Canadian Wanderer

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Midnight Market at Edmonton’s Polar Park Brewing Company

The opportunity to sample the beer Edmonton’s soon-to-be newest microbrewery while supporting local artists proved too much for me to resist so I snapped up a ticket to the Polar Park Brewing Company Midnight Market held at their off-Whyte Avenue headquarters.

The Bee-Bell Bakery was an Edmonton institution for 50-years until its 2013 closure but after a spell of idleness the building has been converted into a brewery which opens to the public in May and there could hardly be a better facility for a microbrewery with the sturdy red brick building’s second floor outdoor patio offering thirsty patrons a lofty locale to soak up Summer a few blocks south of the popular Whyte Avenue, an epicenter of many festivals, most notably the Edmonton International Fringe Festival which is the oldest and largest fringe theatre festival in North America.

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If the Polar Park name sounds somewhat familiar to those of a certain vintage it’s because the name was used by Al Oeming when he relaunched his Alberta Game Farm which he operated in the Edmonton area for four decades until its 1999 closure. At it’s height the park was the largest private game park in North America housing more than 3,000 animals and 166 species.  There’s more about the Brewery’s name and family heritage from Al Oeming’s grandson and brewery co-founder Robert Oeming in this video.  The  brewery pays homage to it family history on its website using the slogan “From Bears to Beers”.

On tap for Eventbrite ticket holders for this exclusive seek peek is an IPA brewed off-site at the nearby Situation Brewing and speaks to the collaborative spirit of the burgeoning  Alberta craft beer scene. While I normally avoid IPA’s as most are uber-hoppy this brew didn’t assault my taste buds and went down well while waltzing around the dozen local vendors on hand selling their wares which ranged from designer cakes and cupcakes to  perogies.

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One artist demonstrating her time-honoured traditional wood block print making is printmaker Zhuyin Sarah Zhao who described the painstaking process to carve out of the intricate design which is pressed onto rice paper as shown in this video.

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The first of 16 limited edition 8″ x 10″ prints I purchased will be framed and mounted in my home as a thing of beauty for myself and guests to admire and remind me of my travels in Asia.

The Friday night event served to whet my appetite for the official opening of Polar Park Brewing as the sneak peek reinforced the local roots the company has set down which bodes well for its long-term outlook.

Hearty Edmontonians Gather to Celebrate Lunar New Year Celebrations

An arctic air mass that had parked itself over much of Western Canada couldn’t keep a small band of spectators away from the annual lunar new year celebrations held in Edmonton’s so called Chinatown North, the area north of the traditional Chinatown around Jasper Avenue and 97th Street that grew with waves of Chinese and Asian immigrants in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s.

With day time temperatures hovering in the low -30’s Celsius with windchill, the outdoor celebrations went in a decidedly different direction with civic dignitaries, performers and spectators alike all huddled in the Pacific Rim Mall until showtime. A delicious detour while awaiting the festivities proved to be the Dynasty Century Palace restaurant, well known for its Dim Sum.

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This lunar new year is the 4716th Chinese year and is the Year of the Pig, the twelfth of the 12-year cycle of animals which appear in the Chinese zodiac related to the Chinese calendar.  While the pig isn’t thought to be a smart but lazy animal in China on the positive side, it behaves itself, harms no others, and can bring affluence to people and so the year is regarded as bringing wealth.

The dragon dance is most often performed at new year’s as dragons are seen to bring good luck to people and that the longer the dragon in the dance the more luck it will bring to the whole community.


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The lion dance is another traditional Chinese dance performed major holidays such as the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) for good luck, as it is believed that the lion is an auspicious animal. Members of Edmonton’s Canadian Ging Wu Kung Fu Martial Arts Association performed the lion dance.

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Lighting firecrackers is another major custom as it’s said to scare off evil spirits and celebrate the coming of the New Year. I braved the wicked wind get up close to the hanging strands of firecrackers, a little too close as flying debris came my way but luckily caused no lasting damage.

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To many an Occidental eye the annual celebrations may seem exclusively Chinese however the lunar new year holiday is observed throughout Asia as its known as Eumnyeok Seollal in Korea and Tet Nguyen Dan, or simply Tet and other events to mark the special occasion were held around Edmonton. I promised to attend more events marking this Oriental occasion next year on the condition the weather gods favored Edmonton with warmer weather.

