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Storming Utrecht's Famous Castles

April 03, 1988|AL GOLDFARB | Goldfarb is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

UTRECHT, Netherlands — The sun fought its way through a break in the heavy clouds as we left the bustle of Amsterdam and followed the winding Vecht River through the peaceful, scenic Dutch countryside. Although our destination was Utrecht, we planned to stop from time to time to explore this part of Holland.

We passed a parade of medieval castles, summer homes owned by wealthy Amsterdam merchants, farmhouses and charming cities and quaint villages.

On one sun-drenched morning we watched pleasure boats moving quietly along the river and its tributaries. Farmers worked their crops in lush green fields that extended to the horizon. Everywhere black-and-white cows grazed placidly.

We visited impressive 13th-Century Muiden Castle, surrounded by a moat and guarding the entrance to the river.

An eight-blade windmill (vintage 1876) in the farming community of Nigetvecht caught our eye.

On a tour of Castle Zuilen--devastated in 1296 and rebuilt in 1300--we saw original furnishings from coats of arms to crossbows and armor. We also stopped at a cheese farm for a snack on the narrow road that ran beside the Vecht.

Later we arrived in Utrecht, capital of the province of the same name, a 2,000-year-old city in the center of the Netherlands. Although Utrecht is the smallest of 11 Dutch provinces, its city of Utrecht is the fourth largest, with 230,000 residents. Only Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague are larger.

Castles and Churches

Known for its turbulent history stretching to Roman times in AD 38, Utrecht is an area rich in castles and fortified towns, with some of the best medieval churches anywhere in the country.

In 1579 the seven northern Protestant provinces got together in Utrecht and decided to unite. The Netherlands grew out of that union.

The Treaty of Utrecht was signed here in 1713, when representatives from all major European nations met to discuss peace terms that ended the War of the Spanish Succession. In addition, Utrecht is the cradle of Christianity in the Netherlands and still plays a prominent part in its religious life.

As are many European towns, Utrecht is a walking city because its downtown is so compact. Every Sunday, June to September, a walking tour leaves from the tourist office at 10:30 a.m.

My wife and I started our tour in the medieval old center at the Domplein, a square containing the Dom church that features a 350-foot spire, the tallest in Holland. The church is a city landmark that is more than 600 years old. Begun in 1254 and completed 250 years later, the Dom is a masterpiece of Dutch Gothic architecture.

If you are energetic you can climb to the top of the spire, where on a clear day you get a magnificent view of the countryside, including the city's canals, streets and alleyways. Use binoculars for some of the best views.

You need not climb the 465 stairs to the top, however. You can stop at the old bishop's chapel and still get a splendid view.

Among Utrecht's network of canals you'll enjoy the Oudegracht , or old canal. To reach the waterside level, walk down steps from the street level and you are on the wharves of the old canal.

In the 16th Century merchants along the canals constructed wharves by their cellars so supplies could be shipped directly in.

One can sit at a cafe alongside the water and watch small boats sail along the canals. It is not uncommon for canal boats to dock at one of the quayside cafes where the captain can get lunch or a short beer.

We were never at a loss for something to do--not with 18 museums to visit.

For music buffs, the National Museum of Musical Clock to Street Organ is a great place to spend a few happy hours. You'll find a collection of 180 automatic musical instruments from the 18th to the 20th centuries.

We walked through a series of rooms to see and hear flute clocks, calliopes, singing canaries, barrel organs, fairground and dance organs, honky-tonk pianos and orchestrinas . Housed in the beautifully restored medieval Buurkerk Church in the heart of town, the museum attracts 150,000 visitors a year.

Admission is $2.35 U.S. for adults, $1.15 U.S. for children. That includes guided tours leaving on the hour.

The Central Museum features city history dating to Roman days. Other museums are the Phonographic, Contemporary Art, Historical Costumes, Anatomical, Dutch Railway and Zoological and Waterworks.

Besides a modern commercial center in Utrecht, a multimillion-dollar shopping complex known as High Catherine was built a few years ago. It consists of a modern railroad station, a huge exhibition hall for the city's famous trade fair and a spacious sports hall.

It also has a 500-room hotel and a series of excellent shopping plazas linking the entire complex. With nearly 60 acres of floor space, it is one of the largest in Europe.

At dusk, Utrecht's night life begins. On warm summer evenings, musicians perform on street corners, food is available and the streets are a fun place to be.

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