Why there’s never been a better time to explore these Utrecht hidden gems
The lovely @EmilyMatheison recently flagged up the Dutch city of Utrecht as one of The Guardian’s must-see cities to visit in 2015 so I thought I’d share my experience of some Utrecht hidden gems. Utrecht (the 2015 home to the Grand Depart of the Tour de France is about a 25-minute train ride from Amsterdam.
Having lived in the Dutch capital, I decided to take the opportunity to take a day trip to this neighbouring city to discover some Utrecht hidden gems. Utrecht is a bit like a mini version of Amsterdam. If you’re looking to escape the more touristy side of Amsterdam (ie the Red Light District with all the stag and hen dos), Utrecht is the ideal place. It still has all the charm of Amsterdam with its cobbled streets and canals just on a smaller scale. Even for me it was pretty easy to navigate your way around its compact city centre.
We decided to visit Utrecht on a Saturday. Mainly because I’d read that a Utrecht hidden gem, a free city walking tour, only runs on Saturdays and I was keen to learn more about Utrecht’s history. The Utrecht Free Tours start at 12pm, leaving from the Dom Tower, and take three hours – there is a break for lunch. Our guide, Ellen, was pretty easy going and very knowledgeable, giving us the lowdown on some of Utrecht’s past without it being too dull. I was also impressed by the number of people she had to shepherd around Utrecht as there were about 30 people in our group.
The tour begins right in the historic centre of Utrecht, in Dom Square. Ellen explained why the Dom Tower and Cathedral are separate (which is quite unusual). Initially the middle part of the structure had been built of wood. It burnt down in the 17th century and was never replaced. It later became an area associated with scandal as it was the site of large-scale persecutions of gay men in 1730.
Next, Ellen pointed out some of the houses of Utrecht’s most famous former residents. The only Dutch Pope came from Utrecht, although he never actually got the chance to live in the house he built for himself. And Wilhlem Conrad Rontgen, the inventor of the X-ray and winner of the first Nobel Prize in physics was in fact expelled from Utrecht University.
Utrecht is also home to a Miffy Museum (the Dick Bruna Haus) – I learned from Ellen that Miffy is in fact a girl. And on our tour we also walked along the riverside and took in the picturesque park of Brutenhof, which was once where Utrecht’s city walls used to be. Another of the Utrecht hidden gems I discovered was the pretty cool Letters of Utrecht – an ongoing poem started in 2012 which has a new letter carved into the cobblestones of Utrecht every Saturday.
There are of course lots of canals in Utrecht. What struck me is how much lower down the water levels are to the ones in Amsterdam (the canals in Utrecht are much older). Sitting in one of the many canal-side bars you’re almost in the water and it makes them the perfect place to stop off on a sunny day – though it might be advisable not to sample too many Dutch beers so you can stay steady on your feet. A day trip gave me time to discover some Utrecht hidden gems but no doubt there are plenty of others I’ll have to come back for before the year is out…
A round-up of my favourite hidden gems of 2014
I can’t believe how quickly time flies − it seems like just yesterday I was checking out some of my top 5 hidden gems of 2014. But as another year is indeed coming to a close I thought I’d take this opportunity to share my highlights with you below in no particular order, my favourite hidden gems, and it wasn’t an easy call choosing them. And to one of them, St Ann’s Hospice in Little Hulton Manchester, I will be forever grateful. Let me know if you agree, or if there are any others you’d care to share. Happy New Year and looking forward to giving you the low-down on lots more hidden gems in 2015.
I can honestly say that this year has been the toughest year of my life. In February of 2014 my mum passed away from mum gallbladder cancer. It was diagnosed out of the blue and had already spread to mum’s spine and liver. There was no cure. As you can imagine I was distraught. But thanks to the kindness and compassion of the staff at St Ann’s Hospice Little Hulton my mum died comfortably, she wasn’t in pain, and had peace of mind. They allowed my mum to keep her dignity and for this my family and I can never repay them. Before my mum was admitted to St Ann’s Hospice I didn’t even know what a hospice was and shockingly St Ann’s Hospice which provides its services for free needs £16,000 a day to stay open. Here’s how you can make a donation.
I’m always on the lookout for quirky boutique hotels and the Kruisherenhotel in Maastricht, a former 15th century monastery, proved to be a heavenly place to stay. I loved the mix of the Kruisherenhotel Maastricht’s original Gothic features and cool, contemporary rooms created by international designers that include Philip Starck and Le Courbusier. And as you can see from my picture the restaurant, upstairs on the mezzanine in the cloisters, was also pretty impressive. As was the breakfast, which was unusually lavish by Dutch standards, another reason it’s one of my hidden gems of 2014.
This was one of my hidden gems of 2014 that really took me by surprise. Before visiting the Norfolk coast I never realised that Blakeney in Norfolk was one of the best places in the UK to spot grey seals. And I certainly never expected to see hundreds of seals (common and grey) up close on a boat trip, which was a truly amazing experience. Since my visit, Blakeney is now home to over 2,000 seal pups this year, making it the biggest seal colony in the UK and the subject of a new season of BBC Winterwatch.
