Michael and I made it safely to the Netherlands, arriving in Amsterdam Thursday, May 26 and to Utrecht the next day. We’re staying for a few days in a “hotel apartment” which, in reality, a 2-room converted warehouse on a canal, below street level.
If you look closely on the lower right side of the picture, you will see
arched doorways and windows set into the embankment below the street level. Those lead to similar residences such as what we’re staying in, but on the left hand side of the canal. Here’s a look-see at our “cave”:
This charming little abode is centrally
located in the oldest section of Utrecht so it’s very convenient for getting our bearings in Utrecht. Rumor has it that the house above was owned by a
Catholic family who, during times of austere Protestant reign in the Netherlands, stored their vast wine cellars down here. They obviously needed to keep a great deal of wine for ceremonial purposes… “The Cave”, as we are wont to call it, is actually quite nice, with a large living-dining area and has a tiny kitchen, so we’ve been mostly preparing our meals and dining in. We’ve also been meeting our neighbors, who are terrific and so very interesting. One is an amazing, very original artist, and others are professional in a variety of fields. All believe in extended happy hour along the canal so forgive me any typos or lapses in grammar. The only pitfalls are the vaulted barrel ceilings, which are low enough on the sides that even I bang my head on them if I’m not paying attention. On June 1st we move into our apartment about 1 and 1/2 km (3/4 mile) north of here.
More on that later.
Our journey here was not without incident(s), although all
relatively small. We chose to spend the first night in one of the airport hotels near Amsterdam to catch up on sleep and to arrive in Utrecht before noon the next day (Friday), rather than push ourselves. The airport hotel was more than adequate – and more than expensive when it came to breakfast the next day. There was no a la cart breakfast, just a
lovely buffet…..which upon checkout we found had cost us €43, about $65! Oh well.
Back at the train depot under Schipol Airport (pronounced “sh-kip-hole”), I went up to the ticket window to purchase our train tickets to Utrecht. I asked the agent if he spoke English, which he assured me he did. I asked for two tickets to Utrecht for myself and my husband, paid as he requested, then he handed me one ticket. I said I needed tickets for two people, and held up two fingers. He nodded, pointed to the ticket and said “Ja”. We went through the scenario one more time and I figured perhaps it was like our special Eurail pass which is one ticket for two people traveling together.
I figured wrong.
The conductor came by about 5 minutes before we got to Utrecht (about 30 min. from Amsterdam) and we found that we needed a second ticket – of course! To pay her on thetrain would result in a €35 fine for not having the proper tickets. Since she was getting off in Utrecht herself, she kindly offered to go with us to the ticket office, thus saving us a fair packet of change. She also informed us we’d better get our bags down to the train doors, as we were about to arrive in Utrecht. So scramble we did, and met heron the platform in record time. Long story short: the ticket lines were horrendously long so, rather than give up her break, she gave us a free pass, admonishing us (albeit it very nicely) to make sure we didn’t screw up our tickets again. Lesson learned: start learning Dutch pronto.
About 3 hours later, as we were settling into our new abode, the Cave, I realized that in the scramble to get off the train, I’d left my Nook (electronic reader) on the train. I was beside myself, because it contained all my reading material and all our guides for the next three months. Another long story short, after phone calls and a trek back to the Utrecht train station, we discovered that some honest soul found the e-reader and turned it in to the Dutch rail authorities, and I could go pick it up…in Nijmegan, an hour’s train ride away, and practically on the German border. Michael was, as always, a good sport and made the trip with me. By the time we got back to our cave apartment, it was after 7 p.m. – a long first day in Utrecht.
Over the weekend, we explored central Utrecht on foot. Utrecht is one of the oldest cities in Europe, with its earliest settlement tracing back to the Romans. It is centrally located in the Netherlands (abbreviated NL) and has a population of about 300,000. This old city has been initially one of themore difficult places to navigate for the simple reason that the streets all change names after one block or less, reflecting how the city grew in not equally concentric rings over the centuries, with each new strip of buildings and canals adding a new name(s). As in any old European city, the streets are mostly narrow with twists and turns that can easily disorient the ablest of internal navigation systems. A beautiful and saving point of reference is the “Dom Toren”, or cathedral tower, which is not only the tallest point in the old city, soaring 370 ft. into the sky, but the tallest structure in the Netherlands. It is easily seen from most of the main
streets of the old center city. It also has dozens of bells, making it the
largest musical instrument in the NL.
Notice how the Dom tower stands alone, and has no church
attached to it. At one time it was the bell tower of the cathedral, or Domkerk, which stands about 50 yards behind and to the left of the tower in the picture to the left.
The bulk of the Domkerk, including a very attached bell tower, was built
over several decades in the 1300s. In 1674 a freak tornado struck Utrecht, ripping through and destroying the nave of the church, which encompasses the main entrance and length of the church leading towards the alter. (For the uninitiated in gothic cathedral design, see:
Not only did the city not replace the whole front end of the cathedral, the denizens of Utrecht took quite a while to clean up the mess, a couple of hundred years per one source. So today the Domkerk and its former bell tower stand separately, with a beautiful little tree-filled plaza between them.
The Dom, as the tower’s called, is enormous. Its base encompasses about one medieval-sized city block and a grand archway cut through the base that a (small) city bus can drive through.
