Eight (NINE!) More Things to Do in Utrecht

Last November, when I had friends from three countries visiting at once, I wanted to make a list of things they could do when I wasn’t available for sight-seeing — and some I wanted to do but hadn’t gotten around to yet. Of course, there were the museums. Utrecht has a lot of great museums, covering everything from art to automated music players. (Seriously, a guided tour of the Speelklok Museum is surprisingly entertaining.)

My map of 18 things to do in Utrecht has been getting a lot of hits recently, probably due to the fact that people who are coming for the Tour de France Grand Depart in just a few days are looking for, well, things to do in Utrecht. So while I have a few minutes free, I thought I’d share a few more things to check out while you’re in town, whether for the Tour de France, or just in general.

1. Visit V&D Cafeteria for the view
Utrecht 3|2013
In the Hoog Catharijne shopping center (next to the train station, so, hard to miss) the V&D department store has a cafeteria on the top floor. They serve a variety of hot and cold dishes and snacks, but the real reason to go is the view. They have a wall of windows looking out over the city center and if you can get a table next to the window, you won’t be disappointed, even on an overcast day or at night. To guarantee getting a good spot, it’s best to go at off-hours when people are less likely to be there for major meals of the day.

2. Walk along the Maliebaan
Artful Path
The Tour de France route goes along the Maliesingel, but it generally misses the Maliebaan itself. Somewhat ironic, as that was the site of the very first bicycle path in the Netherlands. Today, it’s a beautiful, peaceful, tree-lined street with a mix of roads and paths, as well as sculptures along one section. If you just want to get away from a bit of the hustle and bustle (or want to move between two sections of the route), it’s simply a nice walk to take.

3. Walk the ring canal
Around the Bend
11/11/11 at the Utrecht Meridian
If you look at a map of the city center, you’ll start to realize that there’s a canal that runs almost completely around the binnenstad (old city center). At one point, the canal did circle the city, and in a year or so, it will do so again. In the area around the Vredenburg/Hoog Catharijne/Centraal Station, you’ll see a lot of construction. They’re building bridges and re-installing the old canal, which had been turned into a roadway. Fortunately, most of the canal that rings the city is still in place and it makes for a nice walk around the city. You’ve always got the scenery of the canal, but you’ll also come across some other interesting sights, including the Wolvenplein, which was a working jail up until the past year or so. At the other end, you’ll find the Sonnenborgh Museum with its remains of the city’s walls(second photo).

4. Flower market
Utrecht Bloemenmarkt
There’s no shortage of flowers for sale in Utrecht throughout the week, but on Saturday, the big flower market can be found at Janskerkhof. Under the tree-covered square surrounding the picturesque church, you’ll find a huge assortment of seeds, plants, trees and more for sale, as well as beautiful bouquets, all at incredibly good prices. Even if you don’t purchase anything, it’s a lovely spot to meander.

5. Lapjesmarkt (Fabric market)
On Saturday mornings on Breedstraat (just off Voorstraat and near Neude), you’ll find the oldest and largest fabric market in the Netherlands. It has been around for more than 400 years and takes place, rain or shine. You’ll find a variety of fabrics for everything from clothing to upholstery, as well as assorted sewing accoutrements. It’s set on another lovely tree-line street and is a fascinating part of history, even if you have no interest in fabric. Take a stroll through and then head off for some other adventures, such as …

6. Domtoren
Come on. Like I’m going to do a list of things to see in Utrecht and not include this. Sure, it’s hard to miss, but it’s still pretty damn impressive. Even if you don’t want to take a guided tour up the 400+ steps, you can still enjoy a lot of it from ground level. On Saturdays, you can also typically enjoy one of the carillon concerts that ring out over the city. There will be some bicycle-themed songs for the Tour de France, of course. And while you’re in the area, check out the cathedral and the cloistered garden there in the Domplein, and Flora’s Hof, another garden with an adorable marmalade cat usually on the prowl.

7. Utrecht free tour
utrecht free toursEvery Saturday at noon, under the Domtoren, you can take an amazing free guided tour of the city. Completely led by volunteers, they take you on a three-hour walk around the city, giving you some great insight into the history and culture that makes Utrecht so wonderful. It’s a fantastic way to also get an idea of things you might want to explore further during your visit. It’s also great for anyone new to the city, and even those of us who have been here for a while. Just show up at noon and you’re good to go!

8. Vino Veritas
vino veritas biltstraat 9What? I can’t promote my own business? ;) Vino Veritas, our Italian eetcafé/winebar/enoteca is located on Biltstraat, which is part of the Tour de France Grand Depart route. Although the route turns off before it gets to us, we’re just a short walk from the route section and we’ll probably be open for lunch July 4-5, as well as our usual evening hours. So if you’re visiting and want a real taste of Italy, stop by Biltstraat 9. All of our food is imported directly from Italy and we use small manufacturers who work in small batches, following traditional methods. And our wine is spectacular! Our meat and cheese boards and our tigelle and piadine sandwiches are a great mid-day meal and we’ve also got a selection of authentic pasta dishes. Whether you’re visiting for the Tour de France or just in general, stop by and say hi. I’m usually in the kitchen, but I’m always happy to say hi to any of my blog readers.

