Netherlands 19: Utrecht revisited

While staying in Hulshorst, Gelderland at the Droompark Bad Hoophuizen holiday park, we thought it was a great opportunity to make a return visit to Utrecht. Two years ago in 2017, we spent a week in Utrecht and loved it. So we were definitely due a return visit!

Travelling from Hulshorst, I was struggling to convince the family to get the train from Nunspeet with the bikes. So we ended up putting them on the back of the car and driving over to near where we stayed in 2017. This was out of town, off Amsterdamsestraatweg.

Dafne Schippers Bridge

Setting off from near Amsterdamsestraatweg, we headed first to the Dafne Schippers Bridge. For some reason, we completely missed visiting this bridge when we stayed in Utrecht. I have no idea why, it was really close to where we were staying.

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On our way to the Dafne Schippers Bridge from Amsterdamsestraatweg

For those that are not familiar with it. This rather wonderful bridge across the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal has a rather unique access ramp incorporated into the roof of a primary school.

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On the Dafne Schippers Bridge as it passes over the school

The reason for this unusual design was due partly to limited space, meaning a spiral ramp was required. Though before it was built, there were two schools located where the bridge is now. So it was decided to relocate one of schools and incorporate the other into the bridge itself.

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The access ramp as it passes over the school

You can read more about the background to the bridge on the ever wonderful Bicycle Dutch blog, which is always a vast source of information for all things about cycling in The Netherlands.

While the combined school/bridge structure it’s certainly very impressive. What’s also impressive is the way the whole space, including the school playground is completely open to the public. This is something we saw previously on our last visit, when visiting Griftpark.

Arriving in Griftpark, our kids ran off to play in the playground with all the other kids playing there. It was only when the kids were called in that we realised they were all schoolchildren from the school in the park and we were in the school’s playground.

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Open playground and plenty of cycle parking at the school

This open and unprotected approach is very different to the situation we have in the UK. Where school security is quite a serious issue, during school hours in terms of safeguarding and out of hours, due to concerns about vandalism and theft.

It’s great that Dutch schools have open playgrounds like this. It highlights just how different attitudes are in The Netherlands. I couldn’t see this happening in the UK in the current climate. I can just imagine the tabloid headlines if there was ever an incident at a school.

Though I’m pleased to see initiatives in the US to open up school playgrounds to neighbourhoods who don’t have access to a local park. Maybe it could be possible in the UK too?

Jaarbeursplein and the Croeselaan

We left the Dafne Schippers Bridge and headed for Jaarbeursplein. Last time we were in Utrecht, Jaarbeursplein was very much a building site. Though we’d gone there check out the rather fantastic cycling parking there.

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Jaarbeursplein on our last visit in 2017

The route to Jaarbeursplein took us along some pretty decent cycling infrastructure. Initially starting with some quiet streets, we then continued onto a nice traffic-free route.

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Start of a traffic-free cycle route, notice the constrained use of bollards

As we reached the canal, the route switched between dedicated cycleways and cycle streets. Both were excellent. The cycleways were wide and smooth and the cycle streets were nice and quiet. I don’t remember seeing any motor vehicles at all.

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Cycle street next to the canal

Returning to Jaarbeursplein two years since our last visit, things were looking very different. Last time, there was some pretty significant building work going on, with the underground car park under construction.

Now, Jaarbeursplein is a neat and open space, with just a couple of pedestrian entrances giving a clue to the car parking below. This is really quite different to the space that once dominated by cars.

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Arriving in Jaarbeursplein, car park entrance and water feature on the right

The steps at the far end of Jaarbeursplein are both the entrance to Utrecht Centraal Station and the roof of some rather fantastic indoor cycle parking. We tried to use this on our last visit, but ran into some issues with not having OV-chipkaarts.

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Jaarbeursplein, with the station entrance and indoor cycle parking at the back

We left Jaarbeursplein and headed for the Croeselaan. I’d read on Bicycle Dutch about how the 4 lane road had recently been replaced with a linear park, and thought it’d be worth checking out.

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The wide two-way cycleway on the Croeselaan, as it passes the convention centre

In its previous incarnation, the Croeselaan was open to through traffic. It’s now a dead end for motor traffic, with the road looping round and vehicles returning the way they came. This is to provide access to the theatre and an underground car park.

The old road space has now been repurposed to provide wide cycleways, footways and a linear park. The linear park runs along the middle, and has been planted up with trees, many of which came from other locations in the city. There’s also a series of public artworks in the park, which again have been relocation from elsewhere.

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Plenty of space for walking and cycling now through traffic has been removed

Looking at old footage of Jaarbeursplein and the Croeselaan, you can see how much this space was once dominated by motor traffic. With many lanes of through traffic, travelling at speed.

