Travel Feature: Utrecht – A winter fairy tale come to lightArticle by Alison Netsel
A light dusting of snow on the tracery of the Gothic cathedral dedicated to St. Martin. Canals framed by white wharves below and white streets above. Utrecht doesn’t get a lot of snow – some years, none at all – but when the streets, squares and wharves wear a soft mantle of white, the city becomes a fairy tale setting. Yet with a long history and a vibrant cultural focus, you don’t need snow to get into the winter spirit in Utrecht. From holiday light displays to ice skating at the train museum, there’s no shortage of things to see and do to inspire some holiday cheer.
Through the ages
With almost two thousand years of history, it’s no surprise that many events and traditions take place in and around many of the historic sites of the city. Utrecht has long been an important location in The Netherlands, beginning in 47 AD when the Romans built a fortress there to help protect the northern border of the Roman Empire. Traces of that fortress, known as Castellum Traiectum, can still be seen surrounding the city’s Domplein (Dom Square) and can even be seen beneath the square in the new DomUnder museum opened this summer. It is from this early fortress that the city derives its name, with Traiectum becoming Tricht and U or Uut, meaning downriver, being added to distinguish from the other Dutch Tricht in the south, Maastricht.
The site of the fortress remained a focal point in the city’s early history, as it was here, in 695 AD, that an Irish missionary named Willibrord helped build a stone church dedicated to St. Martin. During his time in the city, Willibrord was appointed bishop and Utrecht came to be one of the most important and influential cities in The Netherlands for the Roman Catholic Church. As the influence grew, so did that first church dedicated to St. Martin. In 1254, the first stones were laid to turn the modest church into an impressive Gothic cathedral.
As construction got underway for the cathedral, work soon began on an accompanying bell tower, known as the Domtoren (Dom Tower). Standing 368 feet tall, making it the tallest church tower in The Netherlands, the Dom Tower has become the symbol of the city. From the top, visitors get a stunning view of the city and far beyond.
The year 1579 saw the signing of the Union of Utrecht, which brought together the northern seven provinces in a stand against Spanish rule. This is seen as the beginning of the Dutch Republic. In 1713, Utrecht was the site of another historic signing, this time the Treaty of Utrecht, which settled the War of Spanish Succession.
In more recent history, trains have played an important role in the city’s growth and expansion. In 1843 a railway between Utrecht and Amsterdam was opened, and soon Utrecht would become the biggest and busiest train station in the country. Even today, Utrecht’s train station, which is undergoing a massive renovation, serves as an important hub, connecting trains throughout the country.
In 1954, the Spoorwegmuseum (Railway Museum) found a permanent home at the Maliebaan Station, one of the stations just outside the historic city center of Utrecht. In recent years, the station and museum have undergone extensive renovations to restore it to its 19th-century appearance. The grand station hall and the waiting rooms, including the Royal Waiting Room, remind one of an elegant era of steam, wood and shining brass. Every winter the museum adds to its charm with the addition of the Winter Station. Ice skating is a popular Dutch winter pastime, but the weather doesn’t always cooperate. Fortunately, the Winter Station transforms part of the museum into an indoor ice skating rink, surrounded by old trains, a carousel and a festive winter atmosphere. Visitors can even roast marshmallows over open fires outdoors.
Hot, gooey marshmallows are a great treat, but when it comes to the winter holidays, the true Dutch passion lies with oliebollen (fried dough balls) and poffertjes (mini pancakes). Stalls, converted trucks, and pop-up buildings begin appearing in Dutch cities across the country in November, and Utrecht has no shortage of its own temples to fried temptation. Regular oliebollen stalls can be found on the picturesque Maliebaan or in the heart of the city at Neude Square. Last year also saw the addition of a pop-up poffertje house at Neude, bedecked with traditional Dutch Christmas decorations and featuring a large poffertjes pan so that dozens and dozens of these small, fluffy pancakes served with butter and powdered sugar can be made throughout the day and night to feed the constant demand.
Christmas markets are another common place to find oliebollen, poffertjes and another favorite, glühwein, a spiced, mulled wine served piping hot. Utrecht’s oldest shopping street, Twijnstraat, is home to the annual Christmas market, held December 12th through 14th this year. As you wander the charming street that has hosted numerous shops since the 13th century, you’ll see more than one hundred stalls offering food, gifts, decorations and plenty of glühwein. Each glühwein stall features its own mix of spices and fruits, and tasting and comparing each provides a heady way to stay warm as you peruse the offerings. Of course, if you see a narrow alleyway off to the side, it is worth exploring because it will lead you down to the wharf level of the Oudegracht, the beautiful canal that runs through the center of the city. It’s a nice spot to pause and enjoy the scenery.
The Twijnstraat market isn’t the only one to visit during the holiday season. The Zelfgemaakte Markt (Handmade Market) appears in the Mariaplaats on December 13th and 14th, offering up a great place to find last-minute gifts made by a range of talented artists and craftspeople. Last year also saw a special Christmas market behind the city’s Stadhuis (City Hall), with food and drink from local businesses, as well as a variety of Utrecht-themed gifts including candles and a baking pan in the shape of the city’s beloved Dom Tower, an Utrecht version of the Monopoly board game, and prints by a local photographer famous for his nighttime photos of Utrecht. This market truly came to life in the evening as the trees bedecked with fairy lights sparkled and the colorful carousel spun to the delight of children and adults alike.
A short drive or bus ride outside the city will take you to the fairy tale-like castle, Kasteel de Haar. From November 26th through 30th, the Country & Christmas Fair is held in the grounds of the castle, with more than two hundred exhibitors selling an array of products perfect for holiday gifts. In addition, there are fire pits and delicious food in an awe-inspiring setting.
Light up the night
Utrecht, like most Dutch cities, decks the streets with holiday lights starting in November. Yet Utrecht has another set of evening lights all year long. The Trajectum Lumen is a series of light art installations throughout the city, ranging from quickly changing patterns illuminating a small opening off the Drift canal to the illusory spill of light onto the ground from the Janskerk (St. John’s Church). The lights go on at dusk and stay on until midnight, and anyone can follow the map or app to see them on their own. However, during the winter months, Tourism Utrecht organizes the Winter Quest Trajectum Lumen for special guided tours of all of the light displays.
The Dom Tower also lights up each evening as part of the Trajectum Lumen display, but this winter, it will also be part of the Night of Light at the Dom, taking place November 15th and December 20th. This spectacular event is a large party with DJs and musicians performing at the base of the tower, while light, art, video and graphics are beamed onto the walls of the tower.
St. Martin and Sinterklaas
For many people, the celebration of St. Martin – whose cloak legend is the basis for Utrecht’s red and white shield – kicks off the winter festivities. This year, the St. Martin weekend of November 8th and 9th will include a variety of public activities held at twenty locations throughout the city, including a special market and an illuminated parade.
But when it comes to parades, Sinterklaas beats them all. His arrival by boat, sailing up the Oudegracht to the Weerdsluis is fun for all ages. Best of all, the multi-level aspect of the Oudegracht with wharves below street level mean that there are plenty of spots to get a great view of the saint’s arrival. When he disembarks from his boat, he and his horse, Amerigo, parade through the city streets before finishing at the Dom Square, where additional festivities are held.These are just a few of the many activities and events taking place throughout Utrecht during the winter months. Folk-song festivals, Christmas Eve services at the Dom Cathedral and impressive firework displays to ring in the New Year all add to the gezelligheid that permeates Utrecht every holiday season. The history that is wrapped up in so many of the events and settings adds to the magic of the season.
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