The city of Utrecht is a beautiful city nestled in the heart of the Netherlands. Its rich history dates back to the Middle Ages, and still bears the marks of that age upon its face even today. Perhaps one of the things that makes the city so unique is its system of canals and wharfs, which date back hundreds of years, and are a huge part of the cities beauty and charm today.
History of the Canals
The canals were constructed hundreds of years ago by the merchants in the city, and played an important role in commerce throughout the years to follow. As shipping vessels would come into the city with their merchandise, they would dock at the wharves that were below the street level and unload their stock. The business owners and merchants soon discovered that they could make use of this second level, by building a series of docks and warehouses, called cellars, below the houses and businesses on the street level above. Every day, just below street level, the city was bustling with merchants, buyers, and laborers moving, shipping, and selling their wares. It was a situation unique to Utrecht in all of the Netherlands.
The Transition of Time
Over time, the importance of shipping diminished in the city, and many of the warehouses stood vacant. It is estimated that there were over 700 such cellars at one time. The great majority of these have undergone restoration in recent years.
Most of the wharves and cellars were privately owned until the end of the nineteenth century. Shortly before World War II most of the wharves, no longer used after land transportation became more popular, had fallen into a state of dangerous disrepair. However, in 1948 the city council instituted a law to take over the ownership of the properties for the purpose of restoration. Owners who did not willingly turn over the properties were forced into compulsory sales.
The Canals and Wharves Today
Today, the system of canals and wharves make up a large part of the tourism economy in Utrecht. The canals are no longer used for public sewer drainage and many of the cellars have been transformed in to shops and restaurants. There are boat rides offered along the canals and the cellar shops are a large draw both during the day and after dark.
Currently the city and property owners are working together to maintain the historic canals and wharf system. Most of the cellars are still privately owned. This requires constant supervision of both property owner and municipality, since poorly maintained structures could impact the streets above them, and poorly maintained streets could damage the cellars. It is to the credit of this amazing city that both citizen and government have worked so well together to make sure that this system is preserved for the enjoyment of the world for years to come.
The next time you are in the Netherlands, be sure to stop in at Utrecht and view this piece of history. Take a boat ride, or eat at one of the cellar restaurants. It is truly a jewel worth exploring.