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That old Dutch charm
9:00am Thursday 28th April 2011 in Freetime
Utrecht is a city you can enjoy without having to rush - so why not travel there by train? Nick Elvin heads to the Netherlands’ fourth largest city
It is often said that the journey is more important than the destination.
Of course, it's a phrase first coined long before air travel came along, bringing its unique blend of queuing and waiting around with it. So it's refreshing that, 20 minutes after stepping out of my front door, I’m checking in for my latest foreign trip not in some sterile airport terminal, rather the more attractive surroundings of St Pancras International, home of the Eurostar.
A couple of hours later, having enjoyed breakfast somewhere in the middle of the Kent countryside, and a quick snooze somewhere beneath the English Channel, I'm in Brussels; but the journey doesn't end here. Along with my tour group companions, I change trains in the city's Midi station, on to an Intercity service – which is fast and comfortable, like the Eurostar. Stations such as Mechelen, Antwerp and Roosendaal pass by the window, and we're soon in sight of the glass towers of Rotterdam, where we transfer to another train for the short journey to Utrecht.
We arrive five hours after leaving London, but it doesn't feel like it. Thanks to short check in times, fast security and passport control, no waiting around for luggage, and no need to transfer from Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, door-to-door journey time is roughly the same as flying, plus you get to see something on the way.
And so to the destination. Utrecht is the Netherlands’ fourth largest city, and while the outskirts of town are expanding, helping to make this densely populated country even more densely populated, the compact centre retains that old Dutch charm.
And what could be more Dutch than canals. Utrecht's waterways formed part of a medieval dockland development, built below street level, allowing boats to deliver goods directly to the cellars that served the nearby homes and businesses. Today, many of these cellars have been converted into bars and restaurants. The canals are still important to this day; rubbish bags are left out for daily collection by barge, while many establishments are served by “beer boats”.
To add to the typical Dutch scene, we pass many hundreds of bicycles that are parked up against the railings next to the canals. It’s said there are three bikes per person here and that the owners are used to people just “borrowing” them. Many of the cycles belong to the 30,000 students from Utrecht University.
There are plenty of quiet corners to explore in the city, including alleyways with bars and cafes, hidden herb gardens and almshouses. Many buildings give tantalising hints of their hidden history. Café Olivier used to be a church, but it’s almost impossible to tell – it looks more like a townhouse. Head inside and its religious past becomes apparent. There’s a large hall with high vaulted ceilings, which means it can get noisy, but it’s a nice atmosphere.
Today the restaurant specialises in Belgian food and beer, so we opt for some excellent mussels and chips, which along with a few glasses of ale from across the border are very filling.
Luckily we have the opportunity to walk it off. One of the most pleasant ways of seeing Utrecht is by following the Trajectum Lumen Light Art Route, and after dinner we meet our guide. The tour was introduced in 2010 to encourage visitors to extend their stay in Utrecht into the evening, as many people simply came here on day trips from Amsterdam.
Illuminated arrows on the pavement direct you between attractions, while a blue eye symbol on the ground means you should look out for something nearby. Artists from all over the Netherlands were brought in to make the route a reality. The result is a collection of, mostly subtle, installations throughout the centre of Utrecht, all of which add to the charm of the city at night.
One of them represents how, in around 50AD, the Romans built a settlement here. A line of green light and occasional jets of steam, emanate from a gap in the pavement, marking one of the locations of the Roman walls.
The Sint Willibrordkerk is a church that wears a halo. It is named after a Northumbrian monk called Willibrord who came here in about 700AD, bringing Christianity with him. The church is fairly well hidden by the surrounding buildings, so the artist decided a halo of light should be added to the roof, to give the building more prominence. Meanwhile, the oldest church in Utrecht, the 11th Century St Pieterskerk, lights up with changing colours.
By a canal, we enter a tunnel. It is filled with blue light; however it then changes to green then to red, as people walk through. In another stretch of canal, tiny lights flash below the surface, and sometimes you can see the silhouettes of fish that pass over them.
Then there’s a light show under a bridge, complete with Tetris and rainfall patterns. In another part of the city centre, a row of red pavement lights leads you down an otherwise dark alleyway.
