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Ask not for whom the bells toll - just enjoy; TRAVEL KEN BENNETT takes in the sights and the sounds of Utrecht, a town as Dutch as a slice of Edam.

Byline: KEN BENNETT

At first glance, it is easy to believe Utrecht is a sleepy, historic city where time literally stands still...

Elegant gabled buildings muse over gentle canals filled with a rash of giant water lilies.

Ancient statues in tree-clled squares guard entrances to cobbled lanes brimming with a delight of eye-catching shops selling everything from artists' materials and kitchenware to a glorious drizzling of chocolate cakes.

But hark ... the sound of bells.

Not just ordinary bells, you understand, but bells that spill a joyous celebration over the city's red pan-tiled roofs every quarter hour of every day, 365 days a year.

Housed in the Dom Tower, the country's tallest landmark, they herald a bewildering selection of tunes, which, to an untrained ear, could have been orchestrated by Les Dawson, that languid master of fumbling music.

For example, a minute long carillon at the top of an hour, could incorporate a line from a tune sounding vaguely like a madcap Christmas melody or a maddening modern number whose name you can't remember.

Our walking tour leader, Ingeborg, smiles: "The bells may sound like a strange mixture but they are part of the city's charm... "

I agree. Because, in truth, after just a few hours in this beguiling city, you actually forget they are chiming.

Utrecht, some 20 miles south of Amsterdam, is as Dutch as a slice of the nation's most famous cheese Edam. But here, aorists sell clouds of sunaowers (not just daffodils) and only things missing are windmills.

Surprisingly though, the town is not high on tourists agenda because most never venture beyond Amsterdam. But it's their loss as Utrecht offers more than enough to fill a short break.

Away from the bells, dip into the appropriately - if long winded - named National Museum from Musical Clock to Street Organ.

Here, the smiling silk-gloved director, Dirkjan Haspels, guided us through a bewildering, colourful collection of historic and modern automatic instruments which filled a magical musical interlude.

Some date from the 15th century to modern day treasures, which, by cranking a handle or pressing a button cover off everything from Brahms to The Beatles.

Some sit quietly under subtle lighting, while others, huge and ornately carved, with their own glittering chandeliers, (see picture) hammer out foot-tapping (and dare I say dance) melodies for every occasion.

In fact, visitors can watch today's clever Dutch musical masters working to restore an impressive collection of musical instruments gifted to China.

Back on the cobbled lanes, we are alerted to watch for Utrecht's most famous celebrity - author an artist Dick Bruna.

This 81-year-old legend is creator of Miffy, the little rabbit whose gentle adventures at the zoo, school and seaside have entranced millions.

His books have been translated into 43 languages and sold 85 million copies - and nowhere is he more popular than in Japan.

Now the city has honoured its most famous son (and rabbit) by opening a museum - The Dick Bruna Huis - dedicated to his life and work.

A visit quickly dispels any idea Miffy is Bruna's only creation. In his younger days, he produced almost 2,000 striking book covers for his father's publishing company, many of which are on display.

He even had a hand in the famous logo for The Saint, adapting Leslie Charteris's idea and turning it into an indelible image.

And take time out for a soporfic glide down canals which have been the city's lifeblood since the early Middle Ages. Fed by the nearby Rhine, they enabled the city to prosper and you'll see a legacy of medieval statues and plaques denoting the items sold in each quarter of the city.

The most elegant buildings are to be found along the principal canal, the Oudegracht, built more than nine centuries ago.

Many now host shops or restaurants, yet even in the height of summer-when its 25,000 students are on holiday - life proceeds at a unrufaed unhurried pace.

Cooks and foodies should visit the Betsies Kookwinkel, at 6 Vismarkt, which has a tantalising collection of pots, pans and utensils, with local, hand-blown glassware (at the right price) in on sale nearby.

Eating out can be cheap - try the to-die-for handmade chips dipped in local mayonnaise - or salivating, herbed meat balls.

Or, like me, wallow in sublime Langan's Brasserie on board P&O's impressive ferries.

Now that really is guaranteed to ring anyone's bell.

Ken Bennett visited Utrecht as guest of P&O Ferries and Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions.

P&O Ferries sails from Hull to Rotterdam once a day. Motorist mini cruise fares for a car and two passengers on the Hull-Zeebrugge or Rotterdam routes start from pounds 66 per person, based on two sharing an en-suite standard cabin.

Passengers seeking a longer break can spend up to five days on the continent from just pounds 109 each way for a car and two people, with an en-suite standard cabin. All taxes are included. Book on: www.poferries.com, or call 08716 64 64 64.

For information on Utrecht, visit the Netherland Board of Tourism website: holland.com/uk or email: info-uk@holland.com or Utrecht's local tourism office: utrechtyourway.nl

Ken stayed at the NH Hotel Utrecht City Centre. Tel: +31 (0)30 2313 169, www.nhhotels.com

From musical clock to street organ Museum, tel: +31 (0)30 231 27 89: museumspeelklok.nl . This year's entrance fees: Adults EUR8,00, Children 4-12 EUR4,50. Opening Tuesday-Sunday and public holidays, 10-5pm.

Catharijne Convent Museum: catharijneconvent.nl

Aal Restaurant en Wijnlokaal: +31 (0)30 2334 826, aalrestaurant.nl

City tour guide - for groups of 20 - EUR67.50 for 90 minutes.

Schuttevaer Canal Tours: +31 (0)30 272 01 11, Tel - ticket office: +31 (0)30 231 93 77or email: : info@schuttevaer.com

Old Canal Tour: one hour between 11a.m-5 p.m: Adult EUR7.60, Children, 4-12 years, EUR5.90. New Canal Tour (90 mins): Adult EUR10,50, Children 4-12 years, EUR7,75.

Dom Tower: Tel: +31 (0)30 236 00 10 or: domtoren.nl Adults: EUR 7.50, children, 4-12 years, EUR 4.50. Students-over 65's: EUR 6.50.

Centraal Museum E-mail: info@centraalmuseum.nl or: centraalmuseum.nl

Entrance fees include Centraal Museum, Dick Bruna Huis: Adults: EUR8, children, 13-17 years, EUR6, under 12's, EUR2.

Information on the Dick Bruna Huis: www.dickbrunahuis.com

Tip - travel midweek if you are a shopper - city stores only open on Sunday once a month.

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Sunflowers - not dafs - shine the brightest; The Dom Tower, Utrecht
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 23, 2008
Words:1080
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