Our 2015 Netherlands house exchange ended with a stay in the historic city of Utrecht. Several Dutch people recommended it, telling us that it was just as historic and beautiful as Amsterdam, but cleaner! It is also very compact, so once we arrived we didn’t use our car until we left. Utrecht was the most important city in the Netherlands until the Dutch Golden Age, when Amsterdam overtook it as the country’s cultural centre and most populous city.
We stayed in a suite at the Grand Hotel Karel V, a national monument located in the medieval heart of the city. The oldest part of the hotel was built in 1348 as a monastery for the Teutonic Knights, although the history of the property goes back even further with the recent discovery of a Roman cemetery under one of the buildings. The hotel is named after Emperor Charles V, who stayed here with his sister Maria of Hungary in 1543.
King Louis Napoleon purchased the property from the Order of the Teutonic Knights in 1807 and it was converted into a military hospital, a function it served until the 1980’s. It was repurchased by the “Bailiwick of Utrecht of the Teutonic Order” in 1990, and once again became the headquarters for the order, as well as a 5-star hotel after extensive renovations.
Our suite had a view of Utrecht’s iconic landmark, the Dom Tower. At 112.5 metres (368 feet), it is the tallest church tower in the Netherlands. It was built between 1321 and 1382 on the spot where Utrecht was founded by the Romans in 47 AD. The unfinished nave of St. Martin’s Cathedral (aka Dom Church) was destroyed by a tornado in 1674, leaving the tower separated from its cathedral ever since. Construction of the cathedral began in 1254 but was never completely finished, despite Utrecht being the main religious centre of the Netherlands since the 8th century. The city transferred the cathedral from the Catholics to the Calvinists in 1580, which may explain why the interior is somewhat more austere than a typical European cathedral. Between the cathedral and Utrecht University Hall is a beautiful garden and cloister from the 15th century.
After touring the cathedral and cloisters we took a canal tour, a great way to see the city. The most interesting part of the tour was the portion along the Oudegracht (Old Canal), which runs through the medieval centre of the city. Parts of the canal follow the original flow of the Rhine river. After the water level dropped in 1122 and a system of locks was completed in 1275 to prevent flooding, new quays and cellars were built at water level. The cellars were used as warehouses and workshops. Today, many have been converted to restaurants.
After the tour, Oliver spotted pedal boats and insisted that we rent one. It turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip. While Karen went shopping we pedalled down the Oudegracht and then back up the Nieuwegracht (New Canal), a charming, narrow canal that is only open to human powered vessels (pedal boats and kayaks). Many of the wealthy families of Utrecht built their homes and warehouses along the Nieuwegracht.
That night we had a wonderful dinner on the Oudegracht. Utrecht University, founded in 1636, is the largest university in the country, and the restaurants were packed.
The next morning Oliver insisted that we rent a pedal boat again, so that Karen could experience it. He loved pointing out all of the things that we had discovered along the Nieuwegracht the day before.
After lunch in the square we said goodbye to Utrecht and drove to The Hague, where we spent the final afternoon and evening of an amazing holiday.