King’s Day in the Netherlands is one of the many festivals I’d wanted to attend while living in Europe, and this year I added it to the “done” list.

When we moved here, the yearly celebration was actually called Queen’s Day. 

Since 1885, the country has celebrated the birthday first of Princess Wilhelmina (later Queen Wilhelmina), then Queen Juliana and then Queen Beatrix. So, the celebration started first as Princess’s Day and was later changed to Queen’s Day. Beatrix abdicated last year on Queen’s Day in favor of her son, Willem-Alexander, so this year marks the first King’s Day since the start of the celebrations in 1885.

The biggest celebration of King’s Day takes place in Amsterdam.  Although I love that city, we wanted to visit someplace different and also experience more of a low-key celebration.  We decided on Utrecht.
Utrecht is a beautiful city with lots of shops and restaurants along the lovely canals.

We stayed at the Karel V hotel, mainly because they had parking, which is very difficult to find in cities in the Netherlands.  Parking costs extra, but it’s worth it.  Some of their rooms have 2 floors and Sean booked one of those for us.  The hotel was just a few minutes’ walk from the main canal.

As we do most of the time when arriving in a new city, we stopped by the Tourist Information (TI) office and picked up a self-guided walking tour map.  Most TIs have free maps, but this one charged 3 Euro per map.  They had a few different maps, and we chose the Utrecht Almshouses and Chambers tour based on the TI’s recommendation.

We arrived in Utrecht early Friday afternoon and celebrations were already underway for King’s Night, which, not surprisingly, takes place the evening before King’s Day.

In preparation for the partying, they had these urinals for men all around the area.  They can each accommodate 3 men at once, and they cleverly have a hose going directly into the sewer.  Women were not so lucky as there were far fewer portable toilets around.
The first place we visited was the Dom Church, formally known as St. Martin’s Cathedral.  Construction on the cathedral was begun in 1254. The tower, which you can see in the background of the canal photo above, was built about 100 years later. 

The Dom used to be the largest church in the Netherlands, but a tornado in 1674 destroyed the poorly-constructed nave and it was never rebuilt.  The tower, which is still the tallest church tower in the Netherlands, remained standing but is not connected to the rest of the remaining parts of the church. 

The church is filled with beautiful statues, altar pieces, sarcophagi and religious icons, but unfortunately many of them were damaged in 1580 during the Protestant Reformation.

That item was described as a reredos, which is a decoration behind an altar.  You can see that all the faces were broken off, including that of the Virgin Mary in the middle.  Mary is also no longer holding the infant Jesus. 

The stained glass in the church is from the early part of the 20th century.

There was a wedding going on while we were there, so part of the church was blocked off.  You can see here that they are ready to serve wine, coffee and cupcakes after the ceremony.

I thought that was kind of cool as I’ve never seen alcohol served right in the church after a wedding ceremony.

As mentioned earlier, the walking tour we did covered almshouses and chambers, which were free residences for the poor and the sick.  They are now all private residences and fall under the Department for the Preservation of Monuments and Historic Buildings. 

Here’s an example of a row of houses that were built for the “needy and impecunious”.

These particular residences were built by a wealthy private citizen, but others belonged to the church.

During our walk we saw this colorful bench.

The bench, created in 2011, had a sign above it explaining that there was a big ceramics industry in Utrecht until World War II. The ceramic shards that you see embedded in the bench were all found after the canals were dredged. 

The wall decoration in the next photo was described as referring to the strong “Orange sentiments” in the neighborhood.  The Dutch royal house is officially called the Orange-Nassau, so people with strong Orange sentiments are supporters of the royal house.

It’s just a happy accident that the name of the street is so amusing to English-speakers (straat is the Dutch word for street).

We had very nice weather for the end of April so lots of people were cruising the canals on little boats.

Maybe it’s just me, but this sounds like a relatively easy job.

If someone wants to pay me for watching crowds, I’m in. 

By the way, you’ll notice that his job title is written in English.  We have yet to run across a Dutch person who doesn’t speak English.  And they’re so different about it from Germans.  When you ask a German if they speak English, they generally say “A little” and then you find out they’re pretty much fluent. When you ask the Dutch if they speak English, they look at you like you’re crazy and say “Of course!” They say it like “Why would you even think I wouldn’t speak English?”  And their English is generally perfect with barely a trace of an accent.  If you fly into Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, you will see that all of their signs are in English.  Most films are shown in their original language in the Netherlands.  It is a very, very easy country to feel comfortable in for English-speakers. 

It’s also pretty easy for German-speakers because a lot of Dutch words are so similar to German words.  Knowing some German really helps us out on the rare occasion we run into information given only in Dutch.  For example, the Dutch word for women is vrouwen, whereas the German word is Frauen.  The two words sound very similar.  The Dutch word for delicious is lekker, whereas the German word is lecker.  Almost the same.  I just mentioned above that the Dutch word for street is straat, and in German it’s strasse. 

