Toledo, city of swords and marzipan

Toledo may well be an UNESCO World Heritage Site, but take away the dramatic location, intense history, beautiful architecture and superb culinary scene, and what are you left with? Tourist shops selling bizarre collections of swords and foodstuffs crafted from marzipan. That’s what. I will come clean, I hate marzipan. Its intense almond flavour ruined almost every Christmas I had as a child. I still have issues with Xmas cake. I’m not especially fond of swords either, but have less experience of them, and in Toledo’s defence it was once renowned for making the finest steel (and swords) in Europe.

Toledo’s choice of confectionary may be unfortunate, combining it with swords plain bizarre, but I can forgive wonderful Toledo just about anything. This is after all a city National Geographic described as “suspended between heaven and earth”, a description that you can only truly appreciate when you view the town from outside the city. Built on a hill and surrounded on three sides by the Rio Tejo, the city builds upwards until it peaks with the spires of the Cathedral and towers of the Alcazar.

We didn’t have long in Toledo, just enough time to get a flavour of what this former Spanish Imperial capital city has to offer and to make a note in the ‘places to return to’ column. Walking the narrow medieval streets it is hard not to feel like you’ve slipped back in time, something reinforced by the lack of modern architecture. Toledo may have cars crammed down impossibly narrow roads, but new building is restricted by its status as a National Monument – given to it by General Franco and sparing it the ravages of 1970s urban planning.

Toledo had a special place in Franco’s heart. During the Civil War, Nationalist forces withstood a vicious siege by Republican forces. The fight centred on the Alcazar, where Franco’s forces held out desperately; the bombardment from the Republicans reduced the building to rubble. Franco sent a relieving force to Toledo, an act now credited with prolonging the war. Had he headed straight to Madrid years of bloodshed might have been avoided. After the war Franco had the Alcazar rebuilt, and the town’s Civil War role and long history saw it declared a National Monument in 1941.

Toledo was founded during the Roman occupation of the Iberian Peninsular and its history is glorious. Conquered by the Moors in 711, the town grew and flourished as a strategic crossroads and a centre of learning. The town fell to Christian forces in 1085, upon which it was made the seat of the Catholic Church in Spain, giving it a status that ensured it grew ever more important and wealthy. It became the seat of the Spanish monarchy until Felipe II decided to move to Madrid. History has left behind a superb architectural legacy, including buildings like the Alcazar which date from Moorish times, and a wealth of incredible churches.

There are also some remnants of Toledo’s third defining culture, Judaism. The Iglesia de Santa María la Blanca was the oldest synagogue in Toledo, but was eventually turned into a church following religious persecution in the 14th and 15th Centuries, prior to the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. During Islamic and early Christian rule, Christians, Jews and Muslims lived peacefully and reasonable harmoniously. This ended in the 15th Century, and Toledo stopped being known as the city of ‘three cultures’. Today Santa Maria la Blanca is a museum preserved as a synagogue by the Catholic Church, as if that isn’t weird.

The city is something of a maze, and one of the joys of being here is just getting lost in the alleys and lanes; finding yourself in small plazas, occasionally getting splendid views over the city and discovering some of the multitude of churches. If you’re ever in Toledo try to find your way to the Iglesia de San Ildefonso, which as well as having a lovely interior has spectacular views over the town. It’s a bit of clamber to get up there, but worth every breathless step.

Into the heartlands of Castilla-La Mancha

This is Don Quixote and Sancho Panza country, and the tourist board of Castilla-La Mancha is very reluctant to let you forget it. Driving through this arid-looking region, references to Cervantes’ two most famous creations can be spotted just about everywhere. As can Don Quixote’s greatest enemy, the windmills he so famously tilted at, erroneously believing them to be giants, their sails the giants’ hulking arms.

Coming from a country where windmills are somewhat grander than their Spanish counterparts might have dampened my enthusiasm for them. Thankfully schoolboy memories of reading Cervantes (in translation) were enough to make the sight of squat, white Spanish windmills on the horizon thrilling. The Dutch connection doesn’t end there; many interpret Don Quixote (in part, at least) as a critique of Spain’s foreign policy and military occupation of The Netherlands during the Eighty Years War.

