Guide to Utrecht


1. Walking Around Utrecht – Must see, accommodation and restaurants
2. Eye-catcher: the Dom of Utrecht A few facts about Utrecht’s cathedral
3. Literary UtrechtAbout old and new writers from Utrecht
4. Haiku for JapanRecent poetry by an ‘Utrechter’

Walking Around Utrecht

Utrecht was our first port of call in January 2011. Conditions were dreary. Lots of grey clouds and drizzly rain. Did I mention the temperature? It was cold. Really, really cold.

Yet the grey clouds ensured we had soft light to work with. One of us decided on black and white photography for the whole weekend. That’ll teach you to think in terms of contrast! The other decided to buy a new prime lens. With this kind of lens, you have to think carefully how to get the best shot. You have to walk around for the perfect spot and you can’t cheat by zooming in or out!

Must See

The Dom church, tower and cloister gardens. Come sun or rain, it is always worth your while. We’re talking centuries worth of history here.

Sunday Morning – just leisurely stroll through the city centre and along the canals on Sunday morning. That’s when you see the city at it’s most beautiful and most peaceful.

Central Museum – with the wonderful Rietveld exhibition. We didn’t have time for the Dick Bruna and Nijntje (Miffy) museum!

Utrecht University Museum – this is a gem just around the corner of the Central museum. If you go to the Central museum, please don’t skip this one. Or better yet, skip the central museum and visit the university museum first! It has a great exhibition set up and is located next to the botanical gardens. Go and visit!

Of course, there are lots more ‘must sees’ in Utrecht, Oudaen, Catherijne Convent etc. But we didn’t have time for them!

Accommodation & Restaurants

Check-in was at Karel V hotel. They have a wonderful arrangement called Trajectum Lumen. You get a room for one night in the hotel. They also give you a map and torchlight that allows you to discover the light artwork of Utrecht by night. The map for this route is also available from the tourist office. Not all light art is that great, but some are really clever and/or beautifully projected!

Other restaurants and warm places away from the rain: Lokaal de ReünieBrasserie DompleinRiver Kwai.

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Eye-catcher: the Dom of Utrecht

A beloved Dutch children’s book about Utrecht entitled Stad in de Storm (Storm over the City by Thea Beckman) tells about a young printer’s apprentice and his adventures in seventeenth century Utrecht. One of the key moments in the book describes how a tornado hits the city in 1624, during a severe summer storm. This tornado leaves a mark on the city that is still seen today when you visit the Dom, the cathedral in the city centre.

Now, Europe has many grand and awe-inspiring cathedrals. We have seen our fair share in France, Germany and England. (There are still some in France that we would love to see). For the Netherlands, we believed for a long time that the Dom in Utrecht was the only real cathedral. A little research proves us wrong and right. The Dom is the only religious building in the Netherlands that was actually intended to become a cathedral. All other buildings we call cathedrals today, were originally built and consecrated as churches.

Sadly enough, the Dom was never finished. Some time in history, the money ran out. A bit of a let-down, if you ask us. A cathedral to us is huge, imposing, and makes you feel the smallest person on earth as you walk around inside. The Dom has all these ingredients, even if it isn’t a completed cathedral.

Utrecht, or rather, the bishops of Utrecht, started building the Dom in the 13th century. The tower and transept show they are sturdy works of good ol’ medieval craftsmanship. For some time, especially during the Golden Age of Holland, when trade with the East Indies made the Netherlands very, very rich, there was enough money to continue building the cathedral. But the Golden Age came to an end and economic conditions deteriorated. Religious wars ravaged the Dutch churches and Calvinism became the new major religion. The Dom turned into a protestant church as well. Calvinists at the time were in favour of sober church interiors without expressive religious statues. With little money and little care for ornaments, they invested only in cheap materials to build the Dom.

The sixteenth century came and went and then the tornado in described in Stad in de Storm did actually happen. In 1674, its path ran right through the cheaply constructed nave of the church, destroying it completely. The city and the people left the rubble lying around for a long time. When they finally cleaned it up, the city turned it into a grave yard. Nowadays, it is a square. You can walk underneath the Dom tower across the street to the square and the vanished nave marked in special stones at your feet.

Have a look at our slide show to see some beautiful images of the Dom church, tower and square. There is the impressive interior of the church, and smaller treasures like the painted wall with the image of Jesus in one of the grave coves. Outside, there is a large stone with rune inscriptions, the legacy of king Harald of Norway who made this gift in 980. Beautiful and quiet are the cloister gardens just around the corner. As we were taking pictures, a film crew was shooting a medieval-looking scene. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t tell us which movie they were making! From the Dom tower, you can take fantastic panorama shots of the heart of Utrecht, the old houses and its canals. There is a tour every hour and the guide gives a lot of information and historical facts (a keeper lived in the tower until early in the 20th century! And the tower is rather damp and drafty with no central heating, poor guy…).

