultural events in the Netherlands, after Amsterdam.
We decided on Utrecht for several reasons, one being that we had heard a lot of great things about the place and the second was, as I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post, that last time we came to the Netherlands for our trip to Amsterdam we accidentally got off the train at the wrong station. Well, that station was Utrecht, so we knew it would be easy to get to.
This holiday started the same way as most. I waited on Friday afternoon for Anna to get home from work, we took a bus down to the Bonn Hauptbahnhof so we could take a shuttle to Köln and then make the two-hour trek to Utrecht. Although there were still train strikes happening, everything went smoothly, but I thought I was losing my mind at one point when we were waiting at Köln. I kept seeing this man (left) on our platform and sometimes I thought he had a beard, but then sometimes he didn’t. When I eventually saw him from front on it turned out he had half a beard. Anyway, we boarded our train, made our way to Utrecht and arrived at around 8:00pm.
Friday was a pretty low-key night, we went out for dinner and then hit the bars. On the way to dinner I saw a poster advertising Primus playing “Primus and the Chocolate Factory” in Utrecht. We looked it up, turns out there is a show in Köln on June, 20, the night before we leave Europe for good, so we snapped up tickets for that one.
We caught a taxi back to our hotel at the end of the night. It was only about a 10 minute walk for us to get into the city, but we both started to get worried when we were about 15 minutes into our ride back. It turned out there was just a ton of roadwork and construction work near our hotel, plus some of the existing roads appeared to have been transformed into bike lanes.
We did our usual weekend deal; We got up late, wandered into town and looked for something for lunch before we explored the place properly to wear off the calories. When people think of Dutch food, one of the first things that come to mind are pancakes, so Anna was fixated on the idea of having some as soon as damn possible. These things were great, two savoury ones plus a cherry, chocolate and whipped cream one for dessert. We definitely needed a stroll after that.
Utrecht is a lot more relaxing than Amsterdam, there aren’t the huge tour groups everywhere and it just doesn’t seem as seedy. Sure, the coffeeshops and hookers are all still there, but not so much out in the open, you’d need to look for them. When we were in Amsterdam you could see lingerie-clad girls dancing in windows in market places, but in Utrecht you don’t seem to just stumble across them.
Another reason Utrecht is a cool town is that it has all the stuff that we like, heaps of vintage clothing stores, record stores, cool bars and cafés. We wandered around, browsing and buying until the shops closed and then it was time to eat more and start drinking.
We had some dinner and looked around for a nice place to settle in for the night. As we were walking past a bar, a few young guys asked us to pull up a seat at their table, as they thought I was American due to my awesome Philadelphia 76ers jacket and Puerto Rico cap. They were local Utrecht guys, Ricardo and Daan, and they were just hanging out, having a drink and waiting for Ricardo’s girlfriend, Chantelle, to arrive. They were two of the funniest people we’ve met while traveling and they kept buying us drinks, a gesture which I always reciprocate. This was met with a warning from Ricardo, “Don’t buy Daan too many drinks. It only takes one too may for him to turn into “Dean””. “How could I turn such a nice guy into a monster?”, I pondered. He had just been sitting there, taking a backseat to the boisterous Ricardo, adding the occasional footnote where necessary, there seemed to be nothing to worry about at all.
Chantelle eventually arrived, too, and we all had a great night, but I did accidentally push Daan over the edge and received Dean in return. He evolved from the quiet sidekick into the androgynous lunatic who keep trying to kiss me and uttering his new catchphrase, “It’s only a little bit gay”. Fortunately, Ricardo kept him in check and an awesome night was had by all.
Sunday was the official public holiday, thus almost nothing was open, however, the weather was great so we just checked out different parts of this cool city, one of which was the Cathedral of St. Martin (right). We never went inside, we just explored its immaculate gardens and admired the building, itself.
Utrecht is an interesting place in that it is a very historic city, yet has embraced modern artwork and sculptures throughout. According to Wikipedia, the origins of the city are as follows (skip this part if you’re easily bored by history):
Although there is some evidence of earlier inhabitation in the region of Utrecht, dating back to the Stone Age (app. 2200 BCE) and settling in the Bronze Age (app. 1800–800 BCE), the founding date of the city is usually related to the construction of a Roman fortification (castellum), probably built in around 50 CE. A series of such fortresses was built after the Roman emperor Claudius decided the empire should not expand north. To consolidate the border the limes Germanicus defense line was constructed along the main branch of the river Rhine, which at that time flowed through a more northern bed compared to today (what is now the Kromme Rijn). These fortresses were designed to house a cohort of about 500 Roman soldiers. Near the fort settlements would grow housing artisans, traders and soldiers’ wives and children.
In Roman times, the name of the Utrecht fortress was simply Traiectum, denoting its location at a possible Rhine crossing. Traiectum became Dutch Trecht; with the U from Old Dutch “uut” (downriver) added to distinguish U-trecht from Maas-tricht. In 11th-century official documents it was Latinized as Ultra Traiectum. Around the year 200, the wooden walls of the fortification were replaced by sturdier tuff stone walls, remnants of which are still to be found below the buildings around Dom Square.
From the middle of the 3rd century Germanic tribes regularly invaded the Roman territories. Around 275 the Romans could no longer maintain the northern border and Utrecht was abandoned. Little is known about the next period 270–650. Utrecht is first spoken of again several centuries after the Romans left. Under the influence of the growing realms of the Franks, during Dagobert I’s reign in the 7th century, a church was built within the walls of the Roman fortress. In ongoing border conflicts with the Frisians this first church was destroyed.
When you learn the history and realise that the city as we see it today is well over 1,300 years old, when you’ve seen the Dom and the Cathedral of St. Martin, you don’t expect to stumble across sculptures like the one pictured, left, or statues of Miffy, but they are everywhere! There’s even a Miffy museum in Utrecht.
Most of our day was spent walking around, thinking to ourselves, “Cool, I hope that is open tomorrow”, as well as stopping in at a variety of bars, one of which was the Lebowski. For those of you haven’t seen the film The Big Lebowski, check it out.
This bar was great, too. Sure, there was no bowling alley, but there was a cool pinball machine and a taxidermied giraffe (right) inside. Another fun afternoon, but soon it turned into evening and another night of kicking back and relaxing in a bar was required. It is currently daylight savings here in Europe, but it is significantly different to daylight savings in Australia. “How?”, I hear you ask. Well, take a look at this picture that I took of the Dom at 10:00pm. It’s barely dusk!:
Monday was a lot like Sunday, it was a public holiday so almost everything was shut and we had to catch our train back to Bonn at 5:00pm. It was at that moment that we decided that Utrecht was such a great city that we’re coming back in two weeks to check it out when everything is open properly.