My top 5 hidden gems of 2014 wouldn’t be compete without at least one restaurant mention. There were a few serious contenders, like Vis & Ko in Haarlem, the Netherlands an amazing fish restaurant and Brewery Troost Amsterdam which serves THE best veggie burgers in the city. But the winner of the year for me was Catovica Mlini, the best restaurant in Montenegro. Not just because of its outstanding food but also because of its tranquil, off-the-beaten-track setting in an old mill (complete with its very own duck pond).
In a word, wow. The Grand Hyatt, Kauai’s best hotel is amazing and the most glamorous of my hidden gems of 2014, so a fitting way to end in style. I’m not usually a fan of big resorts, I prefer more intimate, boutique hotels. But the grounds of the Grand Hyatt (with its own saltwater lagoon, lazy river, waterfalls, beachfront cabanas, home to the biggest spa on Kauai and a waterslide, hurrah) literally took my breath away. What also makes this Hawaii hotel one of my top 5 hidden gems of 2014 is its location. As tough as it was to tear myself away from the resort it was about a five-minute walk from our room to Shipwreck Beach (where the likes of Justin Bieber have been papped). Also within walking distance (about a 20-miute walk) is Poipu Beach which is popular for snorkelling as it’s teeming with marine life. I was lucky enough to see a rare Hawaiian monk seal and sea turtles.
Montenegro is often referred to as the gem of the Adriatic. A combination of lakes and mountains makes Montengro’s dramatic coastline some of the finest in Europe. For me, the most spectacular part of this is the Bay of Kotor, a Montenegro hidden gem, and on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Following on from my post about Muo, the best place to stay in Kotor Bay, I wanted to share some of Montenegro’s hidden gems outside of Kotor Old Town.
The easiest way to get around Montenegro’s coastline is to hire a car. If, like us you can’t drive, it’s not a problem though. There are frequent bus services that operate up and down the coast, or you’ll find taxis everywhere ready to cash in on the tourist trade.
My absolute favourite spot in Kotor Bay has to be Perast. A Montenegro hidden gem, Perast is about a 25-minute bus ride from Kotor and as you can see from my pictures it’s pretty spectacular. There are lots of Venetian architecture, Perast was a stop-off point for Venice’s princes, and Baroque churches to be found in this peaceful village. Another reason Perast is one a Montenegro hidden gem.
Perast’s main tourist attraction is Our Lady of the Rock (Gospa od Skrpjela), and the nearby island of St George. If you want to check out the Lady of the Rock church (built in 1630) you can just hop onboard a taxi boat. The return trip is €5 and the boat deposits you on the tiny island for around half a hour (which gives you plenty of time to also check out the museum (you have to pay to enter) and small gift shop.
We stopped for lunch at the Hotel Conte, an idyllic spot on the waterfront overlooking Our Lady of the Rock (or you can choose to eat inside if you prefer). It’s not cheap, and the service was a bit abrupt (possibly because a large group of more mature wealthier looking people had arrived who the waiters decided to focus his attention on). But aside from the food at Montenegro’s best restaurant it was the nicest place was ate during our stay in Montenegro, due to both the quality of the food and the romantic setting.
On another day we headed, again by bus, further north along the bay to the coastal town of Herceg Novi. The idea was for us to go on a boat trip to check out the Blue Grotto on the Lustica Peninsula. We wandered through the cobbled streets of the Stari Grad (Old Town) to get down to the harbour, only to discover that the organised group boat trips had finished running.
This meant our only option was a private charter. As we’d come this far (about an hour and a half) we decided to see how much it would cost us. After resigning ourselves to the fact it was going to be too expensive, one guy wanted to charge us €100, we found someone who would let us share with another two people and split the cost, making it about €30 as he was cheaper. So I’d definitely recommend haggling on price.
On route to the Blue Grotto our guide took us to some other smaller islands along the way. We encountered a film crew on the island of Mamula, which acted as a prison in both world wars, who were making a Serbian horror movie. The Blue Grotto itself was much larger than the other Blue Grotto I’ve been to in Capri. We were a little disappointed though to see it was equally as touristy. Fortunately, our guide took us back a bit later when there were less people so we could experience the bright, tranquil water all to ourselves.
After exploring Montenegro’s coastline and witnessing its beauty it’s easy to see why the Bay of Kotor is a Montenegro hidden gem. We did also pay a visit to the other side of the country as we went to Lake Skadar to go kayaking, courtesy of Undiscovered Montenegro. Our journey took us past Bar and Budva, both meccas for package holidaymakers. The little I saw driving through was more than enough. Yes, they may have sandy beaches, but if you’re after something more than just sunbathing and want a flavour of Montenegro’s hidden gems, stay in the Bay of Kotor.