Despite its literary associations, historic towns, dramatic castles, hilltop windmills and surreal landscapes of red soil dotted with rows of vines and olive trees, Castilla-La Mancha receives little of the tourist attention that Andalusia or the ‘costas’ to the south get. This ‘second rung’ status seems to be underlined by my two guidebooks, one of which dismisses this fascinating region with barely concealed contempt; the other reserves one of its thinnest sections for Castilla-La Mancha – a mere 29 pages, compared to 126 pages for Andalusia.

Driving through this vast region on quiet rural roads it often feels like you’ve wandered into an empty space on the map. You can go for hours without seeing much in the way of ‘life’. The roads are empty, often arrow straight, and the villages and small towns you pass through define the word siesta: sleepy, dusty and with an air of abandonment, but always with a disproportionately enormous church hinting at a more populous past. It’s like being in a Lorca play.

Leaving lovely but chilly Cuenca behind, we meandered around the countryside, visiting the windmills of Campo de Criptana before spending the night in Belmonte. Belmonte is a sleepy place, home to a couple of thousand people and shrinking – it has lost a third of its population in the last 30 years. Like so much of the world, Spain’s demographic present is from the countryside to the town. This is true everywhere, but in Castilla-La Mancha you get the sense that entire populations are missing.

Belmonte does, however, have a truly magnificent 15th Century castle standing imposingly on top of a hill overlooking the town. The castle features in Don Quixote, a place where the eponymous hero charges a windmill.

The castle is also strongly associated with Empress Eugenie of France, who came originally from Granada. Eugenie had the misfortune to be married to Emperor Napoleon III, who not only lost the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, but was humiliatingly captured by the Prussians at the Battle of Sedan and lost his throne as well. The Imperial family were officially exiled to England, but Eugenie regularly returned to her Spanish homeland and stayed at Belmonte Castle on a number of occasions. Her ghost is said to wander the corridors mournfully contemplating what might have been.

We’d arrived late to Belmonte and nothing much seemed open. Luckily the Palacio Buenavista Hospederia, a lovely hotel in a converted 16th Century building, had a good restaurant. It also gave us a room providing great views as a violent, short-lived storm blew across the town creating a dramatic view of the castle.

A walk through Medieval Cuenca

A few years ago there was much anticipation (or fretting, depending upon your view of these things) that a newly opened high speed rail link from Madrid to Cuenca would result in the town finally taking centre stage on the tourist trail. The fear was that this small and quiet town would suddenly be inundated with marauding tourists making the place look untidy. Until then the beautiful, and more easily reached, city of Toledo had been Castilla-La Mancha’s destination of choice for tourists.

March may not be the best time to test this theory, but while tourism is definitely on the rise, out of season it is pretty low key. The narrow alleys and cliff top trails of this charming town were often free of people. Summer, I’m told, is a different matter.

Comparisons between Toledo and the smaller, cliff hugging town of Cuenca don’t really work. They’re very different places, as a visitor the experience you have can’t truthfully be compared. I loved wandering the streets of Cuenca, stopping into some of the lively bars and restaurants on and around the main square, and generally absorbing the timeless atmosphere of the town. The two towns have similar populations, yet Toledo feels cosmopolitan while at heart Cuenca feels like a big village.

The old, historic centre of the town perches high on cliffs that tumble vertically down to the two rivers, the Huécar and the Júcar, that cut through the rock to form the gorges on either side. We stayed just up the hill from the Plaza Mayor in the Hotel Leonor de Aquitania, itself perching on a cliff with spectacular views of the gorge below. I got up early and walked through deserted streets to the top of the town to take in the fantastic views. The sun finally broke through the cloud to illuminate houses and churches built from yellow sandstone.

In the early morning it is a peaceful place to absorb the panorama, only occasionally interrupted by the chatter of people walking in the gorge. From the top of town there is a well marked trail down the cliff side. The trail brings you to the Puente de San Pablo, the iconic red metal bridge that spans the gorge to connect the town and the towns most expensive hotel, the Parador de Cuenca, itself housed in a former 16th Century monastery. From the bridge you get wonderful views of the equally iconic Casas Colgadas, Cuenca’s hanging houses.

Walking back over the bridge a road takes you through one of the old town gates. From here we explored the town lower down the hill before finally wending our way back into the Plaza Mayor. The dominant feature of the plaza is the slightly bizarre looking Gothic Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Gracia.

