At the Loosdrechtse Plassen (Loosdrecht Lakes), 8km (5 miles) north of Utrecht, old peat diggings brim with water and the land has been reduced to straggly ribbons between a checkerboard of lakes. These have become popular recreational sailing and watersports zones, based on the busy harbor at Oud-Loosdrecht. A handsome old village off the western end of the lakes is Loenen aan de Vecht, on the bank of the Vecht River.
18km (11 miles) SW of Utrecht
Back in the 1500s, this charming little village was the scene of some of Europe's most bizarre witch trials. Accused women were weighed on scales in the Heksenwaag (Witches' Weigh House), Leeuweringerstraat 2 (tel. 0348/563-400; www.heksenwaag.nl), to determine whether or not they were witches who, it was believed, lacked souls and so weighed little enough to fly through the air supported on a broomstick. So many women were weighed and convicted of witchcraft that the town's reputation for having accurate scales was in jeopardy. To remedy this, the town fathers devised a system of judging accused witches by having them stand on scales clad only in a paper costume and carrying a paper broom. Present were the mayor, the alderman, the weighmaster, and the local midwife. When the weighmaster had finished juggling his weights and balancing the scales, he could then proclaim with confidence that the accused could not possibly be a witch, and a certificate was issued to that effect. Europe's accused witches flocked here in droves. Nowadays, you can step on the Heksenwaag scales (kids love to do this) and -- provided you're not too skinny -- walk away with your very own certificate. The Weigh House is open April to October Tuesday to Sunday from 11am to 5pm.
As you walk through the quaint village streets, take a look at the storks' nests on the Stadhuis (Town Hall) roof. The big birds, traditionally associated with the arrival of a new child, have been nesting here for over 3 centuries.
9km (6 miles) E of Utrecht
Set in a green landscape, this village gem was once a fashionable country retreat for Utrecht's wealthy nobility. There are frequent buses from Utrecht. By car, take N225 east then south, or A28/E34 northeast, from Utrecht. The tourist information office, VVV Zeist, Het Rond 1, Zeist (tel. 030/697-4007; www.vvvzeist.nl), has details on walking and biking tours through the parks and forests surrounding Zeist.
42km (26 miles) SE of Amsterdam; 20km (12 miles) NE of Utrecht
Industrial development in the outer districts aside, this lovely medieval town (pop. 140,000) on the Eem River has held onto its ancient character. Indeed, its medieval heart is guarded by a double ring of canals -- the only city in Europe to have this feature. De Stijl artist Piet Mondrian was born here in 1872.
Getting There -- Up to four trains arrive every hour from Amsterdam Centraal Station, and as many as six an hour from Utrecht. Buses arrive every half-hour on average from Utrecht. By car, take A1/E231 southeast from Amsterdam or A28/E34 northeast from Utrecht.
Visitor Information -- VVV Amersfoort is at Stationsplein 9-11, 3818 LE Amersfoort (tel. 0900/112-2364; www.vvvamersfoort.nl). The office is open May to September Monday to Friday from 9am to 5:30pm and Saturday from 10am to 4pm, and October to April Monday to Friday from 9am to 5:30pm and Saturday from 10am to 2pm.
What to See & Do -- Entering the town, you pass the oldest standing gateway, the Kamperbinnenpoort, constructed on the inner canal around 1260. The two other surviving gates are the Koppelpoort, a land-and-water gate from around 1400; and the Monnikendam, a water gate from 1430, both on the outer canal. Look for examples of 15th-century muurhuizen (wall houses) constructed into the ramparts and fortifications. If you visit Amersfoort on a summer Saturday, you may be lucky enough to encounter the colorful trumpeters who show up from time to time in the center city.
An impressive landmark is the tall, 15th-century Onze-Lieve-Vrouwetoren (Our Lady's Tower), in the west of the old town, which stands 100m (328 ft.) high and is the third-tallest tower in the land; if you're here on a Friday, listen for its carillon concert between 10 and 11am. Other ancient religious buildings include the Sint-Joriskerk, started in 1243 and completed around 1534, and the beautifully restored 16th-century Mariënhof Monastery.
For an illuminating look at Amersfoort's history, make a brief sojourn among the large collection of objects, models, and displays at the Museum Flehite, Westsingel 50 (tel. 033/461-9987; www.museumflehite.nl). The museum is open May to June and September Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5pm; and July to August Tuesday to Friday from 11am to 1pm and 2 to 4:30pm, and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5pm (closed holidays). Admission is 5€ ($8) for adults (2.50€/$4 May-June and Sept), and free for children 18 and under.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.