It’s 22 April 2022, and I’m in Utrecht for two days, having a look at the UNESCO World Heritage sites here. I’m joined by a friend who has been locked inside Fortress Australia for two years now, so he says. Not that Oz isn’t good fun, but staying in one place is challenging for an ex-nomad. As soon as PM Morrison gave the go-ahead, Nick got himself a ticket to Europe, open return. He is so happy to be on the road again, he gladly follows along on my heritage quest here in Holland, even though he’s not really into history, culture, and all that general geekiness. The culinary aspect of travelling is more his cup of tea (or bottle of beer, I should say), and well, even I have to eat, so I put him in charge of food and drink.
Let’s get on with the significant spots of Utrecht, known (locally at least) as the heart of Holland. Significant from a preservation point of view, that is.
Holland is not a country, but a region in the western part of the Netherlands. Since the names Holland and the Netherlands are often confused, it bears mentioning.
But first: whether you’re a culture nerd or not, Utrecht is a treat. It is a lively university city, with a car-free, compact medieval city centre dominated by the Dom (Cathedral). Cosy and quirky cafes and restaurants abound, many of them along the pleasant tree lined Oudegracht and Nieuwgracht (the old and new canals.)
However, my (self-assigned) mission this time is the three UNESCO sites in Utrecht: The Roman Limes, the Dutch Water Defence Lines and the delightfully creative Rietveld Schröder House. Let’s begin with the oldest – and leap 2,000 years back in time.
The frontiers of the Roman Empire are known as Limes (I mention the etymology of the word in this post; it has the same roots as ‘limits’).
2,000 years ago, the Roman frontiers covered 7,500 km in Europe, North Africa and Western Asia. Along the frontiers were watch towers and military camp sites, smaller forts, larger fortresses and the occasional palace. There were ports, roads, walls, ditches, canals, wharfs and aqueducts. There were settlements and even full-on towns, in short, life on the fringes of the empire in the early parts of the first millennium CE.
Frontiers of the Roman Empire was inscribed on UNESCO’s list already in 1987, covering a stretch of 550 km in Germany, and the 118-km border known as Hadrian’s Wall, separating the northernmost Roman province Britannia, from those troublesome tribes to the north.
In 2021, two further stretches of the frontiers were inscribed: 600 km along the Danube – and 400 km along the Rhine, known as The Danube Limes (Western Segment) and The Lower German Limes, respectively. It’s that last one I’m here to see.
The Roman frontiers thus comprise three separate transnational sites, together covering 5 different countries: Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Slovakia, and the UK.
The Lower German Limes
The Lower German Limes covers the stretch from the Rhine Massif in Germany all the way to the North Sea in the Netherlands, marking the north-eastern borders of the Roman Empire. The site includes 102 different locations in the two countries.
Most of the forts, towers, settlements, etc. have been lost or destroyed through the centuries. And a large part of what does remain, is underground, under water, which is good for preservation. It also means it is not easy to see. But don’t give up hope just yet. Some parts have been excavated and protected. Other parts have been faithfully reconstructed, so you can get a sense of how it might have looked 2,000 years ago.
Of the 102 components, three of the best castella (Roman forts) are in/near Utrecht, each one telling their own story.
- Castellum Trajectum is located in the historic centre. This fort was the beginnings of what is now the city of Utrecht. Look down, and you will see where the Roman border wall was – and still is, beneath your feet. You can take a guided tour underneath the Dom (quaintly called DOMunder) to see the foundations of a Roman road, via praetoria, as well as various archaeological remains of the fort that was once here.
- Castellum Fectio, with a reconstructed watch tower. Here, you can also see Fort bij Vechten, which is part of one of Utrecht’s other World Heritage sites, the Dutch Water Defence Lines (more on that site in a bit.)
- Castellum Hoge Woerd, the only place in the Netherlands where you can experience a life-size Roman fort. Reconstructed, but still. (Hoge woerd means high mound.) That’s where I want to go.
Castellum Hoge Woerd
We take the bus out to the Leidsche Rijn district to see Hoge Woerd.
In the reconstructed fort, you’ll find an interesting archaeological museum containing various artefacts and, not least, De Meern 1, a well-preserved Roman river barge. There’s also an interactive exhibit, taking you on a journey even further back: 3,000 years from the Bronze Age to the present.
De Meern 1
There is a large restaurant on site, Castellum Cafe. Thank God, says Nick – and goes to check out the offerings.
Meanwhile, I sit down on the terrace, look around the grounds here inside the tall ramparts, and go off on a little mental journey. Want to come along?
Inside the Castellum
Let’s travel to 22 April 222. About one month ago, Emperor Elagabalus was murdered by Praetorian guards. He was only 18, but a wild one, they say. Despite his young age, he had already managed to snag himself 4 wives and several boyfriends. He also freelanced as a prostitute.
