Utrecht is Amsterdam without the crowds of tourists, the drugs, the rubbish or obvious red-light district. In other words, it has the canals, the Dutch and the cheese but everything is clean and fresh belying its age.
The University opened its doors here in 1639 and liberal thought and student culture has been a hallmark of the city ever since. There is a relaxed, almost hippy vibe about the town that brings back memories of my youth when flower power was popular in California.
Speaking of Flower Power, for a first time visitor, a visit to Utrecht’s Botanische Tuinen (Botanical Gardens) on the eastern edge of the city is a must. Maintained by Utrecht University, the exhibits are extensive, vast even and well thought out with much of the signage translated into English. There are rockeries, themed gardens, fields of hostas, perennials of every description and colour, climbers, carnivorous plants and much, much more. Bromeliads have there own separate greenhouse that is climate controlled and also boasts a butterfly aviary. Accessed through sliding doors and then a plastic strip partition, the minute you walk into this aviary, butterflies surround you. There were monarchs, beautiful blue gossamer-winged butterflies, literally dozens of exotic coloured creatures. They were busy finding food and would alight on plants all around us. It was truly magical.
After our visit to the gardens, it was off to the Utrecht Mussel Festival. Held once a year in the east end of Utrecht near the Wittervrouwen District, the event only lasts one day. On the banks of the Keistraat Drift (canal) tents offering shellfish, beer and wine had been erected. There were also bouncy castles and everything was in place when we arrived. An outdoor seat at the Tilt bar and restaurant was secured before taking advantage of the steaming mussels and oysters. A very nice Domaine Gibault 2011 Plantine (similar to a Sancere) washed the seafood down. Fishermen in jauntily coloured shirts had formed a chorus and we were treated to traditional sailors tunes mixed with more current pop songs. It was a very relaxing atmosphere and everyone was enjoying the music and the mussels. A seafood event can’t get much better than this!
A walk down the canal lead us to the confluence of the two main canals in the centre of town. As the weather was fine, we stopped to have a beverage at Ledig ERF enjoying watching people go by.
There must have been fifty beers on the menu, but most were Belgian. My brother-in-law’s partner, who lives in Brussels, verified this for us.
Also worth seeing is St Martin’s cathedral (Domkerk) which was first built in the 700s near to the site of the current cathedral. Worship has taken place here since the middle ages. And a walk along the city’s main canal will eventually lead to art shops and artist’s studios. A dreamy, picturesque spot such as this would be hard to find anywhere else in the world.
Stena Line (08447 70 70 70) offers twice-daily return six-hour crossings between Harwich and Hook of Holland. Rail and sail tickets are available from £78 per person return (www.dutchflyer.co.uk). Cabins for overnight crossings start from £15 per person each way (based on two sharing).