Construction started on the cathedral in 1182, shortly after Cuenca was captured from Moorish forces. Its development has seen a mismatch of styles squeezed together, culminating in the Gothic facade added in 1902. The new facade was necessary because the old one collapsed. 827 years after construction began, it remains a work in progress.

Cuenca is an atmospheric place during the day, at night it is a place that feels alive with medieval intrigue. Few people were on the streets; in the quiet night air sound travels a long way in the narrow alleys and amplifies up from the gorge. Footsteps or voices echo up and down the cobbled lanes, making a stroll back from the local bar after a couple of glasses of tinto a marvellously eerie experience.

Hanging out in Medieval Cuenca

Perched on a rocky outcrop high above two gorges forged by the Júcar and Huécar rivers, Cuenca is as dramatic a sight as any in Spain, especially the casas colgadas, houses that hang precariously from the steep rock over the gorge below. Walking its narrow, medieval streets the evocative history of this fabulous town seems to seep out of the stone walls and cobbled streets. I’d wanted to visit Cuenca for years after seeing a panoramic photo in the travel pages of a newspaper, despite the chilly March weather and occasional rain showers, it didn’t disappoint.

Cuenca is a beautiful place, full of atmosphere. It has a compact old town which is easy to stroll around, some excellent restaurants and lively, entertaining bars crammed full of locals and visitors alike. We had one of the best meals of our trip, fresh grilled octopus washed down with local artisan beer, in a small restaurant just off the Plaza Mayor. The town also has a couple of really good museums, including the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español which occupies one of the casas colgadas.

We’d arrived on a Saturday and there was a buzz in the town as visiting Madrileños arrived for a weekend in the country. Cuenca is deservedly on the tourist trail, but on a weekend in late March we didn’t come across any other tourists who weren’t Spanish – which made watching the El Clasico game between Barcelona and Real Madrid in a local bar a lot of fun. Barcelona won, much to the disappointment of everyone in the bar except for two gleeful Catalans.

This is tapas country and every glass of wine or beer is accompanied by a sizeable portion of free tapas. I’ve always thought the Spanish approach to drinking the most civilised in the world: order a drink, get some free food, order enough drinks and you rarely need dinner. Although given how cheap a glass of wine is I don’t know how it can be economical. Elsewhere in Spain you might get olives, bread with cheese or chorizo; in Cuenca the tapas comes in large quantities and is largely pork-based. Delicious it may be, but after a couple of days I found myself saying no to yet more morcilla or pork scratchings.

Cuenca’s culinary delights are more than matched by its historical delights. Considered an exceptional medieval fortified town by UNESCO, it was recognised as a World Heritage Site in 1996. The town dates back to Roman times, but it was the arrival of the Moors in the 8th Century that put it on the map; by the 11th Century it was a flourishing textile centre with grand fortifications making it a strategic point at the heart of the Caliphate of Cordoba. A near impregnable stronghold, the town finally fell to the Castilian forces of the Reconquista in 1177.

It may not show it today, but like much of Spain Cuenca suffered a steep decline from the 16th Century onwards. The grinding rural poverty, so poetically brought to life in Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, and the oppression of the church, which came to typify the rural Spanish experience, was widespread in-and-around Cuenca by the early 20th Century. Perhaps not surprisingly, Cuenca was firmly in the Republican camp during the Spanish Civil War, and only surrendered to General Franco’s forces in the final days of the war.

Reprisals and imprisonment against Republican supporters were plentiful once Franco’s Nationalists took control. Some of these reprisals were revenge for the killing of priests (including Cuenca’s Bishop) and other Nationalist supporters during the Civil War. The whole of this region suffered huge economic decline in the post-Civil War period, and many of the inhabitants migrated to other regions of Spain. That trend has been reversed, and today Cuenca seems to be a prosperous little town with tourism increasingly contributing to the local economy.

Zaandijk, the west bank of the Zaan

There’s no doubt, the main atraction around the Zaan river are the working windmills and beautiful historic village of Zaanse Schans that form the open museum sitting on the river’s eastern bank. Head over to the west bank though, and the equally historic, if less blessed with windmills, village of Zaandijk makes a pleasant stroll en route back to the train station.

