Christmas Trees for Rent

Bacchus en de Bomen
Growing up, we always had a real tree for Christmas and I continued that tradition once I was done with apartment living and had a real house in which to put the real tree. However, when we moved here, we decided to purchase a fake tree. As well as not knowing what to do with a real tree at the end of the season, I did start to wonder about the environmental aspects of cutting down a tree that may simply end up as garbage after a month.

I actually do like our little, white, fake tree, but sometimes I long for the look and smell of a real tree. I make do by visiting the Christmas tree market that opens up around December 6 at Janskerkhof. It’s so picturesque, especially in the evening under the glow of the lamps.

However, I may start reconsidering a real tree again in the future. I’ve recently learned about the Stichting Kerstbomenverhuur Utrecht (Christmas Tree Rental Foundation). As the name suggests, you can rent a Christmas tree for three weeks, from mid December to early January. The key is that the tree comes with its roots so that it can be replanted after the holiday season.

The foundation began as a neighbourhood initiative in 2011, and has grown and prospered as a non-profit run by volunteers. The process is simple. There is a set date on which people can pick up their tree and a set date on which they return it. Prior to the pickup date, there is a period in which trees can be ordered. All trees must be ordered in advance so that trees are not unnecessarily dug up. At the end of the season, they are returned to the grower and replanted. Around 90% of the trees survive the process each year. Any that aren’t fit for replanting can still be returned and they’ll then be turned into mulch to help the other trees thrive.

The cost of the tree is only 26€, which includes a 5€ deposit, which you get back when you return the tree. The order deadline for this year is Sunday, 8 December, with pickup taking place Saturday, December 14, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. The return date is Saturday, January 4, 2014 between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. You’re responsible for transporting the tree both ways, but they do have a few wheelbarrows and bakfietsen available for people to use in a pinch. Still, it’s best to plan on providing your own transport, be it bike, auto, or muscle power.

The tree itself is usually between 1.5 and 2 meters in height and is a Serbian spruce grown in small numbers in Achterveld (Leusden) and the Veluwe. If you want more choice in the look of your tree, you’re best getting there early on the pickup day. It’s first come, first serve to anyone who has already purchased and reserved their tree.

If you’re not in the Utrecht area, but still want to rent a Christmas tree, there are other groups offering similar programs.

It really is a great idea if you long for the look and smell of a real Christmas tree, but hate the thought of trees perishing at the end of the season. Now you can have your holiday spirit and decorate it, too!


Follow the Red Dots: Alternate Bicycle Routes

Bike Paths
The way some cities have streets congested with cars, many Dutch cities have streets congested with bicycles, particularly during rush hour. Mark over at Bicycle Dutch has posted a number of videos and blog posts over the years showing some of the rush hour bicycle traffic here in Utrecht. The worst area is the main street that runs east to west through the city. On the western side is the train station and on the eastern side of the city is the university. With all of the students riding through town, plus all of the regular commuters and locals trying to get around town, the street can be incredibly busy with bikes. Although I’ll take bicycles over cars any day!

In an attempt to find alternative routes and solutions for the heavier rush-hour traffic, a pilot program began in April to draw attention to less-travelled routes that still get you to the same place. No new paths were created, they simply made more of an effort to highlight existing routes. The way they did so was by painting red circles on the street, as seen in the photo above. The red circles guide cyclists by veering off into a different direction (over the Herenbrug and into the Museumkwartier, in this case), rather than taking you straight up to the main cross street. (You can see the new route in the last image in this post.)

Students from the Hogeschool voor de Kunsten (School of the Arts) helped provide some of the inspiration for the plan. The effects of the campaign were studied through September, taking into account traffic and user responses. I don’t think official results have been released yet, though.

In all, it seems like a decent idea to draw attention to alternate routes, especially for those who may find the main street a bit overwhelming during its busiest moments. If nothing else, it provides what is often a more attractive route.

Have any of you used the alternative route? Did you like it?

Dreams for Biltstraat

Wat wilt u ...
Before I was struck down with the plague (OK, maybe just a really bad cold), I got to see the new initiative taking place on Biltstraat. I had read about the stickers going up all along the street and was curious to see them in person.

