Travel: Utrecht prepares for Christmas ....and the Tour de France

Wherever you are in Utrecht, the Dom Tower is always visible. Pictures: Alan Wooding
Wherever you are in Utrecht, the Dom Tower is always visible. Pictures: Alan Wooding

Holland’s fourth largest city will become the focus of millions of cycle racing fans next July as Utrecht has been chosen to host the start of the 102nd Tour de France.

And to see how easy it will be for thousands of British race fans to witness the opening stages of the world’s toughest sporting spectacular, travel writer and former sport editor Alan Wooding made the trip to Utrecht last week via Stena Line’s Harwich-Hook of Holland ferry to see for himself.

Close to Utrecht is Kasteel de Haar, home to Holland's biggest Christmas market.

Close to Utrecht is Kasteel de Haar, home to Holland's biggest Christmas market.

It will be the sixth time that a Dutch city has been chosen as the starting point for the world’s most gruelling race despite it having no direct borders with France, the previous ones being Amsterdam in 1954, Scheveningen (1973), Leiden (1978), ‘s-Hertogenbosch (1996) and Rotterdam in 2010.

Excitement is already building ahead of the event and everywhere you can see colourful tour cycle symbols. The organisers are expecting enormous crowds when the tour entourage arrives on July 1 while for the fans, they will get chance to enjoy spending time in a compact city full of history, music and culture.

With 22 teams comprising a total of 198 riders, all will be introduced to the public the following day at Park Lepelenburg close to the city’s wonderful Railway Museum. It was once the city’s more rural station from where in 1942, the German Nazis transported more than 1,200 of the city’s 1,600 Jewish population to German concentration camps in German occupied Poland.The cycling action really gets underway on Saturday, July 4 with an individual 13.7 kilometre time-trial in and around the Jaarbeurs, Utrecht’s large exhibition and convention centre. It will also pass by FA Utrecht’s Galgenwaard Stadium, the Science Park and Utrecht University while it will finish on the Croeselaan just in front of the new City Offices.

So important is the tour’s visit to Utrecht that a special CD entitled ‘Bon Voyage!’ has already been released although it’s unlikely to be a hit anywhere other than in Holland!

MPMC Travel Utretcht

MPMC Travel Utretcht

The tour’s second stage will be run entirely over the city’s cobbles, the peloton due to pass beneath the city’s best known landmark, the 112 metre Dom Tower. The riders then leave the Dom Square and peddle to Maliebaan, passing the house where the Dutch Cycling Association, the Nederlandsche Velocipedisten-Bond, was founded in 1883.

With around 70,000 fans expected at the start, huge numbers of Brits will be there to cheer on their heroes. British riders have been at the forefront of this, the toughest of all cycling events over the past three years for Team Sky’s Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome won in 2012 and 2013 respectively, although when the latter crashed out last year it allowed Spain’s Vincenzo Nibali to take the yellow jersey.

The tour then leaves Utrecht and heads out toward the artificial island of Neeltje Jans in Zeeland province before it goes to Antwerp in Belgium and on into France where there are five mountain stages ahead of the finish on July 26 on the Champs-Élysées in Paris.

Travelling to Holland is so easy by ferry. I drove from Bedford to Harwich and parked up while my travelling companions arrived at Harwich Station from London’s Liverpool Street by train before we boarded the Stena Hollandica for the six-and-a-half hour overnight crossing.

Stena Hollandica and its sister Stena Britannica, are the biggest ferries currently operating anywhere in the world and at £375million to build, they were launched in 2010 to cross the North Sea to Holland twice daily. Each can carry up to 300 freight vehicles and 230 cars on their 5.5 kilometres of cargo deck – and that’s exactly equivalent to a full lap of the Silverstone’s Grand Prix circuit!

There are 1,376 beds in 538 luxury state-of-the-art cabins, the likes of which make it seem more like a luxury cruise ship than a ferry. In fact the evening crossing was a real mini cruise as we also enjoyed an excellent three-course dinner (£30) in Hollandica’s luxury Metropolitan restaurant, while we arrived completely refreshed having been able to shower in the Comfort Class cabins.

Cheekily asking if it were possible to visit the Stena Hollandica’s bridge, surprisingly the captain agreed and I was faced with a sight that would not have been out of place on the Starship Enterprise!

From such a lofty position high above 12th deck, the all-round visibility is amazing while there is also a glass panel in the floor overhanging the side of the ferry, thus enabling the captain to look straight down the 100-plus feet to the dockside below, while allowing him to inch the ship up alongside the jetty as it docks.

While a return passenger ticket costs from £78 for daytime sailings, it rises to £138 for overnight crossings, although that includes a cabin and your ticket for all ongoing rail travel from the Hook of Holland to any appointed Dutch station. Dinner and breakfast are also bookable in advance by logging onto www.stenaline.co.uk

On arrival at the Hook, it’s just a short walk to the station where you catch a local Sprinter train for the short 30 minute journey into Rotterdam Centraal Station. And from there you catch an Intercity which arrives in Utrecht Centraal around 45 minutes later. En route you pass through Gouda, home of the famous yellow Dutch cheese which is typified by its bright red coating.

