Michael and I have been trying to engage in some fun activities besides teaching, blogging, and simply “hanging” with friends, all of which are great fun, mind you. Recently we rented kayaks and paddled up a river away from the city. Unfortunately, I didn’t take my camera as I didn’t want to risk it suddenly taking a swim if I dropped it.
One recent, sunny day, we decided to rent a “canal bike,” or paddle boat. Two years ago we had taken a rather pleasant tourist boat tour through Utrecht’s canals, but the motorized boat went too fast to take all the detail pictures I wanted. So, on another sunny day, we rented a “canal bike” and off we paddled.
One aspect of living in a land riddled with water — canals, rivers, irrigation ditches, dikes — there are an awful lot of bridges, large and small, you cross over. What is interesting living in an old city like Utrecht is passing under the bridges and seeing their unique aspects. One of my favorites is “The Smiths’ Bridge,” or “Smee Brug,” as seen below. Even after centuries, you can see the sculpted relief of a blacksmith hammering on his forge. Most of the old bridges received their names because of what activity took place in the environs. There used to be a number of smiths living in the area.
This is one of several bridges spanning the Oudegracht, or “Old Canal,” which runs through the center of the old city. In the northern sections the Oudegracht dates to 1000 C.E., and were connected to the old bed of the Rhine River; the “younger” sections date to about 1122. Along the waterways of the canal and rivers were a system of locks and sluices, still used today, to help control flooding and maintain a constant water level.
The old city of Utrecht was once encircled by a moat-like artificial waterway called the Singel. Parts of it were filled in and covered over, but there are plans afoot to dig out and reopen the old Singel’s to its original path.
So, if the Singel is like a water belt around the inner city of Utrecht, the Oudergracht runs, more or less, on a north-south direction down the middle, bisecting the Singel. A “new canal,” The Nieuvwegracht,” runs roughly parallel to the old canal to the east. It’s called the “new” canal as it was constructed in the late 1300s. It’s also been called by many people one of the prettiest canals in all of the Netherlands.
On this paddle up the canal, we spotted an elderly man fishing. I knew who he was immediately because of the heron perched on his bow. I’d been told that this heron lives on the man’s boat, even when it’s moored in the Singel, and stays with him when he fishes, because the man will give him some of the fish he catches. I’d seen the boat, empty, with the heron perched on it, and, true to what I’d been told, here was the heron, accompanying the fisherman in the boat.
Our good friends Corinne and Martin, and Fred and Petra, all live on a lovely stretch of the Nieuvwegracht. When we first came to the Netherlands in 2011, we stayed several days in a hotel apartment right next to Corinne and Martin, which is how we came to be friends. We stayed there again this year for a week, waiting for our “permanent” apartment to be available.
One of the prettiest parts of the Nieuvwegracht is where it narrows considerably and begins to twist and turn through the old neighborhoods of Utrecht. Here the houses are much closer to the water, many flush against the canal walls, or there is only one small street alongside the canal.
This section is called “Kromme Nieuvwegracht,” or “Crooked New Canal.” Most of the bridges here have been rebuilt several times over the centuries, while a few from the1500sstill remain.
This plaque in stone relief marks where the “Squat Tower” once stood. It was once part of the outer defense works of the old city. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in 1832 to make way for the growing city.
As you can see from the pipes jutting from both sides of the canal, these pipes were part of a drainage system funneling wastes and excess ground water into the canals. Fortunately, the canals have cleaned up considerably.
The Nieuvwegracht connects at its north end to the water-ring, the Singel, and then a left hand turn a couple hundred meters later put your canal-bike back on the Oudegracht (Old Canal).
We’ve spent many an evening dining along this stretch of the Oudergracht, which meanders through the heart of the old city.
And, back to the rental kiosk and the end of our canal-bike tour. Dooie!