Where the trees are in the photo below is the plaza between the two remaining sections of the cathedral. It’shad to tell from this angle, but the plaza is about 100 meters square and is really quite lovely.
The Dutch and their Bikes
In addition to the medieval maze that makes it difficult to navigate the streets of Utrecht are the considerable safety hazards while afoot. Forget how many times we’d read this in guidebooks or were told this, there are speeding bicycles everywhere and you’d better be alert because these bikers take no prisoners. Utrecht is a university town, and while there
are youthful speed demons aplenty wielding cell phones, iPods and headphones while biking, Utrechtians of all ages take to their bikes as the primary form of transportation. And, as one would expect from bikers who insist upon texting while cycling, among other activities, their full attention is not always focused on the roadway as they zip along. While thus far Michael and I have remained uninjured by these bike demons, we have each had near-strikes from some of the more demented bikers. In fact, bike-on-bike, bike-on-pedestrian and bike-on-other vehicle accidents are frequent and messy, according to an ER physician here. Of course, it would help if the bikers wore helmets, but apparently it’s part of Dutch national pride to eschew such a ridiculous piece of equipment. In
reality it’s probably more prudent for pedestrians to be wearing full body
armor when they venture out. The number one rule here is bikes rule, and, number two is “stay out of our frikkin’ bike lanes!” — and woe to the pedestrian who forgets these life-essential caveats.
Here’s how it works. On the larger streets there are wide lanes
that are for bicycle traffic only. They run parallel to the vehicular traffic lane(s) on one side, and the pedestrian sidewalks on the other side of the bike lane. Notice I said “larger streets”. There are not that many wide streets in the older part of Utrecht, so the majority of the time the reality is a very poorly-defined roadway that is shared by vehicles and bikes, with a narrow sidewalk running alongside. However, where there are sidewalks, cafés will commandeer sidewalk space for their needs, and other businesses and homeowners routinely appropriate large chunks of sidewalks for whatever needs they have: mini-gardens, bike storage, pram storage, garbage cans, benches, etc.
Notice I said, “where there are sidewalks…”
Being such an old city, central Utrecht’s “main” streets are simply 10 foot-wide undifferentiated “roadways” that are shared by all. Of course, these
narrow, cobbled streets are beautiful and quaint, but they also present a better than excellent chance of getting creamed by a speeding bicyclist. On the other hand, the very “greenness” of bikes outnumbering carbon-spewing vehicles thrills my eco-conscious soul, and I am enthralled – if not intimidated – by these speeding (but non-carbon emitting) bike demons zipping around me.
This is only because the grocery store to the left is situated on a large sidewalk plaza, and pedestrians have actually been left a wide walking space traversing the plaza. Stay tuned for more regarding Utrecht on two wheels,
including “Pimp My Bike, Dutch Style”.
So far, we love the Netherlands, the Dutch and Utrecht. It’s been a wonderful four days of exploration and we can’t wait to learn more.
It’s a continual amazement, from the multitudes of mixed cultures to the
mixture of old city and 21st century as well as adjustments, all of
which have been positive. I think Michael is ready to move here permanently. So far the only downsides are the cost and relative lack of
convenience: everything here is far more expensive than in the U.S., and, you just don’t have the conveniences you’re used to, like breadth and depth of consumer choices and stores like a CVS. So there have been some minor adjustments in mindset and expectations, but nothing we weren’t expecting.
Language here has only been a comical problem if we’ve tried
to pronounce Dutch words correctly. Everyone speaks good English (well, that ticket agent at the Amsterdam train station being an exception), so getting around has not been a problem at all. Although Dutch is Germanic-based, its pronunciation is different from German in many ways, so the written words often sound radically different from how one would
expect them. A lesson in point is the street on which we will soon be living, a lesson neither one of us has quite mastered.
We will be moving to
Wijde Beginestraat 86 as of June 1st. Most Americans would attempt to pronounce this “Widge-dee Begin-es-strat” and that would be so off base. The correct, throat-hocking pronunciation is much closer to something like “Vy-duh Be-kahy-nah-sraaat” – and this is the closest in phonetic and actual pronunciation I’ve mastered, and I’m still not saying it correctly. I guess I better not get lost or otherwise incapacitated.
And, oh yeah, since I brought that up….our future abode is just off a
main street that looks a tad like Haight Ashbury in San Fran in the late 60s, including at least one coffee shop, which does serve brown stuff, but nothing anything like coffee beans, if you know what I mean. The streets are teeming with students and others under 30 (if not under 20) in all modes of dress and hair –uh – “arrangements”.
In addition to the coffee shops which exude a weird, sweet-smelling,
uh, incense (my mother is reading this, y’all!), there are tattoo parlors, ethnic fast food joints (stalls built into crevices in the outer walls of buildings), actual restaurants of all ethnic hues, most fairly exotic, weird clothing stalls, and, of course, a movie theater and a few liquor stores. And one small grocery store. I mean, these kids have their priorities in order!
And, we’ve been told that the city’s red light district is somewhere very close by, although in two excursions to our future neighborhood, I haven’t seen any ladies of the night. On the other hand, my last traipse through there was before noon, so the time of day may have been a clue why every female I saw was more or less adequately covered. Even by Dutch
OK, that’s it from me.
Stay tuned for more adventures and commentary from Carol and Michael
Tuesday, May 31, 2011