Established in 1494, when the area was known as the Lage dijk, or Lower Dyke, the founder of the village was Heyndrick Pietersz. His five sons settled nearby and, in that very literal human way, the village became known as D’ Vijf Broers, the Five Brothers. The village didn’t exactly take off, by 1573 it was home to only nineteen wooden houses. Unfortunately for the Dutch inhabitants wooden houses aren’t very fire resistant. A couple of years later the Spanish army arrived and burnt the village to the ground, part of their hearts and minds campaign during what is now known as the Eighty Years’ War – the protracted war for Dutch independence.

Zaandijk village, Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Zaandijk village, Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Zaandijk village, Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Zaandijk village, Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Zaandijk village, Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Zaandijk village, Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Zaandijk village, Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Zaandijk village, Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Luckily for the modern tourist, the inhabitants slowly came back and rebuilt. Today as you make your way down the main street past lovely 18th and 19th Century brick houses, and the occasional wooden building, it’s clear that the village has expanded. Now home to nearly 10,000 people, the historic heart of the community still exists in a small area of wooden houses criss-crossed with small water channels close to the river.

Zaan river from Zaandijk, Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Zaan river from Zaandijk, Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Zaan river and windmills from Zaandijk, Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Zaan river and windmills from Zaandijk, Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Zaan river and windmills from Zaandijk, Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Zaan river from Zaandijk, Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

There was hardly a soul around when I visited, and as I wandered through the narrow streets it was very tranquil. I found myself fancifully imagining living inside a sturdy looking wooden house with good access to the Zaan river, pastoral scenes flitting past. Unfortunately, or maybe not, I kept being dragged back to reality by an overwhelming pungent sickly sweet-sour smell that filled the air.

Zaandijk village, Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Zaandijk village, Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Book borrowing miniature house, Zaandijk, Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Book borrowing miniature house, Zaandijk, Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Zaandijk village, Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Zaandijk village, Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

There didn’t seem to be an obvious source for the stench, but as I made my way back to the train station the smell seemed to intensify. Finally, I discover the source of my olfactory discomfort: cacao processing. The Cacao de Zaan factory processes cacao which is ultimately destined for lots of different chocolate products in The Netherlands and beyond. I’ve never smelled ‘pre-chocolate’ before, it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for the final product. A factory has been operating in this area for over a century, I guess local people are used to it?

Zaandijk village, Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Zaandijk village, Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

A walk through the polders of Zaanse Schans

Viewed from the bridge across the Zaan river the wonderful working windmills of Zaanse Schans are a memorable sight. Perched on the banks of the river, on a late winter morning they were almost silhouettes against the yellow reeds that form the landscape behind them. Walking along the dyke upon which the windmills sit, the slight elevation provides views across the typical Dutch landscape of polders criss-crossed with thin strips of water.

There is no more typical or traditional landscape anywhere in The Netherlands. It is strangely beautiful. After visiting De Kat, The Cat windmill, I walked along the dyke past a number of other windmills to find the start of a 1.5 kilometre walk that loops from the river into the polder and back to the village of Zaanse Schans. Only a short walk, but enough to acquaint myself with the way polders work. It also takes you away from the bustle of the village which, even in March, was busy.

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

It’s a fairly muddy walk at this time of year, but that is compensated for by the fantastic colours of the reeds and the peace and quite that surrounds you. I saw a couple of other walkers and a young family, but other than that I wandered alone. Walking here it’s easy to forget that all this land has been reclaimed from the water, and only continuous efforts to maintain the polders prevent the water claiming it back.

The polders of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The polders of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The polders of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The polders of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The polders of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The polders of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The soil of the polder sinks over time, and water levels from rain or ground water rise, until it eventually finds itself below the water level. Only through a series of pumps and sluices is the water drained away to make the land useable. Even then you have to be careful. Lots of these areas were peat marsh and peat needs to be kept wet or it decays. Drain too much water from the polder and the peat collapses. Keeping The Netherlands afloat is technical stuff.

Although the Romans built dykes in this area, the first Dutch polders were constructed in the 11th Century. Today more than half of Europe’s polders are found in one of its smallest countries. Without the polders and dykes it is no exaggeration to say that half of The Netherlands would disappear under water.

The polders of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The polders of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The polders of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The polders of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

To that end Dutch authorities have an elaborate and highly effective way of managing water defences. Regional Water Boards, or Waterschappen, manage just about every aspect of water in the country: water barriers, waterways, water levels, water quality and sewage treatment all fall under their jurisdiction. I know this because I receive a tax bill every year for their services. This buys me a vote in electing members to the board. The function of the Waterschappen is little changed from Medieval times, although the central government takes responsibility for big flood defence projects.

