I’d like to blame the weather, but I can really only blame myself. When I set out this morning I’d every intention of tackling my planned 21-mile bike ride around the River Vecht, known as the green heart of Holland.
While most cargo ships slide down the Amsterdam–Rhine Canal, the Vecht is strictly a local’s river, filled with pleasure craft and patient fishermen, and dotted with quaint villages and drawbridges. Centuries ago, it was the Dutch equivalent of the Hamptons; a place where wealthy merchants from Amsterdam established elaborate country estates, wooded parklands and fruit orchards. Today, the remnants of these historic estates are complemented by a series of well-marked, pancake-flat bike paths, riverside restaurants and quirky B&Bs.
It’s the perfect place for a weekend of biking. However, come 2pm, I’ve only made it to the other side of the village of Oud-Zuilen. With rain clouds darkening the sky, I’ve taken refuge in an 18th-century windmill, run by Dutch retiree Daan. Noticing I’d stopped to take a picture of this quintessentially Dutch sight, Daan invited me in for a closer look — an offer too good to refuse.
Climbing up through four floors, I duck around the wooden beams to see the windshaft turning — carefully avoiding the chunks of pig fat hanging on hooks from the rafters. Daan explains the fat is used to grease the shaft and spokes (“The old ways are the best ways,” he declares), and with the rain beginning to fall, I settle in to have tea in the windmill’s tiny kitchenette.
With good conversation, a view of the windmill sails noisily whooshing past, a steaming cup of tea and an endless supply of windmill-shaped speculaas (cookies) — from a windmill-shaped biscuit tin, no less — I’m remarkably comfortable. Even when the rain stops, I nurse my tea. I’d wanted an easy weekend biking in the Dutch countryside, and so far, the Vecht had delivered.
Having covered most of the Dutch cities and experienced the country during tulip time, I’d decided to try something different for my long weekend in the Netherlands; arriving famished at Utrecht Centraal Station after the short train journey from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol on Friday afternoon.
Utrecht is a refreshing change from the Netherlands’ best-known tourist city, Amsterdam. With 70,000 students and few tourists, it has a lively atmosphere, and when I arrive, its sunken, canal-side terraces are filled with people taking advantage of the sunshine. I opt for lunch at Oudaen, a medieval castle and brewery located in the city centre. During medieval times, the castle brewed its own beer, and it’s a tradition the owners have brought back. Around 75,000 litres are brewed each year in copper-and-brick tanks in the basement, before being served by the glass or in dishes such as Zeeland mussels in beer.
After quenching my thirst and filling my stomach, I take a tour of Utrecht’s 600-year-old Dom Tower, the city’s premier attraction and, at 368ft, the highest church tower in the Netherlands. It’s a gruelling 465-step climb up past the rafters, bells and carillon to reach the top, but it’s worth the effort. The tower offers a dizzying, 360-degree view of the surrounding area — and an eye-to-eye perspective on some cranky-looking gargoyles.
Climbing up so high gives me a chance to orient myself. From my lofty perch, I peer out towards the River Vecht, with its green corridor of overhanging trees spreading out towards the horizon. Somewhere among this smudge of green is the small village of Oud-Zuilen, which I’d chosen as my base for the weekend.
Wanting to ‘go Dutch’, I’d packed light and arranged to hire a three-speed bicycle from Utrecht’s visitor centre, conveniently located at the base of the Dom Tower. My instructions to reach Oud-Zuilen had seemed fairly idiot-proof: turn right at Utrecht’s main canal, and keep peddling straight until I reach my B&B.
However, Utrecht’s city centre is busy, and I feel like I’m playing people ping-pong as I weave and pedal between pedestrians hurrying home for the weekend. Thankfully, the congestion eases as I leave the city, and I reach Oud-Zuilen just before 7pm.
I’d arranged to pick up my room keys from Restaurant Belle, located across the street from my B&B. Locking up my bike, I dash inside the restaurant as the first fat drops of rain begin to fall. The ensuing deluge makes it as good a time as any to order dinner.
Considering it’s situated in a small village, Restaurant Belle — located in the former courthouse — is surprisingly lively; packed with locals and visitors. I take a seat with a view of the river, while other diners sup in the wine cellar (which used to be the jail cells). I feast on generous portions of veal carpaccio with parmesan, crispy skin sea bass with roast vegetables, and chocolate mousse finished with raspberries, all washed down with a French red.
