CANAL

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.

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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.

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