After only a day I felt at home in Utrecht in the Netherlands. I arrived a complete stranger at central station, got lost in the vast shopping mall (which seems to have no exit signs—is this deliberate?) and eventually found my way out and into a taxi.
I am here for the biennial conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC). I am staying in student accommodation on the south-east side and take the number 8 bus from there to the centre. It is a small city and I can walk between the centre and my room. On Sunday I explored the route into town through Wilhelmina Park.
There is a statue of the eponymous queen, well wrapped-up for winter.
There was a busy street-market in the Burgemeester Reigerstraat, and the road was closed for the day.
First impressions of Utretch: mixed architecture (ancient, modern, indifferent and ugly). Green spaces, canals, bikes everywhere, friendly people, slow service in cafés—but a fun place to be in.
The city is the fourth largest in the Netherlands and was founded in Roman times. About 2,300 years ago it was at the northern front-line of the Roman Empire. The Roman army constructed a fortress close to a crossing of the Rhine; this was called Traiectum, whence comes the name Utrecht. Metal strips across the road show the Roman forts and watercourses.
The Anglo-Saxon priest and missionary, Saint Willibrord, founded two small churches here. After 690 the importance of Utrecht increased and it became a bishopric from the ninth century onwards. In mediaeval times several churches and monasteries were founded, the walled areas covering a substantial part of the city centre.
Utrecht’s landmark is the Dom tower, 112-metres high, which is the tallest structure in the city although it faces competition with new buildings.
The tower was originally part of the Domskerk, started in 1321 and completed in 1383. The nave of the church was destroyed by a tornado in 1684 and, believing this was an act of god, the people decided that they should not rebuild it.
Later they removed the damaged portion of the church, and the church and tower have remained separate. A wall hanging shows how the church might have looked.
I climbed the 465 steps, 95 metres to the top of the tower for a view of the city and beyond, over the flat lands to the buildings of Amsterdam and Rotterdam on the horizon.
The bell chamber is particularly impressive, with 14 bells of different sizes. Each has a name and a gothic inscription which tells a story.
The oldest bells, dating from 1505, have a clapper like an apple core. They are marked M to indicate that they would have been the last to be melted down to provide armaments in the Second World War: fortunately none had to be sacrificed.
On the next storey up is the carillon of bells, restored in 1972 with 50 bells.
Utrecht is surrounded by water: the Rhine and a number of canals originating from mediaeval time. The Oudegracht (the old canal) runs through the centre and parts of it are the old bed of the Rhine.
The conference is based at the university in the heart of the town at the Academiegebouw which is on the square (Domsplein) next to the Domkerk.
We are in the heart of this ancient city within the sound of the Dom tower’s carillon which, every 15 minutes, plays a little tune.