The oldest of the Waterschappen is the Hoogheemraadschap van Rijnland, which was founded in 1248, and they have been busily moving water from one place to another ever since. These days pumping stations do most of the heavy work, but the humble windmill was the driving force behind most of the land reclamation across the country. Not the windmills of Zaanse Schans, they were industrial windmills, but there would have been plenty of others around this area 200 years ago keeping everyone’s feet dry.

The polders of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The polders of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The polders of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The polders of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

At the end of the walk in the polders there was a raised platform, perhaps 20 metres high, offering tremendous views over the surrounding landscape. It was a windy day and the whole thing shook quite alarmingly. I gingerly made my way back down and headed into the lovely village of Zaanse Schans. It’s a beautiful place to stroll, full of old wooden houses and waterways – with the ever present windmills in the background.

Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

It was only now that I came across a sign telling me that the building in front of me was the first Albert Heijn grocery store. Irrelevant to anyone who doesn’t live here, but Albert Heijn stores are ubiquitous these days – interesting to see where it all started.

Albert Heijn's first store, Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Albert Heijn’s first store, Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Zaanse Schans, where windmills turn back time

The River Zaan is home to some strange beasts, their names evoking a bygone time: The Cat, The Ox, The Young Lamb and The Spotted Hen. They stand majestic, lining the bank and towering over the lazy waters of the river, where they are joined by The Cloverleaf, The Houseman, The Crowned Poelenburg and The Seeker. These are the magnificent working industrial windmills of the Zaanse Schans, a piece of Dutch history set amidst a dramatic Dutch landscape.

The Zaanse Schans is a living, breathing, open air museum; one that was created in 1961 by bringing dozens of historic old buildings from across the Zaan region and creating a village on the river. A replica of the many typical villages of this area it may be, but its authenticity isn’t in doubt and all the glorious wooden buildings are originals. It lends itself to tourism and even on a coldish March day, albeit a sunny weekend day, there were plenty of people visiting. I’d imagine in the height of summer it can be pretty unbearable for both visitors and residents.

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

The region was at its peak during the 17th and 18th Centuries, when it boasted over one thousand working windmills. Amsterdam is just a short distance away – 20 minutes by train today, a little longer by boat in the 17th Century – and its thriving port and massive city expansion was the engine for the industrialisation of the Zaan region. This industrial heritage goes back further to the 16th Century, making this one of the world’s earliest industrialised regions. People will tell you it is the oldest industrial area in the world, but that’s a hard claim to substantiate.

Exploring the windmills of Zaanse Schans gives a clue to what people in Amsterdam needed. The Spotted Hen and The Seeker are oil mills, The Cloverleaf and The Young Sheep are sawmills, The Houseman a mustard mill and The Cat is a paint and dye pigment mill. These are just some of the many commodities milled in the region: paper, barley, rice, tobacco and hemp were a few of the others. It must have been an extraordinary sight it’s peak of industrial activity: raw materials arriving in shiploads from around the world, in particular from the East Indies where the Dutch were building an Empire. Raw goods need processing and windmills provided the power to do just that.

Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

It’s easy to view windmills as just a prosaic extension of the modern rural landscape; but these were self contained factories that wrought huge change and led to enormous economic and social upheaval. Their appearance in the landscape was every bit as revolutionary and shocking as the urban factories of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. At least windmills run on renewable energy. At one time there were over one thousand windmills in this region, but the introduction of the coal powered steam engine not only brought pollution, it also liberated industry from the vagaries of the wind. By 1850 only a handful of windmills survived.

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The Cat, working windmill of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The Cat, working windmill of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The day I was there most of the windmills were turning their sails, but only The Cat was open. Stepping inside (€4 entrance fee), I was immediately confronted by giant 5000 kilogram granite stones grinding limestone for use in paint pigments. There was a strong wind and the noise was tremendous, the interior wheels and drive shaft mechanism were moving at alarming speeds. Going up the narrow steep ladders, noise levels don’t get much better and the whole building seems to vibrate as the sails turn. They may look picturesque from the outside, but working inside one of these early factories can’t have been easy on the ears.