From here, I call it an early night at the Swaenenvecht, a seven-bedroom house originally built in 1678. Owned by an antiques dealer, the B&B is an unexpected gem, full of antique treasures, something I can’t quiet appreciate until the daylight hours, when I have a choice of two breakfast rooms to dine in — one with a fake rhino trophy head and vintage amusement-arcade shooting gallery targets facing the sunlit garden; the other overlooking the river, with matching antique globes and oversized armoires.
Swaenenvecht is just footsteps away from one of the area’s most intriguing estates, Slot Zuylen Castle, which dates back to the 13th century. Full of quirks, the castle is best known for its incredible tapestries (recently restored as part of a TV programme and re-hung with Velcro, so they can be easily removed in the event of a fire). Its also renowned for its set of 18th-century fine china (the baroness used to wash each plate herself in the ballroom in an attempt to preserve the precious crockery); and its famous, rebellious, former inhabitant, Belle van Zuylen.
Born in 1740, Belle published a satirical novel, Le Noble — using a pseudonym — in which the heroine uses the oversized paintings of her ancestors as a makeshift drawbridge, enabling her to cross the moat and escape. Glancing out at the castle’s moat and up at the six grand portraits in the dining room, it’s clear where her inspiration came from. It was also clear to her parents, who demanded the potentially scandalous work be withdrawn from sale.
I move on from her estate only to be driven inside by the rain — although the next day is much kinder, throwing blue sky and sunlight on the waterway. Checking out and setting off, I pedal past unruly allotment gardens, orchards swollen with fruit and black-and-white cows grazing in verdant fields. Vintage, flat-bottomed wooden canal boats rock back and forth with the tide, while ducks scurry out the way of the large pleasure boats spilling into the canal.
I pass a string of wooded manor houses and grand homes once owned by wealthy merchants, but they all pale in comparison to the region’s most impressive estate, Castle de Haar. It’s the stuff of picture-book legend: a faux-medieval fortress with towers and ramparts, a moat and drawbridge, surrounded by acres of garden and — allegedly — home to a ghost.
The recent history of the castle reads like the plot of Downton Abbey. Falling into ruin in the mid-17th century, it was finally restored between 1892 and 1912 — from its medieval ruins up — after the owner married a wealthy Rothschild. In its heyday, the castle hosted a string of illustrious guests, including Coco Chanel, Jean Cocteau, Yves Saint Laurent
and Aristotle Onassis (rumour has it Brigitte Bardot even rode a moped through the foyer). Today the estate is managed by a trust and open to the public.
As impressive as these estates are, it’s the character and stories of the people who occupied them, and the hospitality and enthusiasm of those overseeing their legacy today, that charm me most.
Taking my bike for one last spin, I turn back towards Utrecht. Despite not putting as much pedal power into the trip as anticipated, it’s been, nevertheless, a weekend of discoveries.
There are many hidden gardens in Utrecht, including Flora’s Hof, at the foot of the Dom Tower, as well as Pandhof, the Cathedral’s tranquil monastery garde
Did you know?
There are more than 18,000 miles of designated bike paths in the Netherlands, where there’s said to be more bikes than there are people
Stena Line Dutchflyer Rail & Sail ticket from Harwich to the Hook of Holland is a good option if bringing bikes. It includes train travel to Harwich, ferry and onward train travel to Utrecht. stenaline.co.uk
Utrecht can also be reached by rail on the Eurostar via Brussels from London St Pancras in around five hours. eurostar.com
The NS rail network covers the Netherlands, although those bringing bikes must buy an additional bicycle ticket. Bikes can be hired from the tourist office from €10 (£8.34) a day. nshispeed.nl
When to Go
The Vecht and Utrecht can be visited year-round.
Where to eat
Restaurant Belle. restaurantbelle.nl
How to do it:
From £526 for two, including return Dutch Flyer tickets (from £180), bike hire (£50) and two nights at the Swaenenvecht, B&B, (from £296). stenaline.co.uk swaenen-vecht.nl visit-utrecht.com
Published in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)