Wijk bij Duurstede, Utrecht, the Netherlands
June 8, 2019
The town’s long name with one too many Js could never roll off my mouth. Even after my visit, I could barely remember it. The irony, though, was that the town itself left indelible memories. Wijk bij Duurstede, Dutch for “neighborhood by Duurstede” (also Dorestad, the medieval castle), was my kind of hood: quaint, quiet, and quirky. It rounded out my trio of favorite Dutch cities along with Leiden and Delft.
Wijk bij Duurstede served quirkiness at the get-go. We were greeted by a bronze statue of a standing hare bent backward and looking up with a pair of binoculars. The Disneyesque sculpture called Sterren van Weleer, literally “stars of yesteryears,” turned out to be a whimsical memorial, not to an astronomer, but to a defunct theater. The stars alluded to those of the stage or screen, not the sky. A plaque attributed the monument to Yvonne Visser. Any relation to Angela Visser, one of my favorite Miss Universes, perhaps? The town made a good first impression.
Walking through cobbled streets lined with trees and iron lampposts felt unreal. Every shop window looked like a period movie set. But my sister practically cut my cinematic reverie as we hurried to meet her former foster daughter with family in tow at Café Restaurant De Engel. Established in 1678, the restaurant was, most likely, the oldest I had eaten at. I asked our Dutch host to recommend a traditional dish. Her choice was a pair of kroket, a breaded fried roll stuffed with meat, cheese, and mashed potatoes. The crispy goodness was far from exotic for my taste but appropriately filling for the day’s walking tour. My sister had green soup for starters. It tasted better than it looked, which reminded me of bile vomit.
After catching up over lunch, our party of ten filed out and easily comprised the crowd at the Markt, the center of town. Smaller Dutch cities were curiously empty at any time of day. This made Grote Kerk, a 14th-century Gothic church, an atmospheric presence, especially with its unfinished bell tower. The 17th-century Wijkse Town Hall, on the other hand, was completed and looked every inch as stately as it could be for a small town. I wondered how classical or modern the interior was. I only got as far as the top of a pair of perron staircases for my obligatory Evita Peron impression.
The cliché-turned-meme “It’s the journey, not the destination” turned into reality in our walk to a castle and a windmill. Stoked to see the attractions, I never expected the way to get there would become my favorite place in town. The magical Mazijk, the brick-walled and linden-lined alley through the heart of Wijk bij Duurstede, was a postcard-come-alive and a nod to the quiet cul-de-sac of old. Its history went a long way back. Mazijk was a medieval canal that was filled in to become this alley in the 17th century. This riparian manipulation of land and water was so decidedly Dutch.
I literally stopped to smell the roses blooming and creeping up the walls of houses without fences. I somehow pitied the residents for putting up with strangers coming up and sniffing their blooms. Perhaps that was why no one was out. Gentrification here meant that the old vibe was either restored or preserved. An old brick house used to be an abandoned barn that had since been transformed into its presently quaint architecture: gable roof, round windows, window and door shutters, wrought iron lanterns, and the flowering creeper so common in these parts. I found my dream house. Actually, I found the entire stretch of Mazijk to be a piece of real estate after my own old-fashioned heart.
The quaint village eventually gave way to a thick forest of beech and chestnut, among others. Not quite a forest primeval, Kasteelpark was home to towering trees that were more than a century old. Our neighborhood stroll continued to a hiking trail through the woods surrounding the castle’s moat. It never occurred to me that a forest could have a military function as the first line of defense. Such was medieval warfare.
Soon, castle spires poked out of the canopy of trees. Of the few I had seen, Castle Duurstede was closest to the fairy tales of my imagination: the forest, the moat, the drawbridge, the donjon, and the Burgundian tower whose multi-layered, tapering form truly gave it that medieval feels. The castle had found a new purpose in modern times – as a wedding venue. One was underway during our visit. I originally thought that, apart from actual royalty, only superstars like Madonna, the Queen of Pop, got married in castles.
Next stop was a famous windmill. What was left of it anyway, which was not much or, actually, none at all. Jacob van Ruisdael immortalized it in the 17th-century painting Windmill of Wijk bij Duurstede. Windmills of old were mostly wooden and, as such, lost to time and the elements. In the advent of modernization, the Dutch tore down the rest, perhaps not realizing they would become a national icon. At Dijkstraat, we could only peek at the private alcove of a house to see the foundation of the original windmill.
Dijkstraat led to the banks of the Lek, a distributary of the Rhine (Rijn in Dutch). A water level gauge on the brick dike indicated the river was prone to flooding. It noted a historical increase of almost half a meter in half a century. Such was the challenge for the Netherlands. While the sea ate up the coast, the river drowned the land.
Photographic composition seemed to have been built into the view from Dijkstraat. The focal point toward the end of the long dike was the unique form of Molen Rhine en Lek, so named for marking the point where the Rijn flowed into the Lek. The 17th-century windmill, still working today, claimed the distinction of being the only one built atop a city gate and now straddling a road. Vehicular and human traffic still passed under it as tourist boats sailed to Binnen Haven, the city harbor, beside it. This panorama was another postcard-come-alive in the old town of Wijk bij Duurstede. All I had to do was to click the phone camera.
The windmill marked the end of our pleasant stroll. By then, the feisty sun had disappeared behind the clouds that, soon, poured buckets. It led me to my final discovery of the day: Dutch-designed umbrellas – elongated, not round – were resistant to wind flipping, thanks to their quirky shape. Why weren’t all umbrellas made this way? I had to hand it to the Dutch for knowing exactly how to manage wind and water to their advantage – from windmills to umbrellas. It was one of my takeaways from this quaint and quirky hood with an equally quaint and quirky name, Wijk bij Duurstede.
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