9. The Inktpot and the UFO
Urban Invasion
I can’t believe I have forgotten to add this to either of my lists! Sadly, it’s rare that you can go inside the Inktpot building itself, which is spectacular, but you can certainly see the UFO that landed on it in 2000! The aliens liked Utrecht so much, they decided to stay. I don’t blame them at all. Some say the UFO is just an art installation. Believe what you will. (The building is located by the Moreelsepark, near the train station.)

Time Travel: Achter de Dom

1900 postal workers achter de dom utrecht post office(photo via Het Utrechts Archief)

This photo dates back to 1900 and shows a group of postal workers on the street behind the cathedral called Achter de Dom (achter means behind and de Dom refers to the cathedral). To the right of them is the entrance to the pandhof, the enclosed garden area next to cathedral. To the left was the post office.

Achter de Dom is one of my favorite streets, because it’s filled with historic buildings and just looks so picturesque and charming. Coming to the street from the opposite direction — from the Nieuwegracht — it’s particularly stunning as you see the apse of the cathedral towering over the street. No matter the angle from which you look at it, it’s a winner.
Achter de DomI couldn’t remember the exact angle of the original photo, so when I made this version on Sunday, I didn’t get it quite right, but close enough. Not much has changed, obviously. The men in the photo would have been standing roughly where the woman in the white top on the right is.
Achter de Dom
This is the same photo, but from a wider angle, so you can see the cathedral and its buttresses around the apse on the right. The large greyish building on the center left of the photo is the former post office. It was still in use for another 24 years after the 1900 photo was taken. Then, it was replaced by the massive and stunning building at Neude. Sadly, the post office at Neude closed in 2011 and its final use remains in limbo. In fact, it was the very last post office in the Netherlands. Everything now is privatized. Strange to think that the mail service has changed more than this street in the past 115 years, though mail delivery by bike is still a thing. Of course.

Castellum Lights

A Flamingo in Utrecht
The Domplein — the square in the heart of the city where you will find the Domtoren and the cathedral — has a long history. The square was originally the site of the Castellum Trajectum, the Roman fortress established nearly 2000 years ago to protect the northern border of the Roman Empire. The sign in the picture above marks where one of the entrance gates to the fortress was to be found.

In fact, they have found the foundations for the old fortress and you can see some visual depictions of what the fortress would have looked like through various apps now available. I think you also get to learn and see a bit more on the DomUnder tour (which I haven’t had a chance to take yet).

Still, you can get a sense of the size of the fortress due to some installations you’ll see in areas around the Domplein. The size starts to sink in when you realize it encompased the whole square and then some. The markers in the ground are bronze-ish metal pieces flush to the ground, with lines drawn in depicting various Roman Empire borders. They’re easy to miss, and even easier to puzzle over if you don’t know the meaning. It took me a few years to finally figure it out.
Hadrian's Wall
However, in the evening, they at least become a bit harder to miss. As part of the Trajectum Lumen displays, they light up and emit a watery mist every 15 minutes or so. The marker on Domstraat is pretty impressive, the way it lights up along one of the buildings and has the cathedral behind it.
Roman Walls [Day 126/365]
There’s another by the Academiegebouw, which I managed to capture once, years ago.
Roman Fortress
More recently, I finally caught the one on Servetstraat, in front of the Domtoren. It’s a cosy little street with a nice mix of shops and restaurants, all in the towering shadow of the Domtoren. Standing along any of the old fortress borders, it’s impossible not to look around and think of all the history this one small section of Utrecht has seen and experienced. And now we all become a little part of that long history.
Castellum Trajectum

Variations on a Theme: Trajectum Lumen

ganzenmarkt tunnel
ganzenmarkt tunnel
ganzenmarkt tunnel
I’ve written before about the Trajectum Lumen light art installations to be found throughout the city. From simple to grandiose, they put the spotlight on Utrecht’s rich history. One of my favorites is the Ganzenmarkt tunnel. The lights are constantly changing colors, creating a psychedelic fairytale landscape that makes me think of Alice falling down the rabbit hole. Plus, the tunnel leads down to the Oudegracht, where you get a great view of the Stadhuis, plus some more lights under the Stadhuise bridge. During a past visit, this was one of the color sequences, though the shifts from one color to the next are more gradual.