The Cat, working windmill of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The Cat, working windmill of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The Cat, working windmill of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The Cat, working windmill of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The Cat, working windmill of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The Cat, working windmill of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The Cat is a Smock windmill, where only the cap on top of the structure needs to be rotated to take advantage of the wind when it changes direction. You’d never guess it today, but The Cat is actually two windmills grafted together. The base was part of an oil mill known as The Cat, the top, however, comes from a dye mill called De Duinjager, The Dune Hunter. After exploring the interior of The Cat, I was chatting to the woman selling the tickets and she told me there was a nice walk through the nearby polders, the drained agricultural areas that form much of the Dutch landscape.

I wandered past the other mills and found the entrance to the 1.5 kilometre walking route and headed across country…

The Cat, working windmill of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The Cat, working windmill of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The Cat, working windmill of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

The Cat, working windmill of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The NetherlandsWorking windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Polders near Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Polders near Zaanse Schans village, The Netherlands

Underrated Utrecht, a city to explore

Utrecht is a city of surprises. Its compact Medieval centre is beautiful and can be walked in a morning, its large student population gives it the energy of a city twice the size, and it has a bohemian cosmopolitanism that is rare in other cities. Despite this, but not surprisingly, there is a whiff of ‘chip on the shoulder’ when you mention Amsterdam to a Utrechter. Utrecht’s bigger and far better known cousin is only a short distance away, yet relatively few of the 7 million or so people who visit Amsterdam each year bother to make the journey to Utrecht.

Why more don’t visit is strange. The centre of the city is as picture-postcard-perfect as any in The Netherlands, people are friendly, it has unique canals, good restaurants and a thriving bar scene. People watching possibilities are endless. If nothing else the bar scene should appeal to some of my countryfolk who flock to Amsterdam for that reason. Perhaps the fact that Utrechters keep their red light district several kilometres outside the city centre is deterring people? It probably accounts for the lack of drunken stag parties, which can only be a good thing.

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Mention of the disparity between the two cities brings one of two responses: ‘they don’t know what they’re missing’ or ‘we don’t want all those tourists anyway’. The first is true, the latter rings a little hollow. In a random sample of three barmen and one barwoman, I got a strong impression that Utrecht craves recognition but is too cool to say so. It deserves recognition, after all it was in Utrecht that the Dutch Republic was established in 1579 with the signing of the Union of Utrecht. Nowhere else can claim that honour.

Perhaps because of all the students who never managed to leave, the city has a distinctive artistic twist and plenty of alternative shopping, from high class boutiques to comic book shops. There’s at least one world class cheese shop. There’s also a thriving microbrewery scene, at least if my preliminary investigations are anything to go by.

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

The city has a number of good museums, including the Dick Bruna Huis. Author, artist, illustrator and graphic artist, Bruna is a legend in The Netherlands thanks to his children’s books, most famous of which is Miffy, a small female rabbit. Miffy and Bruna seem to have a special place in Dutch hearts, and 2015 is the 60th anniversary of Miffy’s first appearance. I popped into the Museum Catharijneconvent, retelling the history of Christianity in The Netherlands. Utrecht was home to the only Pope who has come from the country, but the museum covers pre- and post-Reformation history and has artworks by Dutch Masters.

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Wandering the maze of streets in the city centre is a real pleasure on a warm and sunny late winter’s day. It hasn’t been a particularly cold or hard winter, but emerging from months of dreary short dark days into the sunlight gives everyone a boost, at least that’s what it felt like in Utrecht. It boosted me to a canal-side cafe to watch the world go by with a delicious locally brewed beer. I reflected for a moment on what the scene would look like with tour groups and stag parties. An involuntary shiver went down my spine and I spiritually joined those Utrechers of the “we don’t want tourists” persuasion.

Beer in Utrecht, The Netherlands

Beer in Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht by night, The Netherlands

Utrecht by night, The Netherlands

Utrecht by night, The Netherlands

Utrecht by night, The Netherlands

Utrecht by night, The Netherlands

Utrecht by night, The Netherlands

Utrecht by night, The Netherlands

Utrecht by night, The Netherlands

Utrecht, one of Europe’s happiest cities*

I’ve visited Utrecht twice recently. The first time it had snowed, was freezing cold and there seemed to be a serious disconnect between the glowing endorsements I’d heard from my colleagues and what I was seeing. It didn’t seem like one of Europe’s happiest cities*, I took an instant and entirely unreasonable dislike to the city. Visit number two and the city was bathed in warm sunlight. Wandering the streets aimlessly was much more satisfying and the atmosphere was fun-filled. It was so warm that people crowded outside bars and lounged in public spaces, an energetic and friendly vibe prevailed. I quickly concluded I was an idiot, revised my earlier impression and dived into Utrecht’s Medieval centre.

