Awayfrom outsiders’ clogs-and-windmills stereotypes of the Netherlands, Newzealander JOEDODGSHUNLIVES for several months in the Dutch medieval city of Utrecht and is smitten by its charms.
Stone steps spiral into the earth, leading their stooped followers down, through a side door and deeper into amoodily lit melange of heat, heady drinks, guitar licks and ephemeral conversation. The funk singer yelps at the crashing crescendo of a song, his head inches from the curved ceiling of a stone cellar dwarfed to hobbit hole dimensions by a crowd of statuesque locals.
Through an archway, diners at tiny tables line the walls of a low tunnel, which leads from a simple ‘‘eetcafe’’ (bar/eatery) to T Oude Pothuys (basement pub with nightly music) and, finally, the escape exit of choice for smokers.
Swing doors open onto awater-lapped quay where the night’s reflection sits in a canal created the best part of amillennium ago. It’s lined with deciduous colour, illuminated by cobbled streets above and cellar homes below.
Here, at the historic division between the Netherlands’ Protestant north and Catholic south, lies what could rightly be called the original heart of the country: The medieval city of Utrecht.
When you escape from the nearby tourist trap of Amsterdam, which in the same vein should perhaps be described as the country’s hardworking liver, the change in atmosphere is palpable.
Cyclists flow in effortless streams along narrow streets, the lifeblood of a city best suited to bikes and pedestrians (the latter of which risk being run down by the former, if careless).
Tourists can occasionally be spotted, but they’re most likely to be Dutch or from other European countries and less likely to be giggling inwardly as they totter about trying to come to grips with a coffee-shop purchase.
The old city has a tangible sense of community; it’s compact, bustling, crammed with ornate Golden Age townhouses and centred on canals used as more than just watery bike graveyards.
Back when the mighty Rhine River flowed further north than it does now, a port sprang up bringing awealth of goods and a goodly wealth to the merchants and religious nobility of Utrecht.
The 13th-century port’s unique canal wharves and cellars were the stage for lively markets selling wine, linen, cattle and crops and were the foundations of a vital and flourishing urban economy.
While its stately main canals – Oudegracht and Nieuwegracht – no longer bustle with vendors’ catcalls, they and the under-street warehouses are now brimming with a different kind of life.
Even now in the middle of winter, a canal stroller will see punters spilling out of nightclubs, hear the muted thump of drums from band-recording sessions and see countless windows fogged by hospitality.
T Oude Pothuys occupies just one of the 732 wharf cellars connected to the canals through tunnels dug by merchants weary of hauling their wares up the quays and back down under their houses.
Cellar restaurants offer everything from the sweet treats of a pannenkoeken house to international cuisine, and when Utrecht attracts warm weather (something the Dutch never take for granted), the wharves are packed with terrace diners drinking salutes to the sun.