Biltstraat, a great street just outside the old city ring canal has seen a resurgence in the past year or so. When we first moved here, it was a fairly dull street with not much more than a lot of work placement offices and the occasional shop and grocery store. Now, there are great shops like AYA Living (fun, affordable items for the home and more), a new branch of Bert’s Bierhuis, and lots of interesting restaurants, including the unusual Te Koop, which sells not only food, but also the random bits of décor inside the restaurant.

Still, there are a few places standing empty or currently undergoing refurbishment. To get people interested in the street again and to help potential investors and entrepreneurs get a feel for what people in the neighbourhood want to see, the Biltstraat retailers association has started a fun initiative to see what kinds of stores people want to see move into Biltstraat. Anyone with an interest can go into AYA Living and pick up some of these stickers, fill them out, and place them on the windows of empty store fronts. (Be kind and don’t stick them elsewhere.)

Some of the most frequent suggestions are for a bakery/lunch place, drugstore, bookstore, cheese shop, and a Hema (a popular Dutch chain a bit like Target). Although there are many of these kinds of shops on Nachtegaalstraat (in theory, one block over), I understand the desire to have some of these shops on Biltstraat for sheer convenience, especially since Nachtegaalstraat is much busier, not to mention the big intersection by the Stadsschouwburg.

For multiple reasons, I like this initiative and am happy to see the businesses on Biltstraat taking such a positive approach to improving this historic street. After all, the street has been around since 1139 and was first paved in one form or another back in 1290. The street even has a very active Twitter account that does a great job of promoting the shops and keeping people up to date on what is happening on the street.

So the next time you’re in Utrecht, don’t forget to check out Biltstraat. Have a coffee at Bagels & Beans, do your grocery shopping at Jumbo, pick up some new guitar strings at Key Music, have a spa day at Descansa, and play laser tag at the Laser Centrum. Who knows what will be moving in next. Maybe even a wine bar as someone requested in the first photo.
Wat wilt u ...

Museums: Love ’em or Leave ’em?

Graveyards for stuff. Tombs for inanimate things.

Their cavernous rooms and deep corridors reverberate with the soft, dead sounds of tourists shuffling and employees yawning.

They’re like libraries, without the party atmosphere.

Occasionally a shrill voice bounces down from a distant hallway: “No photos!” and I swivel to see something, anything, that might be interesting.

But it’s not.

Leering at a censured tourist for kicks says more about my own desperate situation than it does his, and anyway, it could have been me.

I unwrap a biscuit to get through the next 50 yards of 19th-century teaspoons and the same shrill voice rings out again: “No food!”

I’ve always hated museums.

This is the beginning to an opinion piece that ran a little over a week ago, by a CNN senior travel producer. Titled, “Why I Hate Museums“, the piece complained about how boring museums are and how they should be more interactive and closer to the kinds of museums geared toward children. As an art historian of some sort (I have a degree and I even taught the topic.) I was particularly put off by what I saw as a childish, immature rant. The piece certainly caused quite a bit of discussion among art historians, although I think many, like myself, ultimately disagree with his statements.

Can museums be full of dry facts and little background? Yes. Can they feel sterile and separate because of all the protective ropes and glass? Of course. But is it not better to keep these items protected for generations to come than to risk their decay and damage? I constantly regret the buildings, paintings, sculptures and more that I can only appreciate through old drawings, photographs (if I’m lucky), or simply descriptions in a worse case scenario, because they’ve been lost to history through destruction.

I understand that not everyone is going to enjoy every museum. It certainly does help if you have an interest or some knowledge about the items or period on display. But what one person finds incredibly boring, others may find completely engrossing and may be a major highlight. The author even touches on this, somewhat hypocritically, when he says:

Of course some artifacts speak for themselves.

The Royal Armories in Leeds, England, shows off an 18th-century tunic on which you can still see the blood of the soldier who was speared, and presumably killed, while wearing it.

A brief description suffices — imagination does the rest.

He finds this tunic interesting and doesn’t think it needs much explanation, as if it’s an absolute truth that it should be appreciated by all. In truth, others may find it off-putting or simply not that exciting.

My biggest issue with the article, though, is the way he talks about how exhibits should be more interactive, complaining of the “collect-and-cage policy”, yet he doesn’t seem to give any valid examples of alternatives. If you’re going to write a scathing piece about the pointlessness of museums today, at least offer some specific (and realistic) suggestions of what you want to see and experience.

