Scotland is an outward-looking nation – and The National is an outward-looking newspaper. In that spirit, we bring you The National In Europe, an occasional new travel series in which we explore the music scenes of European cities that we think are worthy of your attention. First up, we’re in Utrecht...

A stunningly beautiful and cosy little city of canals, bicycles and churches half an hour away from Amsterdam, Utrecht has much to recommend it as a destination already. Lately, though, it has somewhat improbably been carving out a name as a music hub as well. "We live in the shadow of Amsterdam and we always will," as one of its residents said to me recently, "but we like it that way, and I think the feeling that we have to fight a bit against our big brother has actually been great for the spirit of the place recently."

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A walk around Utrecht is a very Dutch feast for the eyes, with a new piece of beautiful medieval, Renaissance or 19th-century architecture seemingly around every canalside corner. The city's most striking new building, though, is TivoliVredenburg, a huge glass tower housing a complex of concert halls. Utrecht has always been and still is known as the Netherlands' hub for "old" music — the internationally renowned classical event Festival Oude Musiek still packs them in every year and makes full use of TivoliVredenburg's state-of-the-art facilities. But in the same halls, as well as in a host of other venues across the city, Utrecht's heart is also beating as a hub of modern, experimental music.

Though interesting things are happening in the city on a year-round basis these days, the most pressing musical reason to visit Utrecht is undoubtedly Le Guess Who?, a four-day, multi-venue festival in mid-November of startling quality and diversity. The 2016 edition was LGW's tenth, and in that time it has grown from 10 bands playing in one room on a single evening into a 15-venue, four-day feast of music with shows in venues as diverse as TivoliVredenburg's huge central concert hall Grote Zaal, the thousand-year-old Janskerk church, and the pleasingly compact and grimy De Helling club space a little out of town.

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Mario Batkovic plays at Janskerk at Le Guess Who? 2016 (Photograph: Tim van Veen)

Le Guess Who? is a study in the benefits of programming a festival according to its programmers' tastes (and those of its guest curators — in 2016 Savages, Wilco, Julia Holter and Suuns each programmed a segment of the bill), rather than commercial or genre concerns. Highlights in November took in everything from experimental rock (Swans), abstract noise (Pita) and footwork (Jlin), to electro-pop (Jessy Lanza), accordion-based drone music (Mario Batkovic) and 90s