This post is part of a series on my travels to the “Low Countries”: the Netherlands and Belgium. Start at the beginning.
Day four was another early start. We packed, chugged some coffee, and headed for the train station early to catch a NS Intercity train headed for Utrecht Centraal. Utrecht is the fourth largest Dutch city, which means it is small by US standards. It also means it is less visited by tourists, which is exciting and a bit scary – would they still speak English!? (hint: yes. yes they would).
The train system in the Netherlands is so great: generally timely, cheap, easy to book – even for a foreigner, and they run frequently enough that you don’t really need to look at a schedule before going to the station. It helps that the country is so small. The train ride took approximately 30 minutes and we had arrived in Utrecht at around 9:30am.
When we emerged from the train station and began to walk down the Old Canal, you could feel the difference from Amsterdam. This was definitely more a quaint European town than the bustling city of Amsterdam. The architecture, shops, people were all charming and full of character. Immediately, we could see the emblem of the city: the Dom Tower.
We met our lovely host first thing. She kindly agreed to let us drop our bags off early before we started exploring in order to maximize our time in the city (we’d only be here a night). She recommended us a coffee shop nearby and warned us that nothing is open Monday mornings. And yes, we had noticed that the streets were dead. Apparently this is a thing in the Netherlands…most things just don’t open until at least noon on Monday as a way extending the weekend a bit. I think we could learn something from the Dutch in this department.
Since everything was closed, we decided to do our own little walking tour of the city. It isn’t very big, so this didn’t take all that long. The first thing we noticed was that the obsession with biking as the primary mode of transportation extends well beyond the borders of Amsterdam. There was a giant parking lot for bikes near the train station that must have had thousands of bikes. Isles and isles of bikes. I have no idea how anybody could find their bike in this chaos.
We walked to the outskirts of the town where a cool, relatively recently built, windmill stands called De Ster. It wasn’t open for tours or anything, but there was a nice park next door that we walked through. We previously had learned about a series of codes that could be communicated by different positions of the windmill’s blades. Looking closely at these, it appeared that the windmill operator’s family had recently had a baby.
Hunger was beginning to set in and noon approached, so we headed back towards the center of the city in search of lunch. What we found was delicious Vietnamese food at a very small eatery called Kimmade.
After eating at a leisurely pace, it was finally time to check in to our next AirBnB. We met our host back at her house and she walked us to the cellar apartment where we’d be staying. It opens out into the canal. This would definitely be one of the cooler places we would be staying.
The inside was almost as cool as the outside.
Settled, we quickly turned around to go see the main attraction of the city: the Dom Tower. We arrived at the information center, conveniently, 5 minutes before a tour. Upon meeting the tour guide, he asked the Dutch members of the tour group if they didn’t mind the tour being only in English, which they did not (thankfully). We then made our way to the tower.
The tour consisted of climbing all 465 steps to the top observation area and learning a bit about the history of the tower and the Dom Church, or the Cathedral of Saint Martin. The church and the tower actually used to be one structure until a storm came in the 1674 and destroyed the section in between the two. It sat that way, damaged, for many years until it was eventually cleaned and turning into Dom Square as it stands today.
Seeing inside the largest church tower in the Netherlands was an awesome experience. The collection of bells inside of the church was like nothing I’d ever seen. They even had a huge instrument called a Carillon, which is basic a giant player piano for church bells. We got to see it in operation and it was incredible. Apparently there is also a “town bell player” and has been since the instruments inception. The current player is the first non-Dutch and woman to hold the position. Her repertoire is also a bit different than her predecessors; her first song was Gangnam Style…
And then there was the view…
Apparently on a clear day you can see to Amsterdam and Rotterdam, which underscores how compact the country is. The wind was crazy up there, it felt like we might take off. On the climb down, I began to feel my legs trembling. We’ve been averaging at least 20,000 steps a day, which is a bit more than usual to say the least. Add to that 465 steps and you have a recipe for immobility.
We briefly walked over to the church proper to take a look around. Someone who worked there approached me speaking Dutch and I awkwardly had to tell him that I had no idea what he was saying. In English, he asked me if I had any questions about their “half-church”. He was very friendly and talked about his love for New York City when I told him I was from the States.
Finally, we went back to the apartment to rest our legs before dinner. Here we popped a bottle of wine left by our host and I got to writing. This was probably the most enjoyable writing experience so far, if you can imagine.
Dinner was at a Spaghetteria (their word, not mine) called Spaghetteria Pastabar. Here they had no English menu, which was a first. Luckily, the waiter helped us translate before we ordered. We noticed that people here in Utrecht were much less likely to pick up on the fact that we were English-speakers than in Amsterdam. The food was very good: the pasta was fresh and cooked to perfection.
After dinner, we stopped for a beer at a bar that is in an old church called Cafe Olivier. They had a huge selection of beer including some of their own – a really cool place to have a drink.
After beer, we headed back to the apartment for a full night’s rest before another travel day.