In truth, I suspect he’s over exaggerating much of what he writes, just to get a reaction (and page clicks). He’s following the path that much of modern media seems to be taking nowadays: style over substance. After all, CNN is hardly a paragon of virtue these days when it comes to accurate, informed reporting. The author seems to be advocating the same shallow demand to be entertained rather than truly informed.

I also find it suspect that he hasn’t visited any museums that he’s found entertaining. I truly doubt that Utrecht is that unique that we’ve cornered the market on interactive, entertaining museum exhibits. Sure, a recent visitor and travel writer to the city called it a “museum-lover’s paradise”, but I’m sure there are equally fascinating museums to be found around the world. She herself comments on the negative associations some people have with museums but also points out that the museums of today are different creatures.

Appropriately, today marks the 175th anniversary of the opening of the Centraal Museum here in Utrecht. (FYI, there will be an official celebration on 22 September.) Surely, in the past 175 years, the museum has changed the way it exhibits its art and artifacts tremendously. I would argue that in many ways, the Centraal Museum may be the kind of museum that the CNN author says he wants.

The museum, as winding and confusing as it can be sometimes — the result of being housed in a former cloister — still manages to create clearly defined exhibit areas. I’ve mentioned the new arrangement of Utrecht-related art, which groups pieces by decades and styles. As simple as it is, it really does do an excellent job of showing how Utrecht artists through the ages have developed, been influenced, and served as influence for others.

There’s also the 1000-year-old remains of a ship that I think of as the link between the two major exhibit areas. Interestingly, I realized on my last trip that even this simple (and smelly!) exhibit gets updated on occasion, with changing lights and sounds. Simple, but fun and fascinating!

When it comes to the space for the larger, more frequently changed exhibits, that’s when things really get interesting. There are plenty of pieces behind glass or not to be touched, but there is also plenty of interaction and visual interest.

For example, the current exhibit about the history of the Treaty of Utrecht (which closes soon, so go now!) on its own actually isn’t completely my cup of tea. Much of it focuses on the War of Spanish Succession. While I find the history of the individuals involved interesting, and the machinations involved in finally agreeing on the series of treaties that brought an end to the war, the actual war aspects are not of particular interest to me. However, I know this about myself, so I’m less likely to go to a war museum in general.
Vrede van Utrecht/Treaty of Utrecht
That said, there were still aspects of the exhibit that I found interesting. The walls themselves were covered in more than just the usual paintings. There were maps, quotes, and thought-provoking questions, which helped put each room into further perspective. There were also pieces of furniture from Versailles and money chests from both Amsterdam and Utrecht (ours on the right is bigger and prettier).
Vrede van Utrecht/Treaty of Utrecht

On top of all of that, there are spots throughout the exhibit where you can use an optional audio device to gain further information about aspects of history, individuals, etc. They’re more enjoyable than the traditional audio guided tour, because they complement the exhibit, rather than methodically take you through it.

For the author who thought the blood-stained tunic stood on its own, there were plenty of weapons and other gruesome instruments and an electronic map charting various routes, formations, and shifting battle lines. There was even a child’s small coat of armor.
Vrede van Utrecht/Treaty of Utrecht
At the end of the exhibit, there was even an interactive spot for both kids and adults. Whole walls were dedicated toward letting you write down your own ideas of where you’d like to see peace, with comments ranging from warring siblings to overall world peace. There were also actual games that could be played with two or more players.
Vrede van Utrecht/Treaty of Utrecht
The point is that even for someone like me who isn’t overly interested in war history, I still found the exhibit interesting and worth the visit. This was hardly a unique exhibit, either. Similar steps were taken for past exhibits I’ve seen there. The larger the museum and the larger the number of tourists, the harder it may be to create the same sort of interactive involvement, but those museums also have the major works of art that people will happily flock to see, despite the crowds. Sure, I didn’t have the best view of the Birth of Venus, but I’m still happy I saw it in person.

Not every museum is going to be exciting and not every person is going to enjoy even the best museums. Museums are trying to change and give visitors new experiences, but they also need to remain a place where both great works of art and smaller parts of our cultural history can remain in a safe, protected place. If you’re not a big fan of museums, try to find ones that actually showcase things that you find interesting. If you don’t like handbags, don’t go to the handbag museum in Amsterdam. Of course, you’re likely to be bored. If you prefer aviation to art, visit the Space and Aeronautics Museum rather than the National Gallery.