The Domtoren and canals with snow on the ground, Utrecht, The Netherlands

The Domtoren and canals with snow on the ground, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Canals with snow on the ground, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Canals with snow on the ground, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Canals with snow on the ground, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Canals with snow on the ground, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Still, it’s a shame that for anyone visiting Utrecht by train their first impression of the city is walking through a soulless and unnecessarily ugly shopping mall-type thing. Not that it isn’t popular with locals, the place was packed, but there isn’t any sense of how beautiful the city is beyond this modern monstrosity. Like airports, there is a relentless march towards train stations being converted to retail opportunities first and transport hubs second. Less ‘exit through the gift shop’ and more ‘fight your way through the retail therapy’.

Once you escape the mall’s clutches, the city transforms into a relaxed and attractive place with an historic centre second to none. The centre is physically dominated by the Domtoren, a 112.5 metre high tower that sits at the geographic centre of the city and can be seen from just about everywhere. Get close to it and you realise the Domtoren stands isolated from the town’s cathedral, like a giant exclamation mark. There was a time when it was attached to St. Martin’s Cathedral but the money to complete the work ran out.

The Domtoren and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

The Domtoren and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

The partially constructed nave that once connected the cathedral to the tower collapsed in 1674 during a massive storm. The cathedral, still only partially constructed, fell into a state of disrepair until it was renovated in the early 20th Century. This seems a shame, after all this was one of only two pre-Reformation cathedrals in the country, and its roots date back to the 13th Century.

I planned to go up the Domtoren to get the views, but access was by tour only and took between 60 – 90 minutes according to the tourist information people. That seemed excessive for a tower, even a tower that took 60 years to build and was only completed in 1382. I decide my time could be better used elsewhere and headed to the nearest canal to see what was occurring. This is a big student town and the weather had brought people out to the street-side bars and cafes, and Utrecht is blessed with excellent bars and cafes. I pulled up a seat and did some people watching while basking in the unseasonably hot weather.

Houses and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Houses and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Houses and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Houses and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Houses and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Houses and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Statue outside Utrecht Cathedral, The Netherlands

Statue outside Utrecht Cathedral, The Netherlands

Back on the streets you can’t help but notice a distinctive feature of Utrecht not found elsewhere in The Netherlands: two-tier canals. They have a lower wharf backed by subterranean entrances into warehouses that were constructed in the 14th Century. The warehouses run underneath the road above and connect to three or four story buildings on the other side of the road. This split-level canal system is unique to Utrecht and allowed boats direct access to the wharf at water level. Today parts of the lower level have been converted into restaurants and bars; others are offices and apartments.

Narrowest house in Utrecht? The Netherlands

Narrowest house in Utrecht? The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

The Domtoren and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

The Domtoren and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht as we know it today was founded as a Roman fort around 46AD, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in The Netherlands. Some of that vast history seems to seep out of the walls as you walk around, and away from the two main canals you can easily find yourself alone in the narrow streets. As day turned into evening, I sat in an outdoor cafe enjoying a locally brewed beer feeling relieved that first impressions hadn’t lasted.

Canalside cafe, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Canalside cafe, Utrecht, The Netherlands

The Domtoren and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

The Domtoren and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

* So claims the BBC Travel website…apparently. I’ve read this claim in several places, and I have no doubt Utrecht is a very happy place, but upon further investigation this wasn’t what the BBC said.

12 highlights from 12 months in The Netherlands

It’s difficult to imagine but today marks 12 months of going Dutch. Time’s passed quickly, but I also feel like we’ve been here for longer than a year – maybe that’s just the long winter. I didn’t know what to expect moving here, but living in The Netherlands has been an enriching experience. It’s only a small country but it punches well above its weight.

Looking back at the year made me realise how much is still to explore: Texel, Maastricht, tulip fields, the north and I’ve got to get to grips with Amsterdam. Those are the next 12 months, but these are my favourites from our first 365 days.