 

Lost luggage: what happens to your baggage after check-in

While it’s been years since I checked a piece of baggage on any of my trips every year millions of travellers still pay for the service and every year millions of bags go missing but how they are handled or mishandled is not something passengers normally see.

It’s worth noting that airline information company SITA says in it’s annual Baggage Report  that of the 4.65 billion bags checked on all world airlines only 6 bags per 1,000 are mishandled and of this number over 99-percent is returned within 48-hours with the remainder unable to be reunited with their owners who are due compensation from the airlines as prescribed in the Montreal Convention, a 1999 multinational civil aviation treaty.

Thanks to advancements in technology passengers are 70-percent less likely to lose their bag than was the case a decade ago and it’s this new technology that lead the International Air Transport Association (IATA)  to adopt Resolution 753 which mandates airlines track bags at four key points in its journey.

For a behind-the-scenes journey of checked bags Global News has an excellent in-depth look in this video.

A short walk to The End of the World

Edmonton’s scenic river valley has a number of panoramic view points, some official and others not so I was interested to learn that one popular perch that was in the latter category joined the former.

‘The End of the World’ is the informal name given to a look-out high above the North Saskatchewan River steps from the tony Saskatchewan Drive in Edmonton’s upscale Belgravia neighborhood that became a notorious hang-out and party place for those wanting to soak in the sweeping views of the city’s west end from a crumbling concrete retaining wall of the decommissioned Keillor Road that served as an unofficial  observation deck.

Despite ‘No Trespassing’ signs locals made their way to the point leaving their litter in the process which together with the safety aspect of potential falls from the steep cliff without railings and an unstable slope prompted city officials to close access and undertake a $1.5-million dollar project to both make the point safe for visitors while increasing accessibility from Saskatchewan Drive.

City of Edmonton artist rendering

Renamed Keillor Point in honour of Dr. Frederick Keillor, a medical doctor and World War I veteran who became an Edmonton city councillor, the new and improved scenic view point features both gravel trail and staircase access and a metal viewing platform.

When they initially conceived the project the city acknowledged that the riverbank is still moving but will monitor the motion and close the site should it be felt to be unsafe.

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Even a cool breeze on a December day couldn’t take away from the majesty of the view which is one I hope other Edmontonians and visitors can experience for themselves.

New screening system speeds up security process at Edmonton International Airport

I’ll confess to not being the most patience of people when it comes to line-ups of any kind whether it be at the supermarket or airport security so it was with interest that I read about the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) unveiling its new carry-on baggage security screening system at the Edmonton International Airport.

The authority has installed the CATSA Plus conveyor system in two of the airport’s eight security lineups but over the next few months all eight queues will switch over to the new system which is designed to make the process more efficient and user-friendly for both travellers in a hurry and those who need more time

The new setup automatically feeds baggage bins into four stations where four travellers can unload their liquids and laptops at the same time and when ready push their loaded bins onto a conveyor belt for a scan in the X-ray machine.

After travellers pass through the metal detector, they can watch their belongings be sorted into two lines — cleared to fly or needing more scrutiny.

Current CATSA screening time for Edmonton International Airport can be checked online before leaving home.

The improvements in the airport security screening process are welcomed by this passenger as having practiced the routine over dozens of flights there was some annoyance being stuck behind less experienced and prepared travellers who prolonged the security screening process. Now if only the supermarket line-ups could be shortened…

 

Christmas comes to Edmonton’s Little Italy

As if part of a master plan a heavy blanket of snow was part of the scenery for the kick-off of Edmonton’s “Winter in Little Italy” celebration in this colourful north side community. The 30 centimeters of snow that fell over the weekend was likely more than event organizers had expected but added an authentic touch to the festivities.

The Little Italy area extends from 107 Avenue in the South to 118 Avenue in the North, and between 97 and 93 Streets and traces its Italian roots trace back to an immigrant influx between the end of World War II and the 1970’s but it was the 1958 opening of Santa Maria Goretti Church that really solidified the enclave as Italian. A street arch welcomes visitors with ‘benvenuti‘ on one side and wishes them goodbye with ‘ciao‘ on the other.