The best pub in Maastricht, Sjinkerij de Bobbel
The city of Maastricht, in the south of the Netherlands, is famous for it’s university. As you might expect with it being a student town, Maastricht is home to over 300 bars (Maastricht has the highest density of bars in the Netherlands), and Sjinkerij de Bobbel Maastricht is one of the best pubs in Maastricht.
I was invited by the Maastricht tourist board to stop into Sjinkerij de Bobbel Maastricht. Located on Wolfstraat in the main shopping area and close to the lovely Our Lady’s Square (Onze Lieve Vrouwplein), Sjinkerij de Bobbel Maastricht is kind of a cross between a bar and a pub where you can get food (eetcafe). De Bobbel, which means fat-bellied bottle of gin) is famous for serving bobbelke, a type of brandy-based clear liquor to which secret ingredients are added to make different flavours.
There are four varieties to choose from – herbal (a bit like Jaegermeister), bitter sweet (think Campari), fresh sweet and very sweet (peach and almond). These range from 25-32% alcohol so it’s potent stuff. I was surprised to find I preferred the fresh sweet flavour which has notes of vanilla, caramel and cinnamon. Although the bitter bobbelke actually tasted better, and was far more drinkable, mixed with bitter lemon. The affable owner also recommended pairing the sweeter ones with dark chocolate, which left a kind of marzipan after taste.
It’s not just the drinks that attract people to this traditional Maastricht pub. Winner of the best cafe in the Netherlands 2012, Sjinkerij de Bobbel Maastricht serves typical Maastricht dishes such as beef stew in a sweet sauce. The menu at Sjinkerij de Bobbel Maastricht changes twice a year and the owner told us where possible he likes to use local suppliers. Sadly we didn’t have time to eat here but Sharps did get to sample some Geulhemmer Kloostergrottenham, an award-winning regional speciality. Pigs that come from the heart of Limburg are used to make the ham. But what’s unusual about it is that the ham is salted dry for a month and a half, then cured in a cave for 9 months. Sharps said it had a rich, smokey flavour.
When we visited Sjinkerij de Bobbel Maastricht there were no students in sight. Possibly because with its laid-back atmosphere Sjinkerij de Bobbel Maastricht attracts a slightly older crowd (think over 40), so you don’t have to fight your way to the bar to get served. Plus, there’s no music at Sjinkerij de Bobbel Maastricht which again means you can sit and chat without having to shout to be heard. I particularly liked the cosy feel of the old world decor – dark wooden tables and chairs, rows of tankards running along the back wall, and green gdn bottles that were actually clocks.
I was surprised then to learn that Sjinkerij de Bobbel Maastricht has in fact only been around for about 30 years. Fortunately you don’t have to be a genius, or go to university, to realise if you’re after a taste of Maastricht, Sjinkerij de Bobbel Maastricht is the place to go.
My favourite new SE London hidden gem, The Montage Forest Hill
London’s rocketing property prices have been pushing people to explore previously overlooked parts of SE London and Forest Hill (SE23) is one such ‘up and coming’ area. In the last couple of years I’ve noticed trendy coffee shops and cafes popping up as amongst its established favourites (like St David’s Coffee Shop). My personal favourite of the latest crop is The Montage Forest Hill, SE23′s newest cafe and art gallery.
What I love about the Montage Forest Hill, apart from the coffee, is its relaxed vibe. It’s also deceptively big. On first impressions when you walk into the Montage Forest Hill it looks as if the cafe is on the small side. A mix of retro wooden and laminate tables placed in front of the serving area which has an array of homemade cakes on display. But it actually stretches out into the back, where you’ll find various rooms, covered in wallpaper made from maps and old cookery book recipe pages. Further out back there’s a lovely little garden, perfect for chilling out in the summer months.
Head down the stairs and you’ll discover even more little rooms in this cool cafe in Forest Hill. Here you can easily wile away an hour or two without even noticing on one of the comfy Chesterfield armchairs. The Montage Forest Hill also has its very own kids’ playroom, full of toys to keep children entertained, making it a popular stop with young local families.
Another other great thing about the Montage Forest Hill is that pretty much all of the furniture and bric-a-brac you see (or might be sitting on/ eating at) is for sale. We’ve been looking for a kitchen table for ages and ended up buying a retro wooden table from the Montage Forest Hill which was reasonably priced (and I managed to haggle them down). And handily as we live in Forest Hill the friendly owners also delivered it free of charge so we didn’t have the hassle of trying to lug it home.
The only part of the Montage Forest Hill I wasn’t too impressed with was the art gallery upstairs. This could have been down to the work of the particular artist exhibiting in the stark white studio space when I was there. So don’t let that put you off as local artists tend to change on a monthly basis. The Montage Forest Hill may be a mishmash of warren-like rooms but as a whole this cafe is a great new addition to the South East London coffee shop scene.