Utrecht itself is a remarkable city. It boasts a 2000 year history and besides having a world renowned university – which attracts over 80,000 student each year – it is said to have more restored medieval religious structures than any other city in Europe.

Besides that, its split-level cobble-paved wharves – which run around the picturesque Oudegracht (Old Canal) – offers a vast array of restaurants, cafes and specialist shops.

Checking into the four star Court Hotel, so named as it was formerly Utrecht’s Courthouse, it’s located in the heart of the city’s beautiful museum quarter on the Korte Nieuwstraat and is a mere 15 minute stroll through the cobbled streets from Centraal Station.

As you leave the station – which is currently undergoing a huge rebuilding programme with parking for 33,000 bicycles! – you pass through Hoog Catherarijne, easily the Netherlands’ largest shopping mall which houses the usual high street stores plus many others unique to this part of Holland.

For those wanting to enjoy the city’s culture and history, Utrecht dates back to biblical times, its old inner city with its canals, churches and museums making it a centre for learning while it also claims to have the best educated labour force in the country!

Another interesting fact is that Adrian VI, the only Dutch Pope, came from Utrecht. He spent just 13 months in the Vatican from August 1522 but in that time the city elders decided that he should have a special house constructed in his honour.

The striking Renaissance building is known as the Paushuize (Papal House) and it stands proudly on the corner of Kromme Nieuwgracht and today it can be hired for weddings and other various functions.

Sadly poor old Adrian died in September 1523 – or was he murdered? – so he never actually saw his grand Papal home, although it was finally visited by a living pontiff, Pope John Paul II, before his untimely death in 2005.

One ‘must do’ on any visit to Utrecht is to climb the city’s famous Gothic Dom Tower. You can’t really miss it as it’s the tallest church tower in all of Holland and from the top on a clear day, it’s said that you can see as far as both Amsterdam and Rotterdam.

The 600 year old tower is viewable from all over the city and stands on a spot where the city originated some 2000 years ago and it is possible to climb all 465 steps to the very top. It’s certainly an impressive structure, its five metre thick walls having managed to withstand a freak 17th Century hurricane which blew down the whole central nave section of what was once an enormous Roman Catholic cathedral that it was attached to.

The piles of rubble are said to have remained there for around 150 years while a plaque now marks the spot where 17 homosexuals were cruelly executed by strangulation in the shadow of the Dom Tower after being spotted acting suspiciously among the ruins!

The Dutch have certainly had a change of heart since then as the city has several gay bars, although what was once a seedy red light district has been closed down and replaced by hundreds of swish new designer apartments.

Our hotel was only 150 yards from the Dom Tower and, as its 50 bells peel every 15 minutes before striking the hour, it tends to keep you awake if you’re a light sleeper. To get a good idea of what the tower looks like with a bird’s eye view, log onto: http://petapixel.com/2014/11/22/gorgeous-drone-video-tallest-church-tower-netherlands-bursting-sea-fog

Having climbed the tower – it costs €9 for adults and €5 for children under 13 and can be booked in advance at www.domtorenb.com or by phone at +31 (0) 30236 0010 – but you can really enjoy some spectacular views from the top. However it was natural that I also wanted to see what lay beneath the Dom Square (or Domplein) where once the centre section of the cathedral stood … and since June 2 this year, it has been possible thanks to DOMunder, a fantastic modern underground museum.

DOMunder tells the story of the Dom Tower and how it survived the collapse during the freak hurricane of 1674. It’s extremely interactive with each person given their own flashlight to discover the 30 hidden stories and facts, your light’s beam picking up sensors that set off the narration in your earpiece’s chosen language. It’s certainly managed to succeed in making the experience fun and engaging and as the cathedral’s foundations date back to Roman times, you begin to feel like a real archaeologist!

However be sure to book your ticket early as it has been sold out nearly every day since it opened in early June and over 28,000 people have already passed through it it just six months! It costs €11 for adults with more details at www.domunder.nl

For young children and possibly the not-so-young, the dick bruna huis opposite Utrecht’s Centraal Museum is probably a must, for on June 21 next year, Utrecht’s little white rabbit is celebrating a special birthday.

Miffy, or Nijntje as she is known in Holland, will celebrate 60 glorious years, the stories from 87-year-old illustrator, graphic designer and writer Dick Bruna being popular the world over. His books have been translated into over 40 languages and to date over 85 million Miffy books have been sold.

To celebrate Miffy’s milestone birthday, an exhibition is due to take place from June 20 to September 20 entitled ‘60 Years of Miffy’. Aimed at younger children between and two and six years, it will be held on the top floor of the Centraal Museum while a total revamp is being planned for the dick bruna huis after the Tour de France weekend has passed.

Miffy is so famous in Utrecht that she even has a square dedicated to her called Nijntje Pleintje. It’s on the Van Asch van Wijckskade, just outside the city centre while there are even Miffy crossing symbols on the pedestrian traffic lights.