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At Little Italy’s modern heart is a number of family-owned businesses including the Italian Bakery and the Italian Centre Shop where fresh pasta, prosciutto and deli meats are served in the largest deli in Western Canada.

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The competing aromas from the bakery, cafe and deli make this a wonderful place to linger and soak up the sights, sounds and smells especially on a cool Winter afternoon.

Just outside the store chestnuts roasting on an open fire had me humming the lyrics to this familiar holiday song.

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Just across from the Italian Centre Shop is a seated life-size bronze statue of its founder Frank Spinelli who emigrated from a small town near near Salerno, Italy in 1951 eventually settling down in Edmonton to open a store in 1959 offering authentic Italian goods to other recent arrivals to Canada.  Over the decades until his passing in 2000 due to cancer Spinelli grew to become a pillar of both the Italian community and the city of Edmonton and was posthumously elected to the Alberta Business Hall of Fame in 2013. The snow obscures his hands which hold cards as he’s depicted playing his favourite card game Scopa, one of two major national card games in Italy.

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The Spinelli statue sits in Giovanni Caboto Park named for the Italian-born explorer and navigator that settled in England and we know by his anglicized name John Cabot whose second voyage in 1497 made him the first European to explore the coast of Newfoundland since the Vikings some 500 years prior.

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The park was originally called Patricia Square Park named for Princess Patricia, the daughter of Canada’s Governor General, Prince Albert, the Duke of Connaught, and patron of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry but in 1981 the local Italian community requested a change in the name to better represent its neighbourhood and culture.

Horse drawn sleigh rides took visitors along Church Street, a stretch of 96th Street that’s home to a dozen different churches, cathedrals and temples. The City of Edmonton in 2017 took the first step toward establishing this area as a historical and cultural destination by preserving current buildings through restrictive zoning bylaws.

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Edmonton’s Little Italy is worth visiting year ’round however it’s especially festive ahead of Christmas so well worth an afternoon detour and evening meal. My visit proved to be a timely antidote to the bland big box stores and generic shopping malls that occupy so much retail space in the city and it was refreshing to stroll the street sampling the goods at a number of family owned and operated businesses and feeling the sense of community that still exists in this corner of the capital.

A Craft Beer Amsterdam Amble

With a range between innovative and edgy young local breweries to more established historic tasting houses and well-stocked beer tap rooms, Amsterdam’s craft and specialty beer scene is vibrant and strong. I visited five notable haunts from Amsterdam’s heady beer scene drinking it all in.

Brouwerij ‘t IJ

Brewing some of Amsterdam’s best-loved craft beers since 1985 in a formerly vacant municipal bath house next to the city’s largest wooden windmill is Brouwerij ‘t IJ,  founded by local musician Kasper Peterson who was looking to grow his experimental home brewing into a commercial enterprise by producing Belgian style beers that weren’t being brewed at the time in Amsterdam.

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The old municipal bath house proved a perfect place for a brewery since it had a water supply and drainage system, easy-to-keep-clean tiles and steam generator. Some of the original physical features of the building remain including separate entrances for men and women.

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After more than twenty years into Brouwerij ‘t history Peterson stepped back and Bart Obertop and Patrick Hendrikse took over and continue brewing the distinctive kind of quality beers ‘t IJ has become known for.

Since demand far exceeded supply a new brewery was opened near the original location in 2013. Public tours are offered regularly at the original brewery and at EUR 6 with a free beer won’t soak beer enthusiasts but note only twenty spots are available for each tour and are only sold at the brewery the day of the tour and no advance reservations are accepted.

I tried the Amarillo Red IPA which is less hoppy to me than most IPA’s so is an easy drinking beer which is available only at the brewery. The name is taken from the Amarillo hop and not the city in Texas.

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There’s more about the brewery and its history in this video but a quick look at all of Brouwerij ‘t  beers posing around Amsterdam.

Brouwerij de Prael

The Brouwerij de Prael is tucked away on a narrow side street in the Oudezijds (Old Side) neighborhood of Amsterdam which is one of the oldest parts of the city known for its famous or infamous Red Light District. The current notoriety of the area notwithstanding the brewery is sighted on a canal that as early as 1300 was a beer quay where beer was imported from Germany on wooden ships before later being the site of Amsterdam’s first breweries.