The point is that with the wealth of information available online nowadays, there’s no excuse not to do a bit of research before you go to a new city, country, museum, etc. Find what appeals to you, but also try to keep an open mind. You never know what you may experience. If you’re a parent of young children, there are ways to help your child really enjoy the experience. Try a scavenger hunt, like the author of Life in Dutch did with her little boy. To be honest, a scavenger hunt could be equally fun for adults and can be done for almost any museum with just a bit of imagination.

Vrede van Utrecht/Treaty of Utrecht

Rainbow Brite Bike

Rainbow Brite
I’m finally going back to the US for a visit later this month. It will be my first trip back since moving here. I’m expecting a bit of reverse culture shock, including the lack of innovatively colored bikes that I see almost daily here.

While I try to cram a month of work writing into a week or so, I think I’ll take this week to share some of these interestingly decorated bicycles that can be found throughout Utrecht (and the whole country). Meanwhile, for everything you could possibly want to know about cycling in the Netherlands, check out the fun and informative blog Bicycle Dutch. Mark does a great job explaining the Dutch cycling infrastructure and how it can work in other countries. Plus, lots of great videos!

Pump It Up

FietspompIf you’re new to the Netherlands and not used to the ingrained bicycle culture, you could be excused for seeing one of these barrels with a plunger on top and being a bit nervous. Visions of Wile E. Coyote may dance through your head.

Fear not, though, as these barrels are simply bicycle tire pumps (fietspompen). With 14 million bicycles trips made in the Netherlands each day — for work, school, shopping, and general transport — it’s not surprising that bicycle pumps are required from time to time.

Typically, most bicycle shops have a regular pump available for use if you’re out and realize your tires are getting a bit flat. However, the pumps are usually only available during opening hours. What do you do on a Sunday or when the bicycle shop is closed?

To solve that problem, Duco Douwstra, a successful taxi driver from Vleuten, has spent his own money to have these pumps placed around town. There are also tire repair kits attached to make them even more useful. To make them harder to steal, the pumps are built into barrels weighing close to 100 kilos/220 pounds.

To help pay for additional pumps and to keep them stocked, Douwstra hopes to raise funds by letting businesses purchase advertising space on the barrels. So far, I know of at least three on the eastern side of town: Janskerkhof, the corner of Biltstraat and Wittevrouwensingel (pictured), and another next to the Albert Heijn on Nachtegaalstraat. Have you seen more around town or in other cities?


Free Wi-Fi in Utrecht

Domplein Festivities
A pilot program exploring the benefit and use of free WiFi in Utrecht has begun. For the rest of the year, free WiFi will be available at four of the city’s main squares: Domplein, Neude, Stadhuisplein, and Vredenburg.

It kicked off at Neude last Friday and I stopped by on Saturday and sure enough, it was working. The rest of the squares have gone online this week. So if you’re in town and want some free WiFi access, now you know where to go. No special passwords needed.

Edited 6/10/14: By the end of 2014, there will be free wifi throughout the city center and it will also be available at Griftpark and Willhelminapark.

Edited: July 2015: There is free wifi throughout the city center and at the spots mentioned above, as well as on Biltstraat and other individual locations outside the city center. In other words, there is extensive free wifi throughout Utrecht. Enjoy!

Looking Out


Book Couriers and Bookstores in Utrecht

Bookstore and Library
I came across a new service here in Utrecht that is handy for book lovers. There is now a book courier service available that can get a book to you within two hours. Order between 9-20:00 and they’ll deliver between 10-21:00. For free!

The service is through Selexyz, one of the large book chains in the Netherlands. They have a good selection of English-language books, and probably a few other languages, as well. If you prefer to browse the store yourself, their Utrecht location is on the Oudegracht, right across from the Stadhuis. [Edited to add: The book store has undergone a few changes and names, but there is still a book store in that location, though I don’t know if they offer the delivery service now.]

I get a lot of people visiting my blog after searching for places to buy English-language books in Utrecht, so I figured I’d update the list. Sadly, the used-book store I used to go to on Voorstraat has closed. I’m not sure if they’ve just moved or closed for good. Fortunately, there are a number of other book stores offering a variety of books.

On Saturdays at the outdoor market over at Vredenburg, there’s a stall that sells used books. They also tend to have a section devoted to English-language books, as well as some in French and German. [Not sure they’re still there. 2016]

Savannah Bay (Telingstraat 13) was the first Dutch feminist bookshop, founded in 1975. It focuses primarily on gender/sexuality/literature/poetry, with a large selection of English-language gender studies books, but other topics as well.

