It was a long way to go to view a house. And to be honest it wasn’t really her idea of a des. res. either. Nevertheless Anna Hyman headed for Utrecht.
It’s an easy journey to Utrecht. Voyage-sncf had sorted out the tickets for us: Eurostar to Brussels, a quick change of trains to Rotterdam and then to Utrecht and in less than six hours of leaving London we were checking into our hotel the splendid Grand Hotel Karel V, a few minutes’ walk from Utrecht station.
The next morning we were viewing the house on Prins Hendriklaan once owned by Truus Schröder-Schräder. When it was built it sat alone in countryside on the outskirts of Utrecht. Today its unusual grey and white angular shape contrasts incongruously with its more recent, and conventional brick built neighbours, a magnet for anybody interested in architecture and design.
A unique De Stijl house
However, this two- storey house is not on any estate agents’ listings. This house, made from steel, concrete and wood is unique, one of the finest examples of work emanating from De Stijl, a movement that was in existence between 1917 and 1931.
De Stijl (Dutch for The Style) was based on abstract designs achieved from the use of horizontal and vertical lines, its colours red, yellow and blue, plus white, grey and black. Picture Mondrian’s later paintings with their colour blocks of red, yellow and blue, edged in black on a white ground.
Sliding partitions create rooms for night and day
The small house was designed and built by Gerrit Rietveld in 1924 for Mrs Schröder and her three children, and where she lived for 60 years. The ground floor is given over to a kitchen, reading room and compact living space. By means of sliding partitions the first floor could by day be one big open plan room, and by night incorporate three small bedrooms. Windows could be opened wide, sofas could become beds, and tables folded away.
This intriguing living concept can easily be reached from central Utrecht by taxi or by bike. However, because it is so small it is only open to ticket holders, and advance booking is essential. NB: photography inside the house is not allowed.
Utrecht – a fascinating city
Back in central Utrecht we set out to explore this fascinating historic city which has grown up around canals and the Dom (cathedral) and the Dom Tower, the latter such a useful landmark. The tower stands 112m high and there are 465 steps to be climbed to the top – but the view is worth the climb.
It’s one of the Netherlands oldest cities with a pedigree dating back to pre-Roman times, but it was the Romans who put it on the map so to speak when they built a fortress at a convenient spot on the banks of the River Rhine calling it Castellum Trajectum – a place to cross the river. Trajectum became shortened to Trecht, the ‘U’ added to denote that it was down river (Old Dutch ‘uut’).
Once a leading religious centre
Up to 1580 Utrecht was a leading religious centre. Indeed in 1522 one of Utrecht’s sons Adrian was elected pope – the only non-Italian pope until 1978. His statue stands close by the cathedral.
The massive Dom and the Dom Tower were once one building, but the nave collapsed during a tornado in the 17th century. The nave was never rebuilt, and the resulting space is today’s Dom Square. Beneath the square is a museum depicting 2000 years of the city’s history.
A walkway beside the canals
Actually there is still more of Utrecht beneath street level.
Walk on street level beside the canals and look down you’ll see another lower walkway.
This walkway was built centuries ago to give access from the canals to the cellars of the houses and warehouses.
Today many of the wharf cellars are trendy boutiques, bars and restaurants.
Trajectum Lumen – a light trail
At night of the tunnels and indeed many of the historic buildings are illuminated with glowing colours.
Follow the light trail, the Trajectum Lumen, for a rather beautiful evening walk.
Take to the canals
Utrecht is home to the Netherlands largest university making it a particularly bustling and lively city.
Bikes are everywhere, but away from the main streets are tiny alleyways leading to tranquil green courtyards, and the canals with their river cruise boats offer a different perspective on the city.
There are churches aplenty too, eight of them medieval – we called in to St Willibrord, a comparatively modern church built in 1875 in the neo-Gothic style.
St Willibrord, who hailed from Northumbria, was partly responsible for introducing Christianity to the Frisians in the seventh century lived in Utrecht.