And as if such immoral behaviour wasn’t hard enough to swallow for the Roman establishment, he also decided to replace head honcho Jupiter with his own deity, the sun god Elagabal.
Author of what is probably the most famous book on Rome, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon (himself not exactly uncontroversial), writes that Elagabalus
abandoned himself to the grossest pleasures with ungoverned fury.
Was it true – or was he yet another pawn in the political machinery that was Rome? Who’s to say! What we do know is that his grandmother didn’t want him in charge – or indeed around – and ordered his assassination. Family, eh?
By now, surely word of the happenings in Rome must have reached even this little outpost. Those two girls at the table next to me, giggling, heads close together, are they gossiping about Elagabalus’ scandalous ways? Wondering about his successor Severus Alexander?
And what about those three men at the table on the other side of me here? They’re drinking beer and laughing loudly. Are they talking about the former emperor’s, eh… prowess?
Hard to say, they are all speaking Dutch, which sadly, I don’t understand much of. Not that I would have understood much Latin either. No matter. That means I have full freedom to dress them all in Roman garb and create their dialogue just as I want.
I amuse myself with this little game until Nick comes over with a limoncello spritz. Hm… what did the Romans drink? Wine, of course. And Calida, wine mixed with warm water. Even babies and children drank this. The more uncivilised ones – soldiers, legionnaires, and the like – drank beer. But the Romans didn’t have limoncello. Yet another advantage of living in 2022 instead of 222.
Dutch Water Defence Lines
We have now moved forward about 1,800 years. The next site is about controlling water, an absolute necessity in the Netherlands. But even more, it is about using water as defence to keep enemies out. In the 1800s, a water line was created around Holland’s heartland, by temporarily flooding the land. Neither too much nor too little. About a half-metre layer: too shallow for boats and too deep for people on horses, so the legend goes.
The defence line comprises an intricate network of forts, dykes, sluices, locks, canals, pumping stations, polders and inundation facilities – built using exceptional hydraulic engineering skills that the Netherlands is known for – and deployed between 1870 and 1940. By the time World War II rolled around, aircraft had taken over, and the waterline became obsolete. But it is still here, all 220 km of it, running from Muiden to Biesbosch National Park, just outside of Dordrecht.
I will have a look at the world heritage sites in the north of the country later. Most of them include dykes, locks, pumping stations and polders. This time then, I would like to see a fort.
Utrecht was important strategically and logistically, and in need of protection, so a ring of forts was built around the city. Which one should I see? There are quite a few to choose from. I notice that Fort Hoofddijk is located in the botanic gardens of Utrecht University. In fact, the gardens were constructed around the fort.
I like universities and I like botanic gardens. Also, it is just 20 minutes by bike from the city centre – and Nick has managed to procure some bikes. (Don’t ask me how).
Fort Hoofddijk was made grenade-proof with bricks and a thick layer of earth. Back in the day, all you could see was the facade. But not anymore. Today, you can walk on the stronghold through a rock garden. And for the last 60 years it has been inhabited by scientists studying geomagnetism. It is an ideal location for that..
Fort Hoofddijk, bulletproof military barracks in a pretty, pastoral setting.
While in the Botanic Gardens, have a look at the tropical greenhouses and the butterfly greenhouse. Or just wander about in the peaceful surroundings.
Rietveld Schröder House
Walking down Laan van Minsweerd, you’ll see one house much like the other: all brown brick terraced houses. Until you come to the last house before a viaduct.
Let’s get up a little closer:
And closer still:
The third world heritage site in Utrecht is the curious little house on the corner here, nothing at all like the rest of the neighbourhood.
The Rietveld Schröder House is my favourite of the three sites. It is a unique little place. This little house, you see, is considered the masterpiece of the modern art movement known as De Stijl. It’s all about radical, playful design and use of space. About primary colours, fresh ideas and functional details. I think you’ll like it.
We’ll go inside and have a look in a bit, but first, a little back story:
In 1924, a widow named Truus Schröder asked Dutch designer, Gerrit Rietveld, to create a house for her and her three children. This must surely have been a delightful challenge for him. Rietveld, a carpenter by trade, had never designed a house before, only furniture.
I can’t help but wonder why she trusted someone who had never built a house with such an important task. Maybe she really wanted to design it herself, but needed someone with more practical design experience. Maybe she was enthralled with his earlier creations, (she had worked with him in the past). Or maybe she was enthralled with him. Or all of the above.
Truus rejected Gerrit’s first design. She had very specific ideas about how she wanted her house to be, how she wanted her family to live. She wanted simplicity and freedom. She wanted a space that encouraged an active life. The two of them tossed ideas back and forth – and ended up designing and developing the house together. And being together. And eventually living together.
World War I put a stop to the opulent Art Nouveau style. And after the war, the new, emerging architecture was the opposite of opulent. Heralding in this new style was literally the style, De Stijl in Dutch. This movement is a forerunner of Bauhaus, with three-dimensional composition, clean lines; using only bright and bold primary colours (red, blue and yellow), combined with non-colours (black, grey and white).