At the time of our visit, the Centraal Museum was displaying 150 items from fashion illustrator Piet Paris as scenes from a musical while the whole city is to take on a winter theme between December 20 and January 4 with a large free ice skating rink in front of the museum with tasty festive treats and freshly roasted marshmallows being served.

We enjoyed a great dining experience at the new Restaurant Den Draeck (www.den-draeck.nl) which is tucked inside one of the many canal-side wharves while Stan & Co (www.stan-co.nl) at the Ganzenmarkt and Sector 3 (www.sector-3.nl) on Twijnstraat supplied our typically Dutch lunches. However mid-morning hot chocolate and fabulous Dutch apple dumpling at Cafe Graaf Floris (www.graaffloris.nl) in Vismarkt tasted very special to a foodie like me!

The medieval wharves and huge storage cellars which line the Oudegracht are synonymous with Utrecht and are very much in use today. Many businesses are run from these brick-built waterside tunnels while pavement cafes line the historic dock area which remains at the heart of this bustling city. Deliveries are usually made by boat while rubbish collections help keep heavy lorries off the cobbled streets which seem to be filled with speeding bicycles at all times of the day or night.

You can hire a small boat or take an hour long trip around the Oudegracht aboard one of Shipping Company Schuttevaer glass-topped pleasure cruisers. They run between 11am and 5pm daily at €9.80 for adults and €7.20 for children (4-12 years).

However for me the most cheerful place to visit in the whole city is Museum Speelkock, the musical home to dozens carillon clocks, magificent musical boxes plus a host of fabulous fairground and dance organs. Unfortunately we ran out of time when being shown around by knowledgeable guide Ruben Timmer who suggested I return to learn more of this wonderful working collection which has been housed in a disused church on Steenweg for some 30 years and it’s just a stone’s throw from the Dom Town.

The city has a planned Christmas Market and light show which will run between December 12-14 although we travelled the 15 kilometres from Utrecht to Kasteel De Haar by taxi to visit a special Country & Christmas Market claimed to be the biggest in Holland.

The grand moated castle is straight out of a fairy tale with its magnificent turrets and cylindrical shaped towers while its gardens featured some 220 different tented stalls selling all manner of Christmas gifts, foodstuff, clothing and, of course, traditional gluhwein!

Tours of Kasteel De Haar’s two huge kitchens and fabulous dining rooms are available throughout the year. The castle itself was design for Baron Etienne von Zieten van Nijevelt by famous Dutch architect Pierre Cupyers (1827-1921), the man responsible for designing Amsterdam’s Centraal Station and the Rijksmuseum. But be warned, if you do go on the tour, it’s all in Dutch although a few cards were available for English visitors.

And finally, the best tip is to pop into Utrecht’s Tourist Information Office and souvenir shop – www.visit-utrecht.com – which is located almost next to the Dom Tower on the corner of the Domplein. It’s packed full of information and will suggests the best things to see and do on a short break, especially after the Tour de France cyclists have been and gone.

Utrecht Fast File

Alan Wooding travelled to the Netherlands aboard Stena Hollandica from Harwich to the Hook of Holland and made the return six-and-a half hour crossing aboard the identical sister ship, Stena Britannica.

For bookings see www.stenaline.co.uk or contact Stena LIne Harwich, Harwich International Port, Harwich CO12 4SR

Tel: +44 (0) 8447 70 70 70 – www.stenaline.co.uk

Also checkout

www.fourbgb.com, specialists in luxury tourism.

Four-Bgb, 20 St Thomas Street, London SE1 9BF

Tel: 0044 (0) 20 3697 4200 – www.fourbgh.com

He stayed at Utrecht’s four star Court Hotel in Korte Nieuwstraat 14, 3512 NM Utrecht, Netherlands and dined at the new wharf-side Restaurant Den Draeck, Oudegracht 114 (www.den-draeck.nl).

Lunches were taken at Stan & Co, Ganzenmarkt 16A (www.stan-co.nl) and at Sector 3, Twijnstraat 9 (www.sector-3.nl) while light mid-morning refreshments were enjoyed at Cafe Graaf Floris, Vismarkt 13 (www.graaffloris.nl).

He climbed the Dom Tower and visited the newly-opened DOMunder Museum and the fabulous musical Museum Speelklok at Steenweg 6 – www.museumspeelklok.nl – and visited dick bruna huis which features the children’s favourite rabbit Miffy and his creator Dick Bruna – www.centraalmuseum.nl – and also Museum Speelkock at Steenweg 6, 3511 JP, Utrecht – www.museumspeelkock.nl

Meanwhile a 15 kilometre taxi ride to the Netherlands’ largest Christmas Market (26-30 November only) was made to Kasteel De Haar, Kasteellaan 1, Haarzuilens – www.countrychristmasfair.nl

And finally sincere thanks to Carolyn van Vliet of Stena Line (www.fourbgb.com), Simone Sagi from the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions (www.holland.com), Hilde van Muijen and Susanne Arkema representing Tourism Utrecht (www.toerisme-utrecht.nl) and also to my travelling companions, Jennifer Bouquet, Sharon Walters, Samantha Williams, Kate Morgan and Myriam Dijck.