The brewpub, which is off an alley and not too easy to find, welcomes thirsty patrons with a street level bar as well as an upper seating level with a funky assortment of wooden tables, chairs and modern chic industrial lamps.

Around the corner from the brewpub is the brewery itself and tours are offered frequently seven days a week. I joined a Friday afternoon tour with friends opting for the admission with one beer for EUR 8.50 through the online reservation site.

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Brouwerij de Prael was founded in 2002 and of its beers are brewed on site only using organic ingredients.

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In keeping with the handmade and authentic ethos the beers are all brewed, bottled, and labeled by hand on-site.

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After a few pints before and after the tour my favorite beer is the Weizen, a light and fruity German-style Hefeweizen beer  as I prefer the Weizen and Kolsch beers to IPA.

Proeflokaal Arendsnest

The Dutch word proeflokaal translates as ‘tasting room’ and with 50 craft beers on tap there are no other Amsterdam ale houses that own the word like Arendsnest. Located on the grand Herengracht canal a short walk from Centraal Station, Proeflokaal Arendsnest has rustic copper pipes, mahogany walls, and bartenders sharply dressed in waistcoats. An extensive list of craft beers greets visitors and after a long while trying to decide I chose Dutch Eagle Pale Ale, a light, fruity beer that went well with the warmer end-of-Summer evening. Note that the lower prices on the board are for smaller 220 ml glasses which are a good way to sample a variety of beers without investing in a whole pint of each.

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photo by author

Beer Temple

The owner of Proeflokaal Arendsnest, Peter van der Arend,  opened the BeerTemple in 2009 and this hole-in-the-wall steps from Dam Square specializes in American craft beer with some 35 beers on tap and another 200 in cans and bottles.

 

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Unlike the bright & pristine  Brouwerij ‘t, the Beer Temple is a little rough around the edges with a narrow, dark interior and stickers covering the walls but its the location and beers that keep the masses returning.

Beer tastings are held every Sat.  at 12:30 PM and the day-long tour More Beer Tour combines the Beer Temple with affiliated watering holes Proeflokaal Arendsnest, Craft & Draft, and ‘Cause Beer Loves Food for a movable feast of craft beer.

Cafe ‘De Laurierboom’

History is around every corner in Amsterdam quote literally as I found while wandering the Jordaan district and happening upon Cafe ‘De Laurierboom’, a local pub for the past 150 years. It wasn’t the history however but rather the sidewalk seats that drew me in so I ordered a pint and plopped down to watch the neighborhood glide by.

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With locals far outnumbering tourists De Laurierboom is one of the last real ‘brown’ cafes, local watering holes with dark wood and smoke-stained walls. 

I ran out of time to visit all the exceptional brewpubs, tasting rooms and breweries in Amsterdam so will plan a return trip to visit those I was unable to sample this time around. Any reason to return to my beloved Amsterdam…

Amsterdam ArenA Stadium Tour

As I was staying at a nearby hotel and being a huge football fan I couldn’t resist signing up for a guided tour of the Johan Cruyff Arena, the largest stadium in the Netherlands and home of famed Dutch professional football club AFC Ajax.

The stadium was previously known as the Amsterdam Arena (stylised as Amsterdam ArenA) until the current 2018–19 football season when it was officially renamed in honour of legendary Dutch footballer Johan Cruyff after his March 2016 passing. Cruyff (spelled Cruijff in Dutch) is widely considered to be among the sports greatest players winning the Ballon D’or as top player three times and helping Ajax (pronounced Eye-yacks) capture the European Champions League title four times. A proponent of what came to be called ‘total football’ Cruyff moved to FC Barcelona, managing after his playing career ended and helping to build a struggling Spanish club into one of the elite teams on the planet.

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Opened in 1996 after a three-year construction project the 55,000 seat stadium offers guided 75-minute tours daily throughout the year except for match days and concert events.  The tours include a visit to the pitch level, dressing room visit except when in use as they were during  my visit, press box high in the stands, media center where pre & post match interviews are held and the Ajax ‘Gallery of Fame’ trophy room. Tours may be confirmed online in advance for EUR 15/CAD $22 but as I was visiting in low season with tours less likely to sell-out I paid at the stadium ticket office and used a Smartsave discount coupon to save 20%.


