Lets go to Amster-who?

COME to Amsterdam, they say.

Laid-back attitude, unbeatable art, elegant buildings, and canals. Such canals! (But everyone has been to Amsterdam, or if they haven’t they should have). Or elsewhere in the Netherlands, The Hague, with its diplomatic quarter, abundant book stalls and flower shows (sleepy). Or perhaps try Delft, the eponymous “city” which gave the world the European version of china (you could walk it in five minutes).

Well down the road from all these three, Utrecht has all that and more. First it’s a bit hillier than Amsterdam, so the canals have depth. And depth is important. You still have the buildings running along the length of the canal with cafes, bars and shops but there are also the record shops, art exhibits and ice cream at water level. Two for the price of one.

Second it’s smaller — the fourth largest city in the Netherlands — so you have everything in front of you. It’s like a full hand in poker. And yes, Amsterdam has the Rijksmuseum with its Rembrandts and Van Eycks, but Utrecht’s painterly success predates its now more illustrious neighbour and an exhibition at the Centraal Museum until December captures the Caravaggist painters as one of a blossoming school. Not one to play the poor relation, Utrecht is proud of its maritime heritage when ships from around the world — the Dutch East India Company — sailed into its canals laden with spices and silks.

At the end of this month the city hosts one of the festival gems of Europe, never mind Holland. The Summer Darkness Festival is a kind of cyber-vampire version of Slane Castle except with more medieval dark alleys and goths than you could shake a bunch of garlic at.

Cultural life in the city revolves around the canals and wharves with the Dragon Boat Race being a key element to the festivities. The main canal, the Oudegracht, is a curved canal, that follows an old channel of the river Rhine. Its once bustling medieval wharves with interconnecting tunnels allowed the easy delivery of goods. They have now given way to bustling contemporary wharves with many of the old warehouses converted into restaurants and cafes. The city claims it is the only medieval port in existence in the world, but surely Antwerp for one would dispute that. For any Corkonians out there, visualise Cork in the 17th century where ships came right up to the city berthing at the Coal Quay and even Patrick’s Street itself. The curved main street merely follows the meandering river channel below.

The Summer Darkness Festival gives you a chance to release your inner Goth. It runs from July 29-31 but is most definitely not for everyone. As a thriving university city, a fair share of the participants are students but they are joined every year by thousands of tourists. The festival throws up a wide platter of music, tangential or core to the Gothic principles — after-life, doomed lovers, mysterious castles, entwined foliage. You are promised new-wave, ambient, electro, medieval, neo-folk, EBM, darkwave, synthpop, futurepop, neo-classical, industrial, noise, dubstep and the (bizarre) witch-house.

So as the city becomes a sarcophagus for the weekend you can shake your bones to the likes of Orfeo, Ball Noir and Kelten Zonder Grenzen as Utrecht goes all spooky. A gothic market will run for the entire weekend with Victorian skirts and dresses, bags, blankets, masks, T-shirts and cyber accessories. Enough to kit out an entire cemetery.

And in continuation of this nocturnal theme, take in a visit, to the Museum de Heksenwaag (witches’ weigh house) where the weighing scales in the 17th century determined if you were one of the broomstick brigade. Though your fate still hung in the balance it was a slightly better option than being burned at the stake. Once weighed, you are awarded a certificate which establishes if you are a witch or not. Good luck.

While Amsterdam has many famous buildings, not least the Nazi-evader Anne Frank, Utrecht too has its gems. A standout feature of the city is the Rieveld Schroder House which is on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

Essentially, conceived around the notion of space, the house has gliding panels, rooms that appear wall-less and multiple balconies. Rooms can be redesigned easily according to the whim of the resident. The house which was built in 1924 is definitely a must-see if you have clutter problems in your own dwelling and are looking for inspiration. And this being the Netherlands, multiple primary colours enliven the building. You don’t have to be an architecture student to get a real kick out of this building.

To get a perspective on all this, take a bird’s eye view from the 112 metre Dom tower which is the highest church tower in the Netherlands and the highest building in Utrecht. Climb the narrow, steep stairs and take in the stunning views and perhaps plot your bike route through the city. You get a sense here, perhaps of the character of Ken, played by Brendan Gleeson in the crime thriller In Bruges as he gazed over the city. Hopefully you won’t have a bullet in your gut as you do.

Look, forget your troubles. Take a packed lunch and half a bottle of wine and drift on a barge through this leafy stacked city for a couple of hours. Some of the tours take you out of the city and into the surrounding countryside. By all means return to reality when your barge docks again but if you’re in the mood for really letting your hair down you could do worse than check out that Summer Darkness Festival. Utrecht aims to become cultural capital of Europe in 2018. With so much going on already, they hardly need to apply for that status.

The sights

Festival: www.summerdarkness.nl/festival/

Boat tours in central Utrecht: www.holland.com/global/cities/utrecht

Rieveld Schroder House: From the Central Station you take bus 4 to Fockema Andreaelaan, bus stop Prins Hendriklaan. www.centraalmuseum.nl

Night tours: As night falls, Trajectum Lumen comes to life. This route takes visitors along illuminated bridges. www.inyourpocket.com/Netherlands/Utrecht/

Museum de Heksenwaag (witches’ weigh house); Leeuweringerstraat 2, 3421AC Oudewater; info@heksenwaag.nl

The shopping

On Wednesdays and Saturdays there is a great cheese market. Utrecht has lots of street markets where you can buy everything from clogs to a Victorian monocle. Check out the Vredenburg market. &

Flights, packages and trains

Aer Lingus direct flights from Cork and Dublin to Amsterdam (Aerlingus.com). Ryanair flies Dublin to Eindhoven (about an hour by train to Utrecht). www.arrowtours.ie has several packages to Amsterdam but may be able to tailor to Utrecht. Trains from Amsterdam to centre of Utrecht (www.ns.nl/en).

Airport info

Schiphol Airport at Amsterdam is a joy! Chill-out areas with huge orange comfy seats, low lighting, children’s play areas and even a library ensure any waiting time will ‘fly’. Passports are required for Irish visitors.

Bike rental

Utrecht is fantastic to get around by bike. This shop rents bikes for €7 for the whole day. Laag Catharijne — Located next to Central Station Utrecht. Info: LaagCatharijne@hetnet.nl or 00 31 030 231 67 80

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