If you’re visiting Utrecht or thinking about visiting Utrecht and are looking for things to do, a walk through the city, enjoying the lights, should definitely be on your list. The lights begin at dusk and go until midnight, 365 days of the year, so you can check them out whenever you like. It’s a nice way to cap off an evening.

Utrecht, The Hidden Gem

It seems that with the upcoming start of the Tour de France in July and Nijntje/Miffy celebrating her 60th birthday this year, Utrecht is starting to get a bit more international attention. The latest article to make the rounds is from the Washington Post, which calls Utrecht a hidden gem in Amsterdam’s shadow. Of course, if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll think this is old news. You’re all cutting edge, avant garde, and in the know. Well done!

Anyway, it’s a nice article that covers some interesting spots and businesses that make Utrecht so vibrant and interesting. The article only scratches the surface. Speaking of businesses, our Vino Veritas is starting to really pick up some steam. A big thanks to everyone who has been coming in recent weeks. And if you’re going to be visiting in July for the Tour de France, don’t forget that we’re located on Biltstraat, where part of the race will take place. Feel free to stop in for some wine and food and say hi!

But back to the article … I’m glad the author included the great story about Utca’s Finest. They do have some very cool stuff, along with some great chutzpah! The other part that stood out to me is such a small thing, but it’s often something small that can be the most entertaining. At the end of the article, there’s a list of places to stay, eat, visit, etc., and it includes the new Mother Goose Hotel. (If you can get a room with a view out of the front of the building, you’ll have a spectacular view of the Domtoren and the city hall.) The part that entertained me, in a local-knowledge kind of way, was the description of the building as a former mattress factory. This is absolutely accurate, but doesn’t begin to cover why this building is so interesting. It hasn’t been a mattress factory for more than 20 years. It’s the building’s history with squatters since then that is much more fascinating.

I wrote about the building and its history back in 2013 as the squatters were being forced out. It’s worth revisiting. There were concerns at the time that the building’s owner wouldn’t actually follow through with the developers who were looking to turn the building into a hotel. I guess the owner faced enough pressure that he had no choice, as Mother Goose opened last year.

Still, I do miss the old paintwork on the façade. The square just isn’t the same without that backbone!
Sitters or Squatters?

Time Travel: Kromme Nieuwegracht 1900 | 2013

kromme nieuwegracht HUA 1900(photo via Het Utrechts Archief)

This canal is the Kromme Nieuwegracht and as the name suggests, it’s essentially the Nieuwegracht canal after it takes a curve in front of the Paushuis (Pope’s House), which is part of the building on the left. In fact, this picture from 1900 is taken from the bridge over the canal that leads into the Paushuis.

While you may think that the Pope’s House wouldn’t change much, it actually has changed quite a bit since it was originally built in the 1500s. The actual house was much smaller than the full property that is there today. Plus, through the years, it has had a variety of additions and rebuilds of those additions. It’s more of a complex now than just one building. As you can see, there were rows of window shutters in the old photo, but when you look at the new photo (well, taken in 2013), those are all gone.
kromme nieuwegracht paushuisAlthough the buildings on the left may have changed, the buildings on the right look remarkably similar, other than perhaps some cleaning and some new shiny gold paint on that balcony. Even the stairs down to the canal are in roughly the same spot. The biggest difference is the addition of three trees in the intervening 100+ years. Well, that and the bicycles and cars replacing the people.

Tank Man

During the summer of 2013, the Call of the Mall art event took place in the Hoog Catharijne shopping center here in Utrecht. A variety of art works in multiple mediums were placed throughout the mall. The Celestial Tea Pot, which still stands on the roof of part of the mall, was and is a popular piece, but there was one piece that really created a lot of interest, at times blocking much of the walkway in which it was placed.

Tank Man, a lifelike sculpture by Fernando Sánchez Castillo, refers to the unknown man who stood down a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square in China in 1989 after the Chinese military had come in to shut down protests. Although a few names were bandied about at the time, it seems that there is no reliable information about the man’s identity and fate.
Tank ManAlthough we don’t know what became of the man dubbed Tank Man, we do know what happened to the statue. It was purchased by the Centraal Museum, where it now has a home. I never got to see it while it was on display in the mall, but I did finally get to see it on my most recent visit to the museum. It’s a powerful piece when you stop and think about what this man did, especially at that particularly violent and repressive moment in time.