I took this next photo only because I’d found out an interesting fact just before our trip to Utrecht.

The sign is for bicycle paths, and the bottom path leads to the town of De Bilt.  I had recently finished reading a book called Mrs. Poe, and in that book the main character mentions that the Vanderbilt family is from the Dutch town of De Bilt.  Vanderbilt basically means “from De Bilt”. 

The Vanderbilts were one of the richest families in America in the late 19th century, thanks to a fortune made in the railroad and shipping industries.  You may be familiar with the designer Gloria Vanderbilt, whose great-great-grandfather Cornelius built the fortune.  If not, you’re probably familiar with Gloria’s son, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper.

Friday evening we just strolled around a bit and watched the crowds enjoying King’s Night.

The Libation of the Day for Friday is this Brand beer I had with lunch.

The Brand Brewery was founded by the Brand family in 1871.  I have to say I really like Dutch beer.  I like it more than I like Belgian beer, which is probably sacrilegious to say.

The next morning we went out and continued our walking tour of almshouses and chambers. 

That row of houses was originally built in 1652 in a different location and they were moved in 1756.  They were managed by the Dutch Reformed, Roman Catholic and Old Catholic churches.

Many of the almshouses and chambers were built around gardens such as this one.

Most of them are gated, and if the gate is unlocked you can just walk right in.  We didn’t want to linger in any of them, though, because people are living there and you see them gardening or sitting and reading or having their lunch and just generally going about their business.  It just felt odd to be walking around the yards of these private residences, but they must be used to it if the TI office is selling walking tour maps of their homes.  The statue you see in this garden is a sculpture of Cornelius Charles Stephan Crone, an author from Utrecht. 

One of the big things about King’s Day is that people are allowed to sell their old stuff on the street without a permit.  This entire park was filled with people selling children’s items.  It was also filled with kiddie rides and music and dancing and food and drinks.

You can see that a lot of people in the photo are wearing orange.  You might remember from earlier that the royal house is officially called Orange-Nassau, so people wear orange to celebrate King’s Day. 

The streets and the bridges across the canals were also full of people selling children’s items.  We couldn’t resist buying this from one of those vendors.

First of all, the name is just downright funny.  Second of all, we like cats and how can you resist a Dutch picture book about the adventures of a cat named Dikkie Dik, especially for 20 cents Euro?  The answer is you can’t.

The canals were also filled with boatloads of people dressed in orange.

Those people even had orange decorations on their boat.

Earlier that morning, I was reading the Wikitravel entry about Utrecht and discovered that there is part of a poem embedded into the sidewalk near the main canal.

Every Saturday at 1:00 pm, another letter is added to the poem.

We were done with our walking tour by about 12:30, so we headed over to watch the letter being installed.

There turned out to be a delay until 2:20, so we went to a nearby pub to take some refreshment in the meantime.

At 2:20 on the dot, the stonemason showed up.

There he is taking a stone out of the sidewalk where the next letter will go.

The whole thing is such an interesting concept.  When you see the beginning of the poem in the sidewalk, you will see that it shows it was started in the year 2000.  However, the first 648 characters (that includes letters and punctuation) were actually placed in the year 2012 and were back-dated to 2000.  Since June 2nd, 2012 a new letter has been added each Saturday.

The poem is called a never-ending poem because it’s a work in progress.  Different poets are chosen every few years to contribute to the poem’s progress.  There have been six contributing poets so far.  The first five each contributed somewhere between 117 and 157 letters of the poem, give or take a letter or two. 

The poem’s future on the sidewalk is mapped out until the year 2300.

The stonemason used a stencil to trace out the day’s letter with a special tool.

The font for the letters and punctuation marks was designed by an artist especially for this poem.

The next step was to chisel the letter into the stone.  The chiseling is very deep in the hope that the letters will last for a long time even with the wear and tear of people constantly walking on them.  While I was watching the stonemason chiseling, all I could think was he’s got to have carpal tunnel syndrome something fierce.  He had a death grip on that chisel.

The chiseling process alone took about an hour, so we alternated watching the stonemason with watching the festivities on the canal.

No, that’s not supposed to be Spiderman in front of the boat.  He is actually dressed as the flag of the Netherlands, which is horizontal stripes of red, white and blue in that order.

After the letter is chiseled, the stonemason switches to an air engraver tool to put a number on the stone.  This indicates how many characters there are in the poem so far.  The letter that day was number 748.  (The current poet started with the 683rd letter.)

Here you see a woman writing her name on the side of the stone.  The name will not be visible when the stone is placed back in the sidewalk, but she’ll know it’s there.  The stonemason uses the air tool to engrave the name into the stone.
One of the best parts of this whole thing is that each stone is purchased by someone.  The woman signing her name on the stone had purchased that day’s stone.  She and her friend, shown with her above, were the only other people watching the whole process aside from me and Sean and 2 guys from the volunteer organization overseeing the poem.  People constantly stopped by to watch for a few minutes, but we were the only ones there from beginning to end.

