“This is your very first post” it says. It might as well say “Well, no pressure, but you’d better not mess this one up!”. I mean, seriously, it took me way too much time to decide what I wanted to write about. And I’m kinda hoping I am not the only one out there on the blogosphere who had the same problem (right?).
But then this morning, while enjoying a cup of coffee and reading on my sunny balcony, I got the answer straight out of my favourite book (coincidence? I think not). “Begin at the beginning, the King said, very gravely, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” This is probably the best advice Lewis Carroll could have indirectly given me through Alice in Wonderland.
It’s not the time when it started that matters the most, it is the place. Five years ago, I left my countrymen to start a new adventure as an Erasmus student in The Netherlands. The city of Utrecht, to be very precise. Well, five years and two other countries later, here I am back where it all started. And if you’ve been here too, I am pretty sure you will understand why I came back. If you haven’t, then let me tell you all about this beautiful dutch city that can be described with simple words: it is full of contrast.
The city that never sleeps… kind of
Well, the city never sleeps if you are a student. If you are not, then you can totally sleep like a baby, without being disturbed. Trust me on this, I’ve been on both sides of the balance.
It is a completely different experience to be living here as a student, and then as a 25+ with a full-time job. And, to be honest, the second version has proved to be a bit more disappointing. As much as I like wandering around the old streets and along the canals, I now realize that nothing will ever equal the amazingness and craziness the city has to offer to an expat student.
Utrecht is the 4th main city of The Netherlands, and it has a very central location, just about an hour away from Amsterdam, Rotterdam or even The Hague. It is one of the oldest city of the country, and also one of the main cultural place-to-be (just after Amsterdam, actually). A city incredibly vibrant and lively, with a medieval city center where everything is organised around the old canals.
As any student city that deserves that name, Utrecht counts numerous bars and restaurants in the city center, where, clearly, thirst and hunger have been banned forever. The main canal, the “oudegracht” (Dutch lesson of the day, it literally means old canal), is bordered by terraces at water-level (where warehouses were once located, in the 13th century) on which bars and restaurants take the tables out in two conditions: when the weather is sunny and warm, or when it is so absolutely freezing that the canal has frozen. When that happens, you can even sit directly on it, while trying not to spill your hot cocoa on the ice.
But as an old medieval city, it is also full of tourist attractions and historic places that are definitely worth seeing before you die (yeah, it’s that good).
Amongst them all, the Dom tower stands out (sorry not sorry) to be the most popular and magnificient one. I’ll come back to this one another time, but long story short: the tower, which you can see from about any point in the city, has been separated from the church it used to belong to in 1674, when a storm swept away the nave. Nowadays, you can visit both the church and the tower, from which you can get the most amazing view on the city.
Where Rembrandt meets contemporaneity
Whether it is by foot, by bike or by boat (leave the car out, you’re not welcome), the city center has so many little streets and pathways to offer that it is sometimes hard to remember where you’ve been, and where you’ve not. But if you look up and pay attention to the architecture of the buildings around you, you will soon find that it is actually easy to find your way.
The first “assignment” I received while I was a student was to write about the thing that I found the most surprising in Utrecht. I remember exactly what I wrote about: the way old and modern was mixed everywhere in the city, whether it was in the streets or inside the buildings. There is something that I find fascinating about how a building from the 17th century that has kept all its glory is being furnished as in an Ikea catalogue.
The history of the city goes back to the Romans, but it is the Middle Age that has really left its mark on the city. You can see it everywhere… in the city center.
Everywhere else, the city is constantly reinventing itself. It’s very straight-forward: there’s always a new building or new road works being performed at any time and in any street. Modern and colourful architecture has replaced old-style Dutch houses wherever it could. And that’s what makes the city so unique.
Culture at its core
Another thing that has always stunned me about this city is how culture (and fun) is absolutely everywhere. You simply cannot get bored: there is always something to do and to see. Whether it is happening in a museum, in a park, in a street, or even at the train station. All you need to do is go for a walk, then let the magic happens.
I have recently discovered that an old bunker from the second World War has been turned into an art exhibition center. I shall come back with all the details on this as soon as I get a chance to hop around!
There are so many things to say about this city, I do not want to risk losing you in all the details from the “very first post”. But luckily, I now live here on a permanent basis, so I have all the time in the World to show you around its streets. And I also intend to do this wherever I go, Netherlands or not.
After all, if there is one thing to say about me, it is that I really don’t like to stay still.