Rietveld was a key member of De Stijl, and this little house is a prime example. It is hugely practical, with clever, space-saving solutions, making life easy and comfortable for the family living there.
According to UNESCO:
This small family house, with its interior, the flexible spatial arrangement, and the visual and formal qualities, was a manifesto of the ideals of the De Stijl group of artists and architects in the Netherlands in the 1920s, and has since been considered one of the icons of the Modern Movement in architecture.
Let’s go inside
Seen from the outside, the house looks rather plain and simple. It does not give away the interesting details inside.
For reasons of protection, you can only enter the Rietveld Schröder House on an (audio-) guided tour. There is a limited number of spots available for each tour, and you book tickets online (€19 as of April 2022). At the entrance, you are given shoe covers.
Photos are allowed inside the Rietveld-Schröderhuis, but a written permission is required, with the application submitted 2 weeks in advance. Well, two weeks ago, I had no idea this little house existed. Sometimes, being spontaneous can be a bit inconvenient. I’ll try to describe it to you instead.
The layout here at the ground floor comprises a kitchen, dining room, and living room, all in a single space – now set up as a small gift shop with books, postcards, and the like. Then there’s a hall, a study, a reading/working area, and a servant’s bedroom. All quite small.
There are elements of creative space usage down here, but it is all a bit underwhelming.
The first floor: the real treasure
Truus and the kids much preferred being upstairs. And that is where you will find all the delightful design details.
Gerrit set up a sound system so Truus could talk to people at the door without having to leave her beloved living room.
The surprises which characterise the Rietveld Schröder House actually begin downstairs, at the bottom of the stairway. You may wonder where it is. Stairs? I see no stairs! But then a yellow wall is slid to the side, and there they are: a staircase, painted in black, leading up to the treasure chest that is the first floor.
At the top of the stairs, we enter a large room with an open floor plan: large windows, a work table, chairs, built-in wardrobes and furniture – with beds in the corners. 3 balconies.
Then a guide appears – sliding a wall closed here, closes a hidden door there, opens the windows here, pulls on a rope there. And all of a sudden, we have four smaller rooms.
A spacious, bright living- and playing space by day, transformed into smaller bedrooms with privacy at night, by using practical partitions: movable panels, sliding doors and flexible walls. In 2022, this is not uncommon. (I am reminded of IKEA and its creative use of small spaces.) In 1924 though, this was revolutionary.
A lamp hanging from the ceiling, consisting of 3 light tubes about 30 cm each, strikes me as the perfect example of the three-dimensionality of De Stijl: One tube, horizontal, goes from front to back (depth), another, also horizontal, goes across left to right (width) and the third is vertical (height).
De Stijl – and Rietveld – were criticised for being Utopian and impractical. His most famous piece of furniture, for example, known as the Red and Blue Chair: is it a useable piece of furniture or is it a sculpture? It does not fit the human body, the critics said. And I can’t help but agree. Picture a long rectangular back panel (red) angled backwards, a shorter rectangular panel (blue) as the seat – both planks, really. Then there are two armrests and 13 square-profiled sticks (all black) with the short ends painted yellow. That’s it. All wood with straight, hard lines and sharp angles. Physical comfort wasn’t really a thing in Rietveld’s mind, I think.
The view that disappeared
My favourite element of the Rietveld Schröder House is how the design brings the outdoors in. I love how when you open the large corner windows, then slide them aside, there is no longer any obvious separation between inside and outside.
When the house was built, the views was an important part of the design. Back in 1924, the house was on the outskirts of Utrecht, surrounded by open landscape. When the city planners decided to extend the city in the 1930s, Truus was quick to buy the land. If she couldn’t save her view, she could at least have a say in what she would have to look at, so she asked Gerrit to design more houses. And he did. Here and elsewhere. Many.
The other houses are more similar to Bauhaus: white walls with huge windows. Much simpler and less playful than this little gem. I think the Rietveld-Schröderhuis must have been a labour of love.
In the 1960s, a motorway was built just outside the house and a viaduct was set up across the front lawn. The house might as well be torn down, Gerrit said, since what linked the interior and the exterior had been destroyed.
View from the balcony: Once this was unhindered views, open landcape left, right, and centre. Today, there’s a highway just metres from the property.
The overpass next to the house
Over the years, Rietveld made several adjustments to the building. After he died in 1965, Truus continued to live in the house until her death 20 years later. After that, the house was restored to its original state, and several Rietveld pieces added, including the famous Red and Blue Chair.
Back out in the garden, a small cafe has been set up, keeping to the simple style:
Lovely day for a slow tea outdoors
The Rietveld Schröder House: a highlight for anyone interested in architecture and smart solutions.
Frontiers of the Roman Empire – the Lower German Limes, Dutch Water Defence Lines and Rietveld Schröder House are all UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world.