A Day in … Utrecht
For a start there are fewer signs in English and less English is heard. Obviously there are fewer tourists compared to Amsterdam. But at the railway station if there is a problem with the quarter hour service to Schipol, an announcement is made in both Dutch and English. In many ways Utrecht is a mini Amsterdam since it has canals, lanes and narrow streets bordering its canals. Where it differs is that you can see a lot of it in a day, even less than that if, for example you concentrate on the Museum Quarter which is the most interesting part of the city. The other way that it differs is that most museums and a lot of shops are closed on Mondays so visiting it that day is probably not the best idea unless you are searching for peace, quiet and a bit of solitude. Even the tourist office (which, incidentally, is to be found in Domplatz) doesn’t open till midday.Finally there is another difference and a substantial one at that. The canals used to be working wharfs so there are steep steps, often wooden, down to walkways along the canals. Where there used to be warehouses or shipping businesses, you’ll now find restaurants. You want Indonesian food, Argentinian, French, Indian, tacos, bread shops? You’ll be spoilt for choice, But as you walk along all you’ll see is a sign and a ladder or steps. The restaurants on your side of the canal can’t be seen. All you’ll know about them is the smell of the food wafting upwards. And maybe some chatter from the guests. Which to try is a problem since there are so many so take pot luck and go the menu that appeals. But if you say to yourself that you’ll just see what the next menu is like at the next door restaurant you could be all night.
To get a day return from Schipol, currently costs just under ten euros. Get it from the machine and you’ll save yourself the half a euro they charge if you go and talk to a human ticket seller. Pay by Visa or Mastercard and you’ll pay a euro as a service fee. And you’ll find a lot of the ticket machines at the stations don’t take cash. Those that do have queues!
When you get to Utrecht, the station is connected to the bus station making it easy if you need to travel to the outlying parts of the city. Also attached to the station is a large shopping centre, Hoog Catherijre. You need to remember this as it is easier to find that and hence the station, than just looking and following the signs to the station. As well as the shops you’d expect there are bakers, widely used as sandwich shops or where you can pick up an inexpensive snack and a cup of tea. Sometimes you’ll serve yourself tea or coffee f rather than having it brought to you.
Turn almost any way out of the station or Hoog Catherijre and you’ll reach a canal and a pathway. This is Holland remember so watch out for bikes. You can’t hear them coming and there isn’t the wide use of bells that you’d get in Oxford or Cambridge. (You can hire bikes from places around the station or seemingly on any corner. Don’t expect a helmet though. I saw no-one in either Amsterdam or in Utrecht wearing one.) The lanes – whatever you want to call them – that fence the canals in must have been the old roads that horses and carts came long to drop their goods off on to the canal barges. Where their wheels went you can see different stone designs in the road. In fact five different types of stonework made up some roads including a herring bone brick pattern which exists between the wheels of the carts.The Museum Quarter is one of the more interesting parts and makes up a large part of Utrecht itself. Go down one road, Vismarkt and you’ll be hard pressed to avoid the photographers taking pictures of the architecture of the different buildings, modern and older. This area has a focal point, the Domkirke, St Martin’s Church (which is open on Mondays, (www.domkerk.nl) In front of it is a large tower that you can walk through to reach it and at the side is a square cloistered area that draws you to a tea house on one side.
As the name suggests the museums congregate here including what seems an unlikely one, the Aboriginal Art Museum (www.amuu.nl). Why there is a museum celebrating Australia’s native people I don’t know and I couldn’t ask because, yes you’ve guessed it, I was there on a Monday and it was closed.
But it’s not just museums in this old area of the city. Walk down a little road called Korte Smeestrat and on both sides of the road there are circular lights hanging out from the houses. On one side of every single one of these is written “Evening Time is Reading Time.” But there isn’t a book shop in the street. There are jewellery shops, antique shops and an estate agency but no bookshops!
Just like Amsterdam, one of the tourist attractions is to take a canal ride. Popular in summer, come the winter there is less demand and no queues. The main sights are there all the year round so pick a fine, sunny day and you’ll enjoy it even more.
So after a day in Utrecht what does it tell me of Amsterdam? It shows that Amsterdam is more international but still very Dutch. And what of Utrecht? It is the ideal place for a day visit. You can see a lot and there are some ways, like the canal restaurants where it is charmingly different., And being so close, its easy to get to from either the middle of Amsterdam or Schipol. And the crowds in Amsterdam who venture no further.