Walks in the Netherlands
And now, for something completely different.
A Vertical Hike in Utrecht
Part three in our short series of “Walks in the Netherlands” provides a stark contrast both to the forested lake and windmills of Kralingen and to our delightful urban promenade along the canals of Utrecht. In the first two walks, you have seen an exemplary Dutch landscape and an exemplary Dutch townscape. Today’s walk offers neither. In fact, the view for most of the walk looks rather like this.
If you now say: this looks like the view from inside a walled staircase, you are very nearly there. Because today, we are going to climb up the tower of Utrecht Cathedral.
This is the shortest walk our site has ever featured, with a distance from the top to the ground of about 110 metres, and our very first nearly vertical “hike”. Because from the street level, the only way is up, straight all the way, for 465 steps.
This is actually far less grim than it sounds, mainly because you are not made to take it all in one go. You can only walk up the tower as part of a guided tour (at a cost of € 8 per person), and the guide stops at different levels to explain a few things about the history of the building, also allowing you to catch your breath.
From the level of the first stop, you are already overlooking most of the buildings of Utrecht’s near-by Old Town. This is the part of the tower that the medieval bishops used as a sort of second home, at times – when things got a little sticky – a fortified retreat.
Later the church warden moved in to live here. At 20 meters above ground, this was highest home in all of the medieval Netherlands. You will see that the floors all have trap doors set into them: these were built in to haul up food – and drink, as the case may be.
The 16th century Dutch, it turned out, were not as strictly Puritan as they might have wanted each other to believe, at least some of them were not, and one warden was fired after it was found out that he had turned his upper-level flat into what must have been the medieval predecessor of a modern roof-top cocktail bar.
The cathedral tower was constructed in the 14th century when it was one of the tallest buildings in Europe. The church attached to it was never fully finished, and when much of its middle section collapsed in 1674 (during a violent storm), the gaping holes in the nave were simply bricked up, and the tower was left to stand alone. This is what the Cathedral still looks like today.
The belfry marks the half-way stage of the climb. The oldest bells here date from the early 16th century, and the total set weighs over 30 tons – with the biggest bell alone accounting for 8000 kg.
From here onwards of our vertical hike in Utrecht, the stairway becomes very narrow and slippery, too, since it is partly exposed to the elements. It is quite clear that the clergymen of the medieval diocese and not even the church wardens climbed this stairway as a matter of their daily routine.
It seems that on a clear day, you can – we obviously had to take our guide’s word for it – see the steeples of the neighbouring towns and even Amsterdam from the top viewing platform.
Made it Ma! Top of the Netherlands.
Or not, as the case may be. I actually looked this up – and was a little disappointed to find out that this famously flat country’s highest “mountain” clocks in at a surprisingly respectable 322 m. This is the Vaalserberg right at the Dutch frontier with Belgium and Germany, which doubled up – for about a hundred years in the 19th century – as one of the rarest things on earth, a veritable quadripoint.
That sounds like a great destination for another walk. We shall certainly come back to Holland at some point in the future.