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Football is war as our tour guide pointed out that the Mercedes seats in red & white Ajax colours the home team rest on are heated while the all-red seats reserved for the visiting team aren’t. Heated seats during cold Winter matches is one edge the home team enjoys and may make a difference between winning & losing.

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The tour includes a visit to ‘the tunnel’ which is where both teams line-up after existing their respective dressing rooms and wait to head up to the pitch to the cheers of thousands of rabid football fans.


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The press room holds the footballing media who grill team coaches and players about the match. and tour participants were invited to sit in the hot seat for photos.

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Near the end of the tour a visit is made to the Ajax ‘Gallery of Fame‘ which hold the 118-year-old football club’s impressive array of trophies and cups including its four European Champions League Cups. Ajax is only one of a trio of clubs along with Bayern Munich and Real Madrid to have won the title four times.

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While my schedule didn’t synchronize with Ajax to attend a match at the Johan Cruyff Arena taking the tour is the next best thing so would highly recommend it to football fans visiting Amsterdam.

Say Cheese, Say Alkmaar

In researching day trips from Amsterdam I considered a few national treasures such as Zaanse Schans for its cluster of windmills and the historic city of Haarlem but decided to take in the centuries old Alkmaar cheese market as it both fit into my schedule and my love of cheese.

One of only a few remaining traditional Dutch Cheese markets, Alkmaar had cheese scales as early as 1365 and began their cheese market on the town square or Waagplein in 1593 . It’s not actually possible to buy cheese at the market itself as it’s a demonstration of how this merchants’ market operated in times gone by however, the demonstration, which takes place in front of the medieval weighing house, is surrounded by many specialized stalls where it is possible to buy all kinds of cheese (and non-cheese) related products.

The walk from Alkmaar Station to the Waagplein is a short 10-minute stroll with sidewalk plaques whetting the appetite for cheese.

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The Waagplein or ‘weighing square’ has been extended several times in the course of two centuries and was enlarged no fewer than eight times before it reached its current dimensions, a very visible reminder of the importance of cheese trade for the city.

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As soon as the market opens, the samplers and traders in their white coats go to work inspecting the cheese which is more involved than checking its exterior. Cheese is knocked on and a special cheese scoop used to obtain a piece, which is then crumbled between the fingers and smelled. And, naturally, it is tasted to assess the relation between taste, and the percentages of fat and moisture. After the cheese has been cut, the number of holes – also known as eyes – are inspected. The holes in cheese are caused by non-harmful lactic acid bacteria during the maturing of the cheese. A perfect cheese has eyes that are evenly spread throughout. A cheese without eyes, known as a blind cheese, is considered to be of inferior quality.


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The wheels of Beemster cheese are transported around the square on wooden racks or barrows which are lifted by a string and leather shoulder harness. Each barrow holds 8 Gouda cheeses of of which weight 12 – 13 kilos. Carrying a heavy barrow (25 kilos) weighing about 130 kilos is not easy so the carriers walk with a special “cheese carriers’dribble”, a particular walking rhythm to make it easier.  The colour of the barrow and carrier hats indicates it’s one of four forwarding companies.


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Once carried to the Waagebouw the cheese is weighed and prices negotiated.

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The Waag building is a Dutch national monument that began its public life in the 14th century as a chapel before being converted to a weighing house in 1583, a role it retains to this day.

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Alkmaar’s tourist office is located in the building and can help with recommended walking tour routes. There’s an excellent Alkmaar city map here.

There are other cheese markets in Hoorn, Edam, Gouda, and Woerden however the Alkmaar Cheese Market is oldest, largest and most famous cheese market in the Netherlands so is well worth a visit.

There are Alkmaar sights to see beyond the cheese market including the De Boom National Beer Museum which is a few short blocks away from the Waagplein. This unique museum is appropriately housed in a former brewery and shows visitors the tools, equipment and machines used in brewing over the past two centuries.

