It was fascinating to read another perspective on Utrecht from Brian Johnston who was a guest of Visit Utrecht and writes for New Zealand website, Stuff who were recognised as Website of the Year at the Voyager Media Awards in Auckland last May. Johnstone finds Utrecht
“a deeply satisfying city.”
He sees Utrecht as everything you could imagine about the Netherlands, if learned from Dutch masters with gabled houses with crooked walls crisscrossing the canals.
We all know that every building in Utrecht is different, so it was reassuring that he noted that as well. But he gives it a with a doll house sensibility, with gleaming door knockers and long skinny windows through which you get glimpses of domestic life carried on behind pots of lurid tulips.
I don’t know if I would go as far as that, but I suppose he is trying to mimic the old masters and thus substantiate his own description.
I find Utrecht a very practical city, with very practical houses. It is a working city, full of said workers who don’t have the time to be prissy about their homes.
But continuing his sickly sweet rendition he goes on to talk about:
“…cobbled squares and Renaissance towers and polished restaurants the size of cupboards, full of big people with creamy skin.”
Now we all know Dutch people are tall. That goes without saying.
But “creamy skin?”
I’m not sure where he was going with that. Not very far as he didn’t mention complexions again.
What I did find odd was Johnston’s claim that
“There are hardly any tourists. If you want to be absorbed into local life, ditch Amsterdam and come here. It’s a 25-minute train ride through semi-countryside of dykes and bridges and tidy factories.”
I’m not sure what part of Utrecht he was in, but we all know how full of tourists the city gets. Indeed, it’s a common complaint that there are too many!
It’s great to see the nod to modernity with:
“Huge electricity pylons stride across flat polders like modern-day triffids. The Netherlands is a high-tech country artificially afloat, but its towns stay quaint and seemingly old-fashioned.”
Old fashioned is in people’s minds. I think that Utrecht is a modern forward looking city and has the right balance of new building infrastructure and the old, but it is quite difficult to be romantic about that.
“The bent metal roof line of Utrecht train station looks like a contemporary art installation.”
This is true, the futuristic Centraal station is an amazing piece of architecture and a beacon for all other designers in the world. It is also true, that as you leave the station you can easily step into another world
“Ahead is an Old Master of jumbled houses and wandering alleys below a cloud-studded sky. There are only passing anachronisms: lots of bicycles, plate-glass shop windows inserted into Dutch Golden Age facades.”
There we go again, the glorified romance of an age long gone, but not a true reflection of Utrecht today.
Is Johnston being sarcastic when he asks:
“How do they get the windows so clean? You could come to Utrecht just to admire the gleaming windowpanes.”
Or is this New Zealand humour?
I’m not sure where he found the next piece of humour as it doesn’t ring true to me, a regular visitor as he talks about:
“Lacquered doors are smart in red and navy, flanked by big pots of plants, fronted by iron railings gleaming like a soldier’s boots. It would all be a bit too sweet if it weren’t for the ferals sitting on doorsteps in the sun, the waft of marijuana from shop entrances, the scribbles of graffiti in ancient alleys.”
I have never seen drug taking, or smelt a joint in all my visits. Maybe I don’t go to the right places or maybe I am not trying to write about a stereotyped Dutch city. As for “ferals?” That is plain insulting. Did he have a bad experience that day or was he imagining it all?
We then get the normal travel fest with mentions of all the too visit places in Utrecht. We know all of them. I don’t suppose your average Kiwi does however, but as he wrote
“If you want to be absorbed into local life, ditch Amsterdam and come here.
Anchor your idle wandering with some proper sightseeing. You can climb the cathedral tower and admire the old town, bisected with canals, from above.”
There may be a lack of tourists in his eyes, but:
“You could shop in Utrecht if that’s your thing. The Dutch come here from all over the Netherlands to plunder its specialist design and fashion stores. You’ll find hipster hair salons and jazz-music shops and Belgian beer houses too.”
Johnston asks what to do if you are jet-lagged? He suggests that you could plunge into the nightlife in Utrecht where a quarter of the inhabitants are university students, or for the more energetic, follow the Trajectum Lumen, a city walking route that links illuminated bridges and wharves and historic buildings. A rather odd pairing of two diverse activities that are not a natural fit.
He also thinks that you could cycle along the Oudegracht canal in the early morning before pedestrians make cycling an obstacle course.
Only an outsider would consider that. We appreciate the way the cycle rules the city. It should do so in every town. It is clean and an invigorating way to travel far from the carbon emissions of cars in Auckland and Canterbury.
Once again, an outsiders view of Utrecht insults:
“Immigrants in shawls crack nuts on canal-side benches and the aroma of honey and spices drifts on the air like a reminder of Holland’s trading past.”
I wonder how many generations of Dutch nationals he was able to belittle there.
One thing he wrote is true:
“ It could be a scaled-down Amsterdam, but you’re a thousand miles from Amsterdam’s tourist-crammed clamour.”
So, would you visit this city based on his description?
Do you think Visit Utrecht got their moneys worth from his stay?
Or does his stereotyping bite at you and make you think there should be a crash course to dissolve ignorance from any commentator coming to Utrecht?
Do let us know.