We drove to Utrecht from Rotterdam, a trip of less than 40 miles. We had one mission, really: to find the view pictured on a postcard mailed to Grandfather Jansen on Lamberton Street, Trenton in November, 1906.
The card has no message. Mailed from Utrecht, it shows one of the city’s canals, and is labeled “Utrecht — Achter Twinstraat.” I wondered why it had been saved for so long, since there was no message. Or perhaps the picture was the message?
Arriving in the Museum Quarter of Utrecht, we walked for a while through the town. Most of the streets of this neighborhood are narrow and closed to traffic. The University and an art school are here, and the area was alive with students.
Finding ourselves in the Domplein, we looked for shops where great-grandmother Jansen might have worked, but there were no hints of previous businesses.
We explored the Cathedral, built between 1321 and 1382 on the site of the founding of the city by the Romans in 48 AD. The Dom tower, the tallest church tower in the Netherlands, was planned to show the power of the Church in Utrecht. Until recently, no building in Utrecht was permitted to be taller. The Cathedral was dedicated to St. Martin of Tours, the patron saint of Holland. In 1580, it became a Protestant church, and much of the ornamentation inside and out was destroyed.
We found a busy cafe on the square and had lunch — dark beer, cheese, dark bread, salami, salad. As we paid, we showed our postcard to the waitress. Yes, she knew that church. It took her a minute to locate it. She gave us directions which involved walking forever along a canal until we found it. Wishing us luck, she added, “It’s not a church anymore. It’s an apartment building.”
Built in the 14th century, the canals of Utrecht are unique. No other city has pedestrian quays along the water. Some houses have cellars that open onto the quay; in other places, restaurants flourish by the quayside. It was raining the day we visited Utrecht, and it was October. Most of the quayside restaurants were closed.
We passed a small store selling antique postcards, and stopped in with our card to ask if we were going in the right direction. The owner was delighted to see our card and would have bought it, but instead we bought a card showing the Domplein in the early 1900s. Assured that we were headed in the right direction, we continued along the canal.
Finally we spotted the church-turned-apartment building, and took a few pictures. This church, too, had been dedicated to Martin of Tours, the patron saint of Holland, and of Utrecht.
We took Grandfather’s birth record to the Utrecht city archives. An archivist helped us find the Jansen family card. “Look,” he said, pointing to the address on the card, “they lived right near here.”
As it happened, Grandfather was born in a house around the corner from spot from which the postcard view was painted. Just to the right, then a quick left — on the second floor of 29 Twinstraat. We rushed back to the site, found the number — to find that our camera battery had just given up the ghost. A gelato store now occupies the first floor of the house. We consoled ourselves with a scoop of apricot and a scoop of banana, and the knowledge that we were inside the house in which Grandfather and his brother Albert were born.
I had a strong sense of deja vu in Utrecht. Those drawings Grandfather made when we were children came to life. I recognized this city as the place he drew, over and over, in pencil and colored pencil, to our delight.