There was something different about the city, but I couldn’t put my finger on it, at least not at first. Utrecht had unveiled itself through the passing scenes of a train car window, street by street in short bursts of high speed twilight. The mythical Dutch lands of endless flat fields, cheese, windmills and clog-sporting natives was a lie, but part of me had somewhat expected that. The fact that I wasn’t wearing a red Canadian Mountie uniform or a suit made entirely of beaver pelts somewhat spoke to the reciprocity of touristic stereotypes at play. Yet, as I sat in the train, gently losing myself in the picturesque window seat offerings, I still couldn’t decide what was so different about Utrecht; that gnawing, nail-biting slice of recognition that I knew would drive me mad for hours if left undiscovered.
The architecture was strange, but by no means something I had never seen before; old stone buildings mingled with modern structures across the skyline, exposing a clash between antiquity and modern human development, something I had come to recognize as a reoccurring theme in most Europeans cities. The city structure seemed chaotic yet resolved in the manner in which commuter traffic adapted to a city for which it was never entirely designed. However, none of these were the element I was searching for. It hit me only as we passed closer to the city’s centre, our final destination. We crossed a bridge and my eyes met the water that I would later understand as a radiating force of Utrecht, and for the Netherlands in general.
Water. The city was built on a massive interlocking system of canals and waterways. A Venice of the North, a lost Atlantean colony buried somewhere in Western Europe, a teething mini-metropolis of aquatic engineering and cultural design. Ottawa’s famed Rideau Canal seemed bleak, so pale in comparison to this network of water whose hundreds of boats pointed to its modern function for both commerce and leisure, with some residents even choosing to live in floating homes. I watched from the train as the Oudegracht, or Old Canal, snaked around the city, revealing the unique wharf-basement structures along the canal’s lower level, now home to businesses and restaurants.
As I got off the train and slung my overstuffed knapsack across my back, a single solitary rain drop hit my forehead, a foreshadowing of the famed Dutch weather to come; it seems the people here live trapped between water both from below and above. We began the frantic search for our hostel, but as my compatriots were busy deciphering Dutch maps and street signs, I was entranced against a rail, leaning over a canal and admiring first-hand the amphibian city I had only glimpsed from the train. In the distance I saw two swans, gingerly floating down the water, almost holding hands like lovers.
Ah, Utrecht, city of water.