The pretty church is noted for its musical heritage with regular concerts and choral works being performed.
An Aladdin’s cave of cookware
The shopping opportunities are excellent too with a wide range of stores ranging from boutique to household names.
On one occasion we found ourselves in a cook’s idea of heaven – Betsies Kookwinkel in Vismarkt – an Aladdin’s cave of every conceivable item of kitchenware ever invented.
It is one of those wonderful shops that sell things you never knew you wanted, but how had you ever managed without them.
An award winning wine and coffee bar
In need of a coffee we came across Talud9 in Donkere Gaard - a simple, rustic, and award winning wine and coffee bar, which was once we gather the former garden house of Pope Adrian. In a 2016 Top Coffee Award list Talud9 came in at second place for the best coffee in Holland. With the lovely welcome we were given and the excellent coffee we enjoyed we are not surprised.
On our next visit to Utrecht, and we will be back, one visit to Utrecht is most definitely not enough. We will be calling in again not only for coffee but for a light lunch too. www.talud9.nl.
A lesson in brewing
A little later and this time in need of a beer we called in at Staskasteel Oudaen. Built originally in the 13th century as a castle today it houses not only a lively, bustling and good restaurant but also a brewery. We can vouch that their brews produced in the cellars beneath are excellent.
The company, which began brewing in 1990, brews some six different beers a year – my favourite was a smooth, soft white 5% beer. Guided tours are possible and it was on ours that we learnt about the history of brewing from brew master Ralph accompanied by brewcat Dirk.
‘Pub Grub’ at Café Olivier
It has to be said we ate exceedingly well in Utrecht, apart from the excellent breakfasts served at the luxurious Grand Hotel Karel V where we were staying we also thorough enjoyed a hearty lunch at Café Olivier in Achter Clarenburg – a beer café in the one-time church of Mary Minor.
The interior is fascinating, the staff great and the ‘pub’ food excellent.
Lunch in a Water Tower…
The opportunity to dine in a former water tower sounded intriguing. The restaurant – WT Urban, a little outside the city on Heuveloord, only opened in 2015 and its kitchen is already making a name for its sophisticated and excellent food and wine.
On the ground floor is a nice looking café but we took the lift to the Urban Kitchen restaurant on the 9th and 10th floors so that we could also enjoy the views out over the city whilst having our meal. The meal was delicious and service impeccable.
…dinner in a restaurant with a lovely garden
Dinner that night was relaxed and tasty at Restaurant De Zakkendrager. This cosy and friendly French Mediterranean restaurant has a lovely garden and is on Zakkendrager one of the alley ways off Oudegracht – perfect for summer al fresco dining.
The 48 hours we were in Utrecht went far too quickly. The return train journey was as quick and pleasant as the outward journey. It was such an easy journey we plan on going back, with larger suitcases next time. We hadn’t bought a house, but there are one or two gadgets in Betsies that we really, really do need for our kitchen.
About Utrecht: www.holland.com
Getting there: Voyages- sncf: www.voyages-sncf.com
We stayed at:
The Grand Hotel Karel V. The building was once known as The Teutonic House – the headquarters of The Teutonic Knights’ Order, an order founded in 1190 during a crusade. The responsibility of the Teutonic Knights was to defend the faith and care for the sick, wounded and old. In 1808 under the order of King Louis Napoleon it became a military hospital until 1986. Between then and 1997 it fell into disrepair but since 1997 has been restored to its full splendour as the supremely comfortable and elegant five-star hotel named after Karel V one of the most powerful men of the 16th century.
Breakfast is served in the magnificent Restauant Karel V with its rich furnishings, stunning floral arrangement and glittering chandeliers. The hotel, conveniently close to the city centre, has 121 rooms and apart from the fine dining restaurant also offers a brasserie, a basement bar and lounge, spa and terrace. www.karelv.nl
We visited: Rietveld Schröder House : www.centraalmuseum.nl/en/visit/locations/rietveld-schroder-house and Betsies Kookwinkel: www.betsieskookwinkel.nl