North Sea beaches

On my first weekend here I walked on the beach north of Scheveningen, a suburb of The Hague. On a sunny day the beauty of the beach and dunes came as a complete surprise. I walked past World War II Atlantic Wall defences on sand that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Caribbean. ‘Pop up’ summer beach bars were being built, and the beach stretched for miles. It’s a moody coastline, the weather changes in the blink of an eye, but the beach is one of the great things about living in The Hague.

The Hague

Den Haag, my adopted home, is an underrated city. Rarely found in the ‘don’t miss’ section of travel guides, The Hague has a lot to recommend it. It lacks the architecture and cultural scene of Amsterdam, but this is a very liveable town. You don’t have to look far for history (the Royal Family is here), culture (music, literature and film festivals, plus a couple of world class museums), outdoor activities (the Haagse Bos is a vast urban woodland), the dunes and beach (see above) or nightlife (good restaurants and bars abound). What’s not to love?

Windmills of Kinderdijk

There are other contestants for great windmills in The Netherlands, Zaanse Schans for instance, but the beauty of the landscape and variety of windmill types at Kinderdijk can’t be rivalled. Plus the rural setting, and large path network, allow you to explore further to fully appreciate the landscape created by Kinderdijk’s windmills.

 Hidden charms of Rotterdam

So often the neglected modernist twin of Amsterdam, Rotterdam is a city of surprises – generally good ones. Whether you come for the architecture, the artistic and cultural scene, the wonderful food, to drink in the panorama from the Euromast or to visit some of the historic quarters, like Delfshaven, that survived the destruction of World War II, Rotterdam doesn’t disappoint.

Historic Hoorn

Less well known than other historic port towns on the inland sea that is today known as the IJsselmeer, Hoorn is a beautiful and relaxed place. Packed with historic houses, it exudes its fabulous history as a major trading centre and birthplace of the Dutch East India Company. Herring made Hoorn rich, but trade with Indonesia made it fabulously wealthy.

Delightful Delft

Quintessentially Dutch, and not just Amsterdam in miniature. Delft’s a glorious place to stroll around, almost every street reveals yet more wonderful architecture, another small canal with quaint bridges or a site of historical significance. It also has some top notch cafes, restaurants and bars.

Cycling the North Sea Coast

Cheese, tulips, windmills and cycling. Possibly the top four things the Dutch are known for globally and, while they are all true, the way The Netherlands approaches cycling is truly world beating. Amongst a multitude of cycle routes, the North Sea Coast route stands out: rolling sand dunes, vast stretches of golden beach and dramatic vistas over the sea on a route that links coastal communities large and small. Brilliant.

Deventer’s Dickensian Christmas

Deventer is an atmospheric old town worth a visit at any time of year, but at Christmas Deventer does something truly extraordinary. Extraordinary in the sense that the inhabitants of a Dutch town collectively dress up as characters from the novels of Charles Dickens, and then play out scenes from the books over an entire weekend. If you’re here near Christmas, go.

Bohemian Utrecht

Utrecht, like almost everywhere else in The Netherlands, often gets compared unfavourably to Amsterdam. I guess it all depends upon what you’re looking for, but if you want a vibrant, bohemian city with good food, great cafe-bars, excellent museums and a compact Medieval centre without hoards of tourists, Utrecht is the place.

Naarden

Naarden is not a place that readily springs to mind, but its stunning setting and long history deserve greater recognition. A smart and prosperous village, Naarden was a textile centre but suffered waves of destruction at the hands of invading armies. Eventually the town built some of the most elaborate fortifications imaginable. A beautiful 3.5km walk around the old defences earns you the right to a good lunch in one of the village restaurants.

Up the Noord to Dordrecht

You can drive or take the train to Dordrecht, but a more interesting route is the Noord river from Rotterdam, arriving at the city the way people have done for hundreds of years – by boat. Dordrecht, a place where two men once disguised a sheep as a human and walked arm-in-arm with it through the city gate to avoid a tax on animals, is definitely worth a visit.

Beers of the Lowlands

It would be unfair to make this a Dutch-only thing, many of the finest beers in The Netherlands are from Belgium. The other week in Utrecht I sampled a Belgium red beer. Matured for 12 months in oak casks, its sour flavour like nothing I’ve tasted before. It’s not just the variety of beers, beer culture is critical. Culture is probably a contentious word to use, but there is something wonderful about having beer served in the correct, and often beautiful, glass.

Here’s to the next 12 months…cheers.