If you’re a nosy parker, and this is not something that’s not part of Trajectum Lumen, you'll notice many of the homes have big windows and no curtains. “They’ve got nothing to hide,” our guide explains. “But in Belgium they close everything up.”
You'll occasionally catch a glimpse of the pride of Utrecht, the 112-metre Dom Tower - the highest and oldest church tower in the country – which as with the rest of the Trajectum Lumen is illuminated until midnight.
Being something of a shopper’s paradise, the streets of Utrecht can get busy on Saturday afternoons, so next day we take advantage of the quiet morning in the pedestrianised streets and head to the Museum Speelklok. The museum is home to some stunning street organs, which have been seen - and heard - at funfairs and other events all over the Netherlands.
Some of them are simple, small, hand cranked machines dating from the 19th Century. Some even feature built-in violins, while the latest giant machines can be operated by computer, so you can hear tunes by the likes of Lady Gaga bellowing through their pipes.
Michael Jackson reportedly offered $1million to buy one of the organs on display – called The Arab - when he visited Holland. The owner said no.
Later, we walk to another museum, the Aboriginal Art Museum, which brings the rich, warm reds and yellows of Australia to a blustery northern European day. We end our visit with a didgeridoo workshop.
Then it's on to the Dom Tower for a guided tour. The tower was built between 1321 and 1382, as part of the Dom Church. However, in 1647, a tornado demolished the nave, leaving the tower separated from the rest of the church. It has 465 steps, but the tour stops off at various stages, to let you catch your breath, and to admire the collection of bells, which range from 880 to 18,000 pounds. The narrow, dark staircase eventually leads us outside to our reward, the views over Utrecht.
That evening we have dinner in the cosy Aal Restaurant, located in one of the converted cellars by the canal, and the day is rounded off with a visit to Jazzpodium to enjoy a few beers and a great jazz band.
On our final morning in Utrecht we meet Arjen, who in 2007 bought a Venetian gondola and now uses it to run tours on a commercial basis, making him, he tells us, the only person in the Netherlands to do so. He won’t sing for his passengers (and he says that if you ask a gondolier in Venice to do so they may well be insulted). But here you can if you wish hire a singer, and also order prosecco and typical Italian food. The boat, which he calls Kristina, is 80 years old and was brought to Utrecht half a century ago by a restaurateur.
We ask Arjen if he's ever fallen in.
“Yes, last week,” he says, blaming the opening up of the canal’s surge gates by the authorities. “But no customers have fallen in.”
It’s a relaxing way to spend the morning; we’re overtaken by a motorboat, which itself can’t be doing many knots. We pass beneath bridges, from where people look down. The trees lining the canal provide a pleasing background rustling, while the barges and small boats moored on the calm water are redundant on this Sunday morning.
As we head through a tunnel into the centre of the city, Arjen blows the brass horn hanging round his neck, just to warn anyone coming the other way.
We stop off at the Oudaen Steam Brewery. Built 700 years ago, this fortified townhouse is one of the oldest buildings in Utrecht. It has been operating as a microbrewery for the past 20 years, and what they brew isn't sold anywhere else, just consumed in the brewery's canalside bar, or upstairs in the restaurant.
The brewery produces three beers, Ouwe Daen, Jonge Daen and Dintelo Gold, and as it’s not mass produced (60,000 litres of beer are brewed here each year), each new batch can be slightly different from others.
We end our visit to Oudaen – and to Utrecht - with lunch upstairs in another of the city’s very pleasant restaurants. Then, after collecting our bags from the conveniently located NH Hotel, we head back to Utrecht's Central Station.
There’s a slight change on the way home; we board the high-speed Thalys train for the Rotterdam to Brussels leg, but it's essentially the same journey.
If you're venturing further afield than, say, Brussels or Paris for a short break or longer holiday, the growing network of high speed trains on the continent offers a tempting alternative to flying. And while it can often feel like a trip is over as soon as you head back to the airport for your flight home, there is still more than a hint of romance travelling home by train.
In this case it certainly provides a relaxing end to a relaxing weekend.
Railbookers: Book rail travel and short breaks to Utrecht and other destinations in Europe: www.railbookers.com
Utrecht Tourism: www.utrechtyourway.nl
Netherlands Tourist Board: www.holland.com
NH Hotels: www.nh-hotels.com