Aleph Books (Vismarkt 9) has a mix of new and used books, with a large emphasis on art and history. Books are available in Dutch and English.

Boekhandel Libris (Servetstraat 3) is right next to the Domtoren and looks out onto the Flora’s Hof. They have a mix of fiction and non-fiction in Dutch, English, French and German. It’s fun to browse and you’re bound to find something you want to read.

De Rooie Rat (Oudegracht 65) has a mix of new and used books in multiple languages. Most books lean toward philosophy and politics, but you never know what you’ll find.

Bruna has both online and brick-and-mortar shops. There’s a Bruna in the train station that comes in handy with magazines and books (in Dutch and English) for those times when you realize you might need something to read to pass the time. There’s also one on Steenweg, as well as the corner of Maliebaan and Nachtegaalstraat (or whatever it’s called at that point)

Finally, is an online shopping option, similar to Amazon before it started selling everything and the kitchen sink. They’ve got books in multiple languages, both new and used, as well as music, games and various electronics. is a similar website.

[Edited to add: There’s now an that is still pretty much only books right now. /2016]


1 Billion Rising

Neude Crowd
As a feminist from a very young age, I’m constantly frustrated and horrified by the treatment of women around the world. I’m not just talking about the horrendous rapes of women that have taken place in India and South Africa recently. I’m just as upset over the fact that the Violence Against Women Act in the US was not reauthorized and only given an extension yesterday. Don’t even get me started on the fact that the US is the only democracy in the world that hasn’t ratified the United Nations Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (otherwise known as the international bill of rights for women).




Tomorrow, 14 February 2013, women (and men) all over the world will be rising up to protest the violence against women that takes place everywhere. This peaceful protest will take the form of singing, dancing, and flashmobs. Cities and countries all over the world have events planned and you’re free to take part, even if you haven’t learned the flashmob routine. Just dance and support women everywhere!

Utrecht will have its own event taking place, starting at Hoog Catharijne and then moving to Neude. The goal is to have one billion people around the world speaking out peacefully against this brutality. No matter where you are, look for an event near you. Or start your own! It doesn’t have to be big. Just find your own way to raise your voice.

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Tap Water Challenge

Water in Janskerkhof
The latest TEDxUtrecht took place this week and it seems that one of the discussions was about ways to encourage Utrechters to turn to tap water instead of bottled water. Not only is tap water the cheaper option, but it’s also better for the environment, since you don’t end up with all those plastic bottles. Considering the fact that plastic recycling isn’t the easiest form of recycling here, it seems particularly relevant.

The Utrecht Tap Water Challenge, organized by TEDxUtrecht and supported by the Join the Pipe foundation, Vitens, and the city of Utrecht, wants locals to get involved and come up with ways to encourage others to choose tap water. The winning idea will win a prize and have the opportunity to see their idea implemented. The deadline is 30 November 2012.

Water in Neude

A number of free water points have been established in locations around the city and other locations are being considered. If you’re out and about and have a reusable water container or some other sort of cup, you can always fill up, rather than spend €1 for a plastic bottle of water. In a pinch, you can go really green and use your own hand, of course! There’s one at Janskerkhof, Park Lepelenburg, Neude, Griftpark, and Marco Poloplantsoen.

Drink WaterPerhaps you’re like I used to be and have some unpleasant associations with tap water, whether it’s smelly, tastes bad, or comes with a warning as it did years ago when I lived in New Orleans. I used Britta filters and bottled water like many people and continued to do so when I first moved here, simply out of habit. Then I tasted the tap water here. It’s actually really nice! Utrecht has a reputation for the quality of its water. In fact, the water we get from our tap is the same spring water that gets bottled by brands like Sourcy.

Not everyone has access to quality tap water, but it’s worth trying from time to time, rather than simply buying bottled or shelling out for all of those filters. The irony is that we do have such great water in Utrecht, but it’s very hard to actually get tap water in restaurants here. They’ll bring you a bottle of still water, instead, as there’s no profit to be made off tap water. Perhaps that should be my suggestion for the competition: encouraging restaurants to provide tap water on request.

If you want more information about the contest, check the Gemeente’s website or visit the TEDxUtrecht idea site where you can submit your ideas. (Editor’s Note 1/8/13: contest has finished)