Peter Morrell enjoys an interest-packed short break in this historic city
Utrecht has been at the political, ecclesiastic and commercial heart of European history for almost 2000 years. It was founded by the Romans in around 50 AD as one of a series of forts defending their Empire’s northern border, the River Rhine. The city’s architecture has evolved over time, particularly in the 13th century, and this has been carefully preserved making it a fascinating city break destination.
The most significant development was the creation of the main artery of the city, the De Oudegratch or Old Canal. The construction of this waterway created an architectural layout unique in the world. Unlike all other canal centric cities a lower level was built with wharves for unloading and adjacent cellars extending for some 30 metres for storage. Over the top of the cellars roads, shops and houses were built.
The city became a centre for trade but now, apart from the beer and sightseeing barges, the canal boats carrying goods are gone. However, the canal side space and the cellars are the ideal spot for some relaxed alfresco dining.
Getting to the heart of this medieval city is easy. An early flight of under an hour from London City Airport and a 30-minute train ride from the station under Schiphol Airport got me to the centre of Utrecht in good time for lunch.
And talking of lunch my first culinary experience was at the Stadskasteel Oudaen; a former castle that dates back to 1280 and has been through many transformations. It now houses two restaurants, a bar and a brewery. Before lunch I chatted with owner Ireen Ophof who gave me a tour of the building including the tower from which I got bird’s eye view of De Oudegratch. The brewery is in the cellars which open out onto the wharf by the canal. Here they brew the beer for the bar and restaurants, including their signature, Ouwe Daen, a light and refreshing wheat beer. A pot of mussels steamed in Ouwe Daen was the perfect introduction to Utrecht’s cuisine.
Canal Boat Ride
The best way to get acquainted with the city is to take the canal boat tour. From the comfort of a glass roofed barge the knowledgeable captain gives a potted history of the local sights and buildings. The round trip really puts the layout of the city into context. A good example, are the streetlights which are placed between the roads and the drop to the wharves to light both levels. We learnt that each light has a carved motif at the base to denote what happened in the immediate area, plants for the flower market and cattle for the meat market.
One of the first significant canal side buildings on canal boat tour holds a very special place in history. City Hall was, in 1713, the location for the negotiation of the Treaty of Utrecht. All the countries in Europe had tired of two centuries of war and the conclusion of the treaty brought more than two decades of peace. If you think that all this is ancient history consider that part of the treaty was the ceding of Gibraltar to Britain from Spain and it paved the way for Holland, which has just seen the coronation of a new King, to change from a republic to a monarchy.
Back on dry land I walked over to Domplein, an open space dominated by the imposing Dom Tower, the bell tower of St Martin’s Cathedral. Domplein is the physical and spiritual heart of the city and site of the original Roman camp. It evolved into the most important religious centre in northern Europe after the establishment of Christianity by the Northumbrian missionary Willibrord in the 7th century.
In the cobbles of the square are the outlines of the small churches that surrounded the cathedral, but the most striking aspect is that the main cathedral building and the bell tower are detached. This was the result of a freak tornado in 1674 that destroyed the nave. There is currently an ambitious project under way to expose every layer of history under Domplein so visitors can descend from the modern day down to the foundations of the original of Roman Fort. You can find out more by visiting Schatkamer Domplein
Utrecht is a city for strolling (and, of course, cycling) where you will stumbled across delightful little public gardens like the cloisters of the cathedral or the charming Flora’s Hof in the shadow of the Dom Tower as well as churches and other historically significant buikdings.
I was staying in Chez Marianne, a charming bed and breakfast just a few steps away from the Oudegratch and the Dom Tower. The accommodation was originally a shop and the building constructed in 1644 over even older medieval cellars. On the ground floor is a fully equipped kitchen and comfortable lounge with elegant floor to ceiling windows overlooking a pretty walled garden. A steep staircase leads down to a large bedroom with a luxury bathroom. With a door from the bedroom into the secluded garden this is the perfect place to get away from it all while being really close to the city centre.
Not only was Chez Marianne in an ideal location but it gave a real insight into the Dutch domestic lifestyle. This way of life also includes the liberal use of the bike as a mode of transport meaning that car noise is kept to a minimum. There was something quite comforting lying in the very comfortable antique bed at night with the silence broken only by the carillon of bells in the Dom Tower. It was all very atmospheric.
Evening of the first day saw a return to the cellars, for dinner at the Restaurant Aal, a well-established canal side eaterie. The arched roof inside the restaurant gave it a cosy feel and the food was excellent. A couscous salad with seafood and smoked carpaccio of rib-eye steak were just two of the tempting starters. Mains included confit of duck and pan-fried cod. Both the food and service were faultless. Owner Andries Klassen is something of a wine buff, holding regular tasting, and recommended some very good matches for the food including an aromatic Argentine Torrontes.
Breakfast at Chez Marianne is optional and, although there’s everything you need to self cater, I went out for a coffee and pastry at Cafe Orloff. It’s here that one of Utrecht’s most famous sons, Dick Bruna, used to stop for his morning coffee before going to his studio to draw his most well known creations, Miffy the Rabbit.
Traits of Tolerance
Day two and there was still a lot to see. The Golden Age saw the rise of religious intolerance, with the Calvanists as the predominant force. Many secret churches sprung up and this period in history was graphically described in the exhibition, Traits of Tolerance, at the Catharijnecovent Museum. I would advise that you take the audio tour as there is very little visual narrative in English.
Peace was Made Here
A short walk away is the Centraal Museum that was showing an exhibition, Peace was Made Here, on the Treaty of Utrecht. This cleverly showed just how complex the political, military, royal and religious situation was in 1713. Housed in what was once the barracks and stables of Napoleon’s troops, the permanent collection was also well worth a visit.
Lunch was at the rather quaint Stadscafe Broers, overlooking an open space with a statue of Wilibrord riding into town on his horse and bringing with him Christianity.
The afternoon was taken up with a look at the unique Aboriginal Art Museum featuring some very colourful art from Australia.
The legacy of 400 years of trading links between Holland and the Far East is the reason for the proliferation of Indonesian restaurants in the country. One of the best of these is Blauw whose excellent reputation I put to the test by sampling their traditional Rijsttafel. This comprises some 20 small dishes each with a different characteristic, hot, cold, spicy, bland, sweet and sour. It was all perfectly balanced and I would rate it as one of my top five meals of 2103.
With such a large meal under my belt I decided to finish the evening following a walking trail called Trajectum Lumen, Trajectum was the Roman name for Utrecht. After dark many of the main building and architectural features are very creatively lit to give them a totally different perspective. The belfry of the Dom Tower has cascading lights, there is a halo on the top of Wilibrord church, the bridges are lit and a walk through the Ganzenmarkt Tunnel from a wharf to the higher road level transports you back to medieval times.
There was just time at the end of the evening to sit in a bar/cafe and sip a genever, the original gin. As I enjoyed the sweet, juniper flavour of the drink I reflected on what a lot Utrecht has to offer. There is the history, the mellow red bricks and cobbled streets, the picturesque canals, the food, the culture and a very relaxing atmosphere. Add to that the ease and speed of getting there and you have the ideal city break destination.
|Chez Marianne||1 person per night: EUR 85
2 persons per night: EUR 100
3 persons per night: EUR 125
4 persons per night: EUR 140
Including user charges, taxes, cable TV, wireless internet