With the work that’s been carried out recently, it really couldn’t be more different. It is now a pretty peaceful area, where you’d be happy to spend time in. That’s not something you could say in the past. It’s easy to imagine what this area will be like in a few years, once the planting has bedded in and the trees have matured.

Utrecht centre

By now, we were getting pretty hungry, so we left Croeselaan and headed into the centre to find somewhere to eat. We rode the length of Croeselaan, passed under the train lines and looped back to get to the centre. I had hoped to check out Maliesingel and Tolsteegsingel following the recent work they’ve had, but I didn’t get a chance.

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Under the train lines on Bleekstraat, cycleways aren’t just for those on bikes

We headed across the canal and onto Lange Nieuwstraat, which was pretty busy with people cycling. We then parked up near the Dom Tower (great name) and returned to a place we’d been previously to for lunch.

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Bikes, canals and the Dom Tower (Domtoren), currently having its exterior restored

After lunch, we went for a stroll round. Utrecht is such a fine example of a walkable city. To many, it probably feels like the archetypal Dutch city. With its canals, medieval buildings, paved streets and bikes.

It’s compact and easy to walk round. Busy, but not crazy busy like Amsterdam can be. It’s a city of contrasts too. Go beyond the old city moat and many of the building are much more modern and look more like something you’d see in Rotterdam. Like the developments around Jaarbeursplein and Utrecht Centraal Station.

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The Oudegracht canal, with its distinctive wharfs below street level

You can spend hours wandering the streets of Utrecht, finding more and more round each corner. While you’re doing it, you won’t have to negotiate much motor traffic, as many of the streets are either traffic-free or have very low traffic levels.

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Zadelstraat, one of many pedestrianised shopping streets in Utrecht

You will get to see many people walking and cycling and quite a few boats travelling along the Oudegracht canal, which runs through the centre of Utrecht. You’ll also see many people sitting about and enjoying the people-friendly environment, down by the canal, outside bars and restaurants or in public spaces and gardens.

Leaving the centre

While it would have been great to explore further, it was unfortunately time to leave. We headed out of the centre along Vredenburg, the busiest cycleway in The Netherlands. You can read more about Vredenburg on Bicycle Dutch or watch this great video from Streetfilms.

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We’ve experienced Vredenburg at its busiest and can definitely confirm there are seriously big numbers of people cycling along here. I remember how challenging it was trying to merge the four of us into the cycling traffic at peak time as we left the underground cycling parking facility.

We were planning to ride along Amsterdamsestraatweg to get back to where we started. Though we hadn’t realised it was Ascension Day and there was an annual market taking place along much of the length of Amsterdamsestraatweg. So it was necessary to take an alternative route.

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At the start of Amsterdamsestraatweg, closed for the annual Ascension Day market

We headed along a parallel route to Amsterdamsestraatweg, which took us along a number of quieter streets such as Otterstraat, Kruisweg and Kerkweg. These are all part of a filtered neighbourhood of streets, with some pretty fancy retractable bollards, to enable access for local residents. We’ve been through here before, on the way to Griftpark.

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Riding along one of the quieter streets, parallel to Amsterdamsestraatweg

Carrying on, we passed under the train lines between Hoveniersstraat and Laan van Engelswier, before reaching Royaards van Den Hamkade. As this is much larger road, it has two-way cycleways along it. Normally, this would be great. Today though, it was also being used as overspill car parking. So it was necessary to dodge a few cars along the way.

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Cars in the cycleway on Royaards van Den Hamkade, it’s not just a UK thing

Cycleways blocked with motor vehicles is an all too familiar occurrence in the UK. You’ll see plenty of examples on Twitter, including a few posted by me. Though probably many don’t realise it happens in The Netherlands too. Proportionally, nowhere near as much as the UK, as there’s many many more miles of cycleway in The Netherlands. But it does happen.

I guess there’s a tendency for much of the material you see about cycling in the Netherlands to focus on the more positive aspects, as the country is so often used a example of what good looks like. But the reality is, many of the same negative aspects exist too.

Whether it’s motor vehicles blocking footways and cycleways, poor driver behaviour or badly designed junctions, it all exists in The Netherlands. Though the miles and miles of high quality cycling infrastructure more than makes up for it.

Turning left at Marnixlaan and right onto Amsterdamsestraatweg, we were back to where we stayed in 2017. It was time to load up the car and head back to our holiday home.

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Back on Amsterdamsestraatweg, near where we stayed in 2017

It was great to go back to Utrecht to see what’s changed since our last visit. It’s such a vibrant city and there’s clearly a lot of drive to make things even better for cycling. We didn’t get to see everything though, including the vast new cycle parking facility that’s just opened. So I expect we’ll be back again soon!

Back to part 2 – The route to Harderwijk

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