The video footage and photos that made it out of China are hard to forget. The close-up photos like the one by photographer Jeff Widener are staggering, but it was one I saw a few days ago that really made me think more deeply about it all than I have in many years. The wider angle shows the scope of what this man was up against. To see the tiny figure of the the man standing against at least 20 tanks just on the road, not to mention the numerous other grouped tanks in the background is incredibly moving and thought-provoking. It’s hard not to put yourself in his shoes and wonder if you would have been able to take such a stand. I think being able to come face to “face” with the Tank Man via the statue is what helps to make it such a powerful piece, because you do suddenly find yourself face to face with your thoughts about what you’d be willing to stand up for and against.
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Time Travel: Pieterskerkhof and the Domtoren

domtoren seen from pieterskerkhof 1925 HUA creditThe browser tab cleanup continues …
This image (photo via Het Utrechts Archief) of Pieterskerkhof, with the Domtoren in the background, is from 1925. This is a stretch that really hasn’t changed much at all. That’s Pieterskerk (St. Peter’s Church), the brick building on the far left and the only thing that has changed slightly is the entrance, which seems to have grown a story and added a window. (It’s the bit right next to the white/grey building.)

The lamps have changed, there are a lot more bicycles, and a few trees have changed places, but otherwise, it’s instantly recognizable. Trust me, even the buildings in the background are the same.

I used to joke in the US about how certain streets were what I called “church row”, with seemingly a church on every street corner. This takes the cake, though. As I said, that’s a church there on the left and then not much further on, you can see the top of the cathedral and the Domtoren. I’m lousy at distances, but according to Google maps, it’s a walking distance of 230 meters/250 yards. They say it’s a three minute walk, but that seems awfully slow to me. Of course, if you stop to admire the local cats and the beautiful buildings, it will take a lot longer than three minutes.

Always the DomPieterskerkhof is definitely worth a visit if you’re visiting Utrecht or newly arrived. It’s a surprising cul de sac with a fascinating mix of old and new buildings and some great rooftop views. And when the sun filters through the trees, the charm level goes through the roof.
Summer Light

The Dom’s Architect

Jan van den DoemI’m a tab hoarder in my browser and regularly have more tabs open than is really necessary, but often they’re made up of things that I want to write about. However, sometimes I feel like they require more research than I have time or energy for, so they sit there for month after month. This is one of those topics that I’m finally just going to post what I know and if anyone else has better or additional information, they’re more than welcome to share.

This post started because of this photo that I took of one of the statues in the Pandhof of the Dom cathedral. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked around it, looked at it, and in this case, photographed it, but then never gave it much more thought. I guess I was distracted by all of the gargoyles. But then, a few months ago, I finally wondered if it was a statue of a saint or someone else. Curious, I started Googling.

What I learned is that it’s a relatively modern sculpture of the first architect of the current cathedral and/or the Domtoren. There’s some confusion over the names, but it seems that he was known as Jan van Henegouwen, but sometimes misnamed as Jan van den Doem, who was a later architect. Not surprisingly, for a structure so large, the building process went on for a number of years and there were multiple head architects throughout the project. Some information lists Jan van Henegouwen as the first architect of the Domtoren, whereas Jan van den Doem is listed as the first architect of the cathedral and Pandhof. I do have a book that probably explains it all, but I’m short on time, so I’ll try to do some more research and update if I learn anything more.

For now, a few details on this specific sculpture, though. It does seem to be meant to be Jan van den Doem, the architect of the cathedral and Pandhof. The sculpture was installed in 1989 (practically yesterday!) by sculptor Paul Grégoire (Amsterdam 1915 – Amsterdam 1988), presumably after his death. His son is also a sculptor, so perhaps he finished it/attended its installation. It turns out that there’s another sculpture by Paul Grégoire on Mariaplaats that I quite like. The sculpture of Jan van den Doem includes a beaver down by his feet and a plumb rule in his hand, symbols of an architect.

It was a nice, “Ah! Of course!” moment when I finally found out the subject of the sculpture. Nice to think that the architect gets a bit of a nod after all these centuries!

Zeven Steegjes From a Different Perspective

zeven steegjes
I wrote about the Zeven Steegjes (Seven Alleys) two years ago. For a moment, I thought I’d written about them two years ago to the day, but then realized I was a month off. Still, close enough.

Last month, while on the Free Utrecht tour held every Saturday starting at the Domplein at noon, (you should go!), I ended up getting to the Zeven Steegjes from a different direction than I’d seem them originally. It was a nice surprise when I realized where we were. On my previous trip, I’d been more interested in seeing the clear rows of buildings and hadn’t really wandered down the actual streets. This time, I was captivated by the variety of decorations in the neighborhood, both on individual homes and the details within the building designs. I love a good keystone!
zeven steegjes
zeven steegjes
But seeing the rows of domestic streets from the back also gave me a different view of the rest of the neighborhood, including this fantastic view toward one of the church spires.
zeven steegjesA bright, sunny, winter day also helps. Plus, the buildings also made me think a bit of Italy, with the orange roof tiles and warm colors that some of the buildings were painted.
zeven steegjesAs if all of that wasn’t so charming you could just die, there was an adorable dog who seemed quite determined to tell us all off for invading his neighborhood. That, or he just wanted a bit of attention and someone to play with him. I would have gladly complied!
zeven steegjes