Travel: Utrecht, The Netherlands

Cycling fans will be flocking to Utrecht for Le Grand Depart, but usually the city is a haven far from the tourist crowd, says Donald Nicolson
Waterside homes in Utrecht. Picture: ThinkstockWaterside homes in Utrecht. Picture: Thinkstock
Waterside homes in Utrecht. Picture: Thinkstock

Le Grand Depart, the opening stage of the Tour de France, takes place in Utrecht in the Netherlands for four days from today. The city will experience a population spike during the event, with many visitors from other parts of the Netherlands – people are on bicycles pretty much from birth around here, and they love the Tour – while some will be from further afield.

But the visitors will quickly come and go, leaving Utrecht to go back to being a quaint medieval university city, overlooked by tourists in favour of Amsterdam, Den Haag and Maastricht. Utrecht is the great forgotten Dutch city, which bemuses me, because I know it has so much to offer, having been here 19 times in the last 14 years.

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Utrecht is a city steeped in history. Originally a Roman settlement in AD47 called Trajectum ad Rhenum, it began to develop in the 7th century when Bishop Willibrord formed a settlement. The city lends its name to the Treaty of Utrecht signed in 1713, which ended Spanish rule and saw the Netherlands splitting from Belgium. (This is the reason Dutch is the language of Flemish Belgium). Pope Adrian VI, who was in office from 1522-3, was originally the Bishop of Utrecht.

As the old saying goes, God made the world but the Dutch made the Netherlands, not least through the canals.

The old canal, Oude Gracht in Dutch, runs through the centre of the city, adjoined to the Nieuwe Gracht (new channel), which is actually only relatively “new”, having been formed around 1300. What makes the canal so novel is that it has two levels; the street level pavement and road, and the wharf level.

A walk along the Oude Gracht on a balmy early summer evening is not to be missed.

The shops and offices will have closed, making it quieter around town. Workers will either be hurrying to catch a train to go home, or sitting with colleagues on the terrace of one of the many gezellig (convivial) bruin café bars dotted around Centrum (the city centre). The Oude Gracht is much more silent and peaceful once the tourist boats (Roondvaart) which trek around it all day have finished at 6pm. You might find a solitary small boat cutting across the water at a gentle pace, with its passengers enjoying a glass of something sparkling. The greenery of the trees will shade the hazy sun.

If Oude Gracht is Utrecht’s (albeit wet) yellow brick road, then Ledig Erf is most definitely the pot of gold. Ledig Erf is the name for the area at the far end of the Oude Gracht, as well as the small bar with a large terrace. Whether on a warm, sunny day or in the deep midwinter, this oozes conviviality. It has a great range of bottled beers and some on tap. The large outdoor terrace makes it an excellent place to people watch.

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The great and good restaurants of the Oude Gracht have been among the main attractions for me. Apart from the great multi-national cuisine they offer, what makes them unique is that they are located in the cellars at the wharf level; where, in the past, boats would have dropped off grain.

If you like an afternoon beer and snack, a place to go is the former castle and now grand café, restaurant and bar, Stadkasteel Ouedaen. This brews its own beers: the Ouwe Daen, wheat beer, and Jonge Daen, blonde. It is a great place to sit outside on a warm summer’s day, or perch on the wharf with friends, enjoying borrel hapjes (beer snacks), a sort of Dutch tapas. The most traditional are bitter bollen – small croquette-like balls filled with a meat ragout; and frietje met – Belgian fries with mayonnaise.

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There are an abundance of cafes in Utrecht. Café Orloff is one of my favourites and it does a fine espresso in the morning, as well as having a modest terrace that is a joy to sit at on a sunny summer’s day. I love its steep winding staircase, which is typically Dutch.

The Village is another great place for a coffee, for which it has won awards.

You can’t fail to miss the most famous landmark in Utrecht; the medieval tower Domtoren, once the tallest building in the Netherlands, and at one time part of the Domkerk (church) until a tornado destroyed the nave and separated the two in 1674. They remain detached to this day, but no less impressive. There are great views from Domtoren, and the guided walk itself is fascinating. Close by is Neude Plein, a Trumpton-like town square. Adjacent to it runs a row of bars and restaurants. Each bar has its own character.

As with the rest of the Netherlands, little care is taken in pouring the beer here. The reason for this is that the Dutch prefer two fingers of refreshing froth which they call, perhaps in a nod to their much loved Royal family (The House of Orange), “the crown”. It takes a little getting used to, as does the beer being served in half-pint measures; but after a while it does feel right.

A unique experience is the chance to watch a live radio show, Spijkers met Koppen (Brass Tacks), being recorded in the Florin & Firkin pub on Saturday lunchtime. It is free entry and of course, it is in Dutch, but there are also performances by live bands, often in English.

Taking in the suburbs of the city is equally rewarding. There is a long street adjacent to the Leidsche Rijn canal, Leidseweg, which has some interesting Art Deco street lights. On the opposite side is Molen Park, featuring Stichting Moelen de Ster, a traditional windmill. Down from this is the Koninklijke Nederlandse Munt (Royal Dutch Mint), where the Gulden currency was made, until 2002 when the Netherlands converted to the euro. The building follows a beautiful ornate style, called Hollandse Neorenaissance (Dutch Renaissance). Something to look out for on the Leidseweg are the large Gulden coins in the ground. Close by is Lombok, which reminds me of a stereotypical Netherlands suburb from a Second World War movie. Its main road, Kanaalstraat, runs from west to east. On the east side is the recently built Ulu Moskee (mosque) with its two large minarets dominating the downtown skyline.

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On the far west side lies St Antoniuskerk. In between are many shops, some selling ethnic foods. On a Saturday there is a street market, if you like to shop for fresh fruit and veg on holiday.

And for those who prefer shopping for clothes, there is Hoog Catharijne, a large mall full of designer stores, adjoined to the railway station (Utrecht Centraal).

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Children and lovers of cartoons should look out for the Nintje bunny traffic lights. You probably know Nintje better as Miffy, the cartoon rabbit created by Dick Bruna, who was born in Utrecht.

The hipster traveller will love the Rietveld Schroeder Huis, a UNESCO Heritage site house which was designed according to the principles and colour co-ordination of “de Stijl” – think Mondrian painting.

In short, Utrecht has so much more to offer the person who goes there to see the Tour de France than simply the race itself. Just make sure you don’t get run over by the bicycle-bonkers natives.