Wanting to escape the hustle and bustle we had been advised by various friends and a guide book that Utrecht was a much quieter and smaller version of Amsterdam. We set off to Central Station to catch the train, minus our tripods this time. The information desk in the station is amazingly helpful and the young lady told us when our train was due to depart and what station we needed and she did it with a smile and a ‘Have a nice day’ attitude. Once we were on the platform I scanned for possible pictures and Diane, more worried about whether we were in the right place, suddenly realised we were on Platform 4B not 4A. We just had to walk further along. I took a picture of a man with tattoos and another whose hat and gait I enjoyed.
We waited about 5 minutes for the train and were surprised (I need to get out more) that it came two storeys high. We settled for the lower deck and chatted about Amsterdam. We had noticed that there were no young children around at all in Amsterdam. It seemed strange and we surmised that the Dutch may also feel the city is too busy to keep a safe eye on their little ones. We were also totally amazed that we had not seen one cyclist so far with a crash helmet on despite there being up to three people on some bikes. We had also hoped we might find some interesting graffiti somewhere as we had in Seville but we couldn’t find any at all. I think that is quite unusual in a European city as there is plenty in Barcelona, Rome and even in Venice and Florence never mind London. Our conversation slowed as we approached the outskirts of Utrecht and we began to gaze out of the window. For the first time we could see some painting that looked vaguely like graffiti on the sides of the railway tracks but there wasn’t much of any interest and it was far too difficult to get to it anyway. More alarming though was the amount of industrial landscape we could see and the building works. We began to wonder whether we had made an error choosing Utrecht.
Once in the huge station, which is also a shopping centre, we were at a loss as to which way to walk. We found a tourist information point and the lady, speaking English as though it was her native tongue, provided us with a map and very clear instructions about where to go.
As we walked in the direction of the exit we looked out from the huge panoramic windows and could clearly see a town under construction. I stopped to take some pictures as the building works looked extensive. As we came out of the centre we found ourselves in a small market. It was bustling but not in an unpleasant way. We wandered through looking at the wonderful fresh fish laid out with style on the counters. There were cheeses, clothes, fish and more fish. I began to warm to Utrecht. As we left the market we found ourselves in a wonderfully tranquil place. The bikes were slower and there were fewer of them. We wandered alongside the waterway looking at vintage shops and admiring the scenery and the reflections in the water. I was so taken with this charming place that I actually stopped taking photographs of some of the river scenes, preferring just to enjoy the moment. We sat and had coffee in the sun before reaching a park where cyclists are banned completely. At the water’s edge young people were taking advantage of the heat and for a moment there seemed to be an incongruity between the old fashioned nature of this town, the scenery and the very modern technology they tapped away on.
The town of Utrecht is dominated by a tall tower if you follow it you can’t get lost. There are cafes and a quiet unassuming bustle of people and bikes. There seemed to be few tourists. Once again we sat in the sun very close to the huge tower and ordered a plate of cheese between us. It was a great selection and as we tucked in we both heard an ominous clunk as a bottle hit the stone floor next to us. Diane immediately asked, a rather sophisticated looking gentleman, what he had hiding in his bag and was it drinkable and so began a very interesting conversation. He was a professor of fiscal law and had bought the wine, which was named after a small harbour in Amsterdam, for a friend who lived there. He assumed we were staying in Amsterdam and said he rarely went there now as it was full of, ‘the wrong type of tourist and there were far too many of them’. We discussed the political situation in both of our countries and he explained that for the first time ever the Dutch had a far right party. At the last election there had been no overall winner and now the Netherlands was governed by several small parties and absolutely nothing was happening because they couldn’t agree. A warning for us in Britain no doubt! As he left he explained he was visiting Utrecht to lecture and it was clear that we had hogged his time as his parting comment was “I have no idea what I am lecturing on this afternoon I had intended to read the notes this lunchtime but I have enjoyed our discussion nevertheless.”
After lunch Diane wanted to climb the tower, all 425 steps up. She set off and I resumed my walk along the waterways hoping I might stumble across something or someone interesting to shoot. I was not disappointed as there before me, sitting outside their vintage hairdressers were two very interesting young girls. I watched them for a while and then finally asked if I could take their pictures. They were both delighted and lit up their cigarettes before I began, asking if they could just be natural for the shots. I was so pleased to capture them in their natural environment but the sun, although welcome, made the contrasts annoying and impossible to avoid.
Diane had been gone over an hour when we finally met up again. She had been a bit disappointed to discover that having climbed right to the top of the tower, she hadn’t been able to get a picture because of netting draped around the viewing platform.
Our hearts had been captured by Utrecht and we were sad to leave. We made our way back to the station and found the right platform, just in time to get on the train. We opted to go ‘upstairs’ this time to enjoy the views being higher up would provide. We almost fell into the carriage with our bags, chattering about our adventures and laughing. We continued in this vain until another passenger caught my eye. She put her finger to her lips ‘ssshhh’ in any language and pointed to a stencilled sign on the window which said in capital letters ‘SILENCE’. I nudged Diane who was still taking and pointed to the sign. We both whispered our apologies and travelled on in silence – this was probably the hardest part of the holiday for both of us!
It was a relief to leave the train and talk. Although we hadn’t liked to travel in silence we did think it was a good idea as there was a distinct and positive lack of people shouting down mobile phones, which is one of my pet hates on British trains. We made our way back to Leidesplein on foot. My feet ached but the need to remain alert at all times now because of bikes, made me forget that my knees and toes were the worse for wear. As we approached the square there seemed to be more people than ever and suddenly I could see why. There, in the middle of the cycle track that runs through the cafe area, were several acrobats and a rather motley band of musicians. They had to stop frequently for bikes but undeterred they continued to enact kick boxing, dance and acrobatic routines whilst the crowd clapped and cheered.
We decided to eat at Wagamama’s again as many of the other restaurants were either full or too expensive. This time however we were not so pleased as they charged us 17 Euro for a small carafe of wine which is usually cheaper than buying 3 separate glasses. The food and service was good though! We were back in Amsterdam!
It had been a busy day and we returned to our hotel for a free coffee and what I thought would be feet up time! Diane had other ideas and I am glad she did, as whilst out exploring at dusk, we came across Vondelpark a place that has been called ‘the lungs of Amsterdam’. We were so amazed by the park for very different reasons that I will attempt to portray a day in its life as the fourth and final blog of this series.