I’m standing in front of a shop called Betsies Kookwinkel in Utrecht. After the first hour it becomes easier to translate things, even without actual knowledge, and it only reinforces my being enchanted with this Dutch town I found myself in on this summer weekend.
Utrecht is famous for its university (largest in the country) and the local railway station is kept busy due to the student population and the city’s central geographical location. It’s also the fourth-largest city in the Netherlands and looks back on some 2000 years of history.
Quintessentially Dutch, it’s a wonderful weekend getaway for experiencing the Netherlands on a slightly calmer scale than in Amsterdam. A short train ride from Schiphol Airport later you will see impressive construction work going on around Utrecht’s train station. This is ambitiously planned to be the world’s biggest bike park.
In the summertime Utrecht is a vibrant mosaic of green trees, row upon row of house facades I couldn’t get enough of, enchanting canal views along the Vismarkt, outdoor cafes right by the water, flower markets, eating, drinking, cheese, ice cream and cyclists. Almost every lamp-post you see is decorated with a massive flower pot. Shops line the streets, seamlessly blending in with the surrounding architectural landscape and everyone seems energetically driven to explore. If you are staying for longer than a weekend, your days will be easy to fill, as the city boasts a varied cultural landscape close on the heels of Amsterdam. And if a short stay is what you have in mind, like I did, those who love to walk will feel Utrecht’s charm.
I pass scores of bikes locked up by a wall – bikes with baskets, bikes with seats for children, bikes with both, blue bikes, red bikes, pink bikes, a white bike decorated with black flowers. The creativity has no bounds and the way cycling is part of the local culture is mind-blowing. Since my cycling course I can’t stop looking at other cyclists with different eyes, and Dutch ones certainly have a special elegance to how they pedal down their streets. Easier to observe in Utrecht than in Amsterdam, where you are more intent on crossing in time, they seem to glide around the city, looking completely relaxed. They make up Utrecht’s traffic.
After taking pictures of what felt like every house facade in Utrecht and staring at boats passing on the Oudegracht canal (what is it about Dutch canals and boats that makes a traveller hop with excitement?) I need sustenance. I stop by the Luden restaurant and brasserie on Janskerhof, where I may have had the best chicken sate of my life so far. With Dutch fries on the side (of course), that creamy mayonnaise, which for me has a lovely cheesy taste to it, and a peanut butter sauce to rival all peanut butter sauces. High ceilings, sturdy tables of dark wood and glamourous lamps from days of old, mixed with a modern painting here and there, contribute to an enjoyable and afforfable dining experience, as I watch more locals come in who look like they’ve been there before.
It’s the perfect meal to prepare you for climbing those 465 steps of the Dom Tower only three minutes away, or possibly hitting a local market. Or unfolding the conveniently tiny map of Utrecht’s shopping routes. The city charms on all counts.