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In the cellar is the Proeflokaal de Boom, or tasting room, where stellar Dutch beer may be sampled in a cozy pub atmosphere. I opted to try the Weizen wheat beer brewed in Wijlre since 1340 by Brand, the Netherlands oldest brewery which is now owned by Dutch global brewing giant Heineken.

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Between the cheese market square and the rail station is the Grote Kerk,a 15th century Protestant church dedicated to Saint Lawrence but now not used for secular services. Maintained as a city landmark a highlight is the soaring organ installed in 1645 and is considered one of the most important and beautiful organs in the world.

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As everyone cycles in the Netherlands even a smaller city of 100,000 like Alkmaar has a two-tiered bicycle parkade adjacent to the main railway station.

 

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Alkmaar is an easy and direct 35-minute train ride from Amsterdam Centraal Station with day return tickets costing EUR15.20 when  bought at station kiosks. The Alkmaar Cheese Market is held every Friday morning 10 AM – 1 PM and every Tuesday evening from the first Friday in April until the last Friday in September.

Unsung Utrecht; Ancient City, Modern Soul

Like a college student living in historic housing,  Utrecht is a city steeped in Dutch history that lives in a very modern world, moving with the times rather than having been left behind in a glorious yesteryear.

Utrecht’s modern side manifests itself for most travelers arriving by rail at the glass and steel wrapped Utrecht Centraal Station, the largest and busiest railway station in the Netherlands with some 175,000 passengers passing through its sixteen platforms daily.  Adjacent to the station is the Hoog Catharijne, an upscale, two-floor shopping center with 150 shops, boutiques and restaurants that sprawls over a 6-block area of the city center.

Station Utrecht Centraal by Raymond Snijders CC BY SA 2.0

A short walk away however is the ancient side of Utrecht, a fortress town founded by the Romans in A.D. 47 which became an outpost of Christianity with the seat of a bishop in the 8th century. This religious importance was enhanced and expanded in the Middle Ages through the founding of the Dutch Republic in the 17th century and as a city of churches Utrecht is home to more restored medieval religious structures than any other city in Europe.

The symbol of the city and the tallest church tower in the Netherlands is the Gothic Dom Toren or Dom Tower which at 112 meters high makes for a useful landmark in the historic city center.

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Completed in 1382 the tower was part of the St. Martin’s Cathedral until the nave collapsed in a 1674 storm and as it was never rebuilt the tower has been free-standing every since.

Regular guided tours of the tower can be reserved in advance online or in person at the Utrecht Tourism office on the square at the base of Dom Tower. The 465 steps to the outdoor observation level are mercifully taken in stages to allow visitors to catch their breath in memorable medieval surrounding as in this chapel.

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About halfway up the tower tour participants walk through a gallery of hanging bells, some of which were cast in 1505 and weigh 32,000 kilograms. These bells can still be heard on Sundays, religious holidays and special occasions.

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At 80 metres up is the Dom Tower’s carillon dating from 1664 and made up of 50 bells which can be played manually or by a mechanical means. These majestic bells play a melody every fifteen minutes that can be heard all through the city center and our tour group was at the right place at the right time to enjoy a front-row performance.


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The Dom Tower bells have been known to honour popular modern musicians upon their passing which in recent years included Prince, David Bowie, electronic artist and DJ Avicii and Aretha Franklin.

Emerging onto the viewing gallery at 95 meters visitors are given an excellent vantage point over historic Utrecht although the view is in places partially obscured by scaffolding that’s been erected as part of a four-year restoration and maintenance project to the tower’s exterior. On a clear day the edge of Amsterdam 42 KM to the northeast is visible on the horizon.

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Utrecht’s historic heart is home to a number of canals, the most famous of which is the   Oudegracht (Old Canal) which winds its way from south to north in a 2 KM course.

Tower of the Cathedral ( Domtoren ) seen from the Oudegracht by Michielverbeek  CC BY SA 4.0

Utrecht University is the Netherlands largest university and lends this city a youthful outlook with a huge variety of cultural events, second only behind Amsterdam in the most events in the Netherlands.

I thoroughly enjoyed my short visit to Utrecht as it’s a compact, walkable city   cloaked in history but with a very modern heartbeat that combine to give the city its unique appeal.

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