You might pass or cross the Oude Gracht every day and you may love it for its little terraces and restaurants, but you might not know that much about the Oude Gracht. Like the Dom Tower, it is just part of the image of Utrecht: the Oude Gracht is supposed to be there, it was always there and you can’t think of it in any different way.
But the Oude Gracht is there for a reason, and not only because it looks great on pictures. For a long time, the Oude Gracht was the most important route in and out of the city for trade. The Oude Gracht was dug by hand to connect the river the Rijn to the river the Vecht. The Rijn no longer passes by Utrecht, but in the old days, it did. By connecting these rivers the water traffic and thus trade could go from one river to the other. Utrecht was not such a big trade city as Amsterdam was and this meant that around the Oude Gracht many crafts developed. The water of the Oude Gracht was very useful for brewing beer, working with leather or to put out a fire. But the waterway was mostly used for trade and transportation.
Let’s go back to the beginning. The Oude Gracht was dug out by hand. This must have been a terrible job to do, working in the mud all day to dig out a canal of 2 kilometres long right through the city centre. All the sand that they got out of the canal, they threw on the sides so there would be less chance of a flood (yes, this is why you have those steep stairs down to the water and why the street is higher along the canal). Because it became a lot of work to continuously carry goods from the Oude Gracht over the hill to the houses, people dug out wharf cellars to store the goods. This is why the cellars of the houses along the Oude Gracht still have an exit to the canal: it was easier for trade as this is where the goods came in and went out.
So maybe you are thinking that you could have guessed that the Oude Gracht was made for the transportation of goods inside the city and for trade, but the importance of the Oude Gracht for Utrecht was enormous. Utrecht would probably have become a fairly poor city if it wasn’t for the huge project of digging out a canal from one river to the other. Not only did this make transportation easier, but when the old river the Rijn became no longer navigable for ships and its stream changed it was also the reason why Utrecht was still possible to trade with the rest of the Netherlands and grow into the central and important city it now is.
There is much more to tell about the Oude Gracht, so many stories around this canal. But I will not bore you with that. Let me close off with a fun fact of the Oude Gracht, or at least a part of the Oude Gracht: do you know that square in front of the city hall? Yes, well, that is actually not a square. That are two bridges that they made into one big square because some important people in Utrecht wanted a square in front of their city hall. You can still see this when you are on the Oude Gracht. When you are halfway under this longer bridge with a curve in it (this is already weird for a bridge) you can see that the walls of the bridge have a bump, like they were building toward each other and they and the calculations were wrong or one of the people started 10cm too far to the right. And another fun story is about the stone that is chained to a house at the Oudegracht 364. They said that the spirits of the ones who found their grave in the Oudegracht came out at night and would roll the stone over the street next to the canal. To stop this from happening the citizens of Utrecht chained the stone to the house so the ghosts could not move it anymore. But now the stone would weep for being chained and if at a certain time on a certain day you would put a needle into the stone, it would bleed. A little creepy huh?