Because the poem is a work in progress, you don’t know which letter you’re going to get when you buy it.  I suppose if you speak Dutch you might be able to guess what the next few letters will be and then you can hope those stones are available if you want to purchase a particular letter.  Otherwise, it’s a surprise.  They told us that they do let people know if they’re only getting a punctuation mark though.  Some people are okay with that but others want to wait for the next letter.  Spaces between words and sentences are not purchased by anyone. 

Even years later, it would be easy for you to find the letter you purchased because of the number engraved on the stone.  One of the guys told us that some people buy a stone for a child when it’s born or they buy one when someone dies to commemorate the person.  Others buy them to mark birthdays, anniversaries or other special occasions.  Still others, like the woman who bought this day’s letter, buy them just because.

The letters cost 100 Euro each so it’s a relatively cheap and legal way to become part of the history of Utrecht.

And here’s the completed stone in the sidewalk!

The underscore mark in front of the number indicates that it’s the start of a word.

I thought it was a pretty neat way to spend a couple of hours, and Sean and I even talked about buying a stone at some point in the future.  If you want to buy one or just find out more about the whole thing, you can check out this website.

It’s in English and you can also find the poem there with an English translation under the Dutch words. 

Also, if you scroll down the page and see where it says Archives, you can find out more about who purchased each letter.  Some people remain anonymous, but most volunteer to put at least some information on the site.  So, if you click on April 2014 and then look at letter _748, you’ll see the name of Astrid v Breenen, the woman who purchased the stone we got to see.  (The name she wrote on her stone was Astrid van Breenen).

After that it was time for a beer.

Nothing like drinking on the street in broad daylight, I always say. 

Actually I don’t always say that.  My preference is to drink inside where there are seats and relatively clean bathrooms with toilets that flush.  But, you know, when in Utrecht….

Notice all the bicycles in that photo?  Everyone in the Netherlands rides bicycles everywhere, which you may remember me mentioning in my post on Rotterdam.  You are seriously more likely to be hit by a bicycle than a car.

We then went and had a bite to eat (okay, we went to a French fry stand – they have GOOD French fries in the Netherlands!) and then went back to the hotel for a bit.  It was still early so we figured we’d chill for a while and then go back out to watch more of the King’s Day celebration.

It was still light at 8:30 pm when we went back out, and imagine our surprise when we saw this.

The squares were empty and there was nothing but trash left.  All the music stages were being dismantled and the food and drink stands were gone.  We didn’t know any better, but apparently when they say King’s Day they really mean King’s DAY.  By nighttime, everything is over.  I guess King’s Night the previous night was for evening celebrations and they can’t do that two nights in a row.  Now we know and so do you if you ever plan to go to the Netherlands for King’s Day.  It was ok, though, because we’d seen enough of the celebration during the day.
We found a table outside a bar and sat and had a couple of drinks until they closed.  They closed early – about 10:00 pm – because as they told us, it had been a very long day. 

The Libation of the Day for Saturday is the beer we had at that bar.

Have I mentioned how much I like Dutch beer?  The Grolsch brewery was founded in 1615 and is now owned by the SABMiller group, the same group who owns the Miller Brewing Company as well as Fosters, which as we all know is Australian for beer.

Once that bar closed we moved to a bar across the street from our hotel.  It was away from where all the celebrations had been so it was still open.  I had a very interesting conversation with a Dutch man wearing a woman’s decorative headband.  I also got a chuckle out of this cat, who walked into the bar and jumped up on a table as if it owned the place, as cats are wont to do.
We had a couple of drinks there (which were much cheaper than they had been in the center of town) and then retired for the night.

The next morning it was pouring rain when we started our drive back home.  We made a small detour to see the little whitish-colored house shown here. 

It’s called the Rietveld Schröder House and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The name comes from the woman who commissioned it (Truus Schröder-Schräder) and the architect who built it in 1925 (Gerrit Thomas Rietveld). You can tour the inside of it, although we didn’t tour it because we wanted to get home.  I  understand the design inside is pretty amazing, but frankly I did not find the outside attractive, especially because of how it clashed with the surrounding homes, which were all brick as you can make out in the photo. 

One last thing.  While walking around enjoying the almshouses and gardens and celebrations, Sean focused on this.

He stopped when he saw it and said “That’s a really nice-looking forklift!”  I of course said “Wow, yes, it is!”  (That was sarcasm.  You’d think he’d know by now that I don’t get excited by things like forklifts.  Bless him.)

I had a great time in Utrecht as I always do when visiting the Netherlands, one of my favorite European countries.

If you’ve been to the Queen’s Day or King’s Day celebrations, tell us about it here or on our Facebook page! 

About the author: Trish