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.
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 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.
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.
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.