The people of Utrecht still talking about rebuilding the nave. The Foundation to Rebuild the Dom (Herbouw Domkerk Utrecht), has presented a blueprint in 2010 and is hoping to start in 2013. Their mission, to make sure that the ‘amputated’  cathedral is finally finished. They will rely on gifts and donation from the public first.

Perhaps we will have our very own Dutch Sagrada Família starting from 2013! It is the kind of project that takes a lot of imagination (already in abundance, when you read the web site of the foundation!), sense of adventure, courage and a mighty investment to get this project started again after more than three centuries. But wouldn’t it be grand if we could make it happen?

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Literary Utrecht

Medieval Literature: Suster Bertken

On Sunday afternoon, we slowly walk through the deserted shopping streets in Utrecht, very weary from the rain and cold. Our eyes tired of staring at gables and peering into alleyways, always searching for THE shot. By the time we reach the Choorstraat, I put my camera back in the bag, away from the damp weather. I stumble as I look down and tried to read a stone in the pavement.

My curiosity is immediately on high alert, All kind of questions race through my mind. Who is Sister Bertken? What is a hermit doing in the middle of a medieval city and what do they mean, entombed??? I look around for more information. Nothing. Then I grab my tiny tourist guide. No luck. On the most famous bridge in Utrecht, the St Maartensbrug, we find a carved image of Suster Bertken being entombed in her cell. But nothing else. Eventually, I continue my hunt for information on Internet as soon as I can get my hands on a computer. It is amazing. Here is an obscure stone that hundreds of people cross every day without noticing it. And then I find this Sister Bertken ALL over the Internet! I track down the most reliable stories until I have reconstructed the story of Sister Bertken. This is a story that takes us through the centuries. Sister Bertken wanted to be entombed, in a 15th century cell, to get away from the world. But even in the 21st century she is still alive and kicking on Facebook! I’m going to tell her life story by compiling various sources I’ve found: the Royal Library in the HagueWikipedia, the Digitaal Vrouwenlexicon van Nederland (Digital Women’s Lexicon of the Netherlands) and a nice web site calledHeidens Utrecht (Pagan Utrecht).

The only way we know for a fact that Suster Bertken lived, is because there is a death certificate, and two manuscripts from her hand. The manuscripts were lost, but because they were printed shortly after her death, her writings are saved for posterity. They include poems of mystical experiences and eight songs of praise. Of course, the Wikipedia entry about her is terribly short without satisfying explanations. Yet, in this case it has a very interesting little side story: in 2010 an opera of her life story premiered at the famous Concert Hall in Amsterdam!

Back to Sister Bertken. She is born out-of-wedlock into a famous local family. Her father’s money enables her to build a hermit’s cell in the Buurchurch in Utrecht. From the age of 30 she is entombed. She lives in solitude for 57 years. Perhaps solitude is not the correct term here. The Dutch Women’s Lexicon gives a fascinating detailed description of hermit’s cells in the Middle Ages. The cells like these contain two windows, one facing the church and altar to follow mass, one facing the street so a hermit can receive food and beverages from passers-by. So, Sister Bertken isn’t deprived of human contact. People come to visit her and she can hear their confession or tell them of her mystical experiences.

Death certificates are not very usual for those days, and it is a sign she is held in high esteem by her religious peers. The certificate confirms her very sober living style and strong devotion. Today, her writings are considered part of the Dutch medieval literary heritage. They reflect a particular stream of religious consciousness, Modern Devotion(Moderne Devotie), that considers a direct relation with Jesus central to one’s life. Sister Bertken dies and is buried in her cell in 1517.

Modern Literary Prize for Utrecht

There is more literature in and from Utrecht. In 2002 the city installed the bi-annual Literature Prize for Utrecht (Literatuurprijs Utrecht). Winners have been: Manon Uphoff, Ronald Giphart, ArthurJapin, Ingmar Heytze, Guillaum van der Graft (aka Willem Barnard).

It you want to start reading authors born and bred in Utrecht, then start with these names. To my shame, I have only read Giphart and Japin. I cannot remember reading Manon Uphoff, but that has to do with me and definitely not with her writing qualities! For this blog, I had a look at Ingmar Heytze’s web site and in the meantime, I have readUtrecht voor Gevorderden. I like his style, and can recommend it to the poetry lovers among you!

In my humble opinion, Arthur Japin is a must-read, too. His crisp style of writing impresses me to no end. The most recent book I read was De Overgave (Surrender). A fascinating first person story of a woman’s hardships as a pioneer in the American Wild West. His latest novel, Vaslav, lies waiting on my night stand…

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Haiku for Japan

In Literary Utrecht, we mentioned Manon Uphoff, a writer from Utrecht.

By chance I recently discovered a haiku she has written as part of a project in support of Japan after the terrible earthquake and tsunami. The poem creates a very special atmosphere, even more so if you see it together with the original artwork by Hokusai.

De zee begrijpt niets
Maar Hokusai sneed zwijgend
de golf uit in hout
– Manon Uphoff

The sea understands nothing
But Hokusai silently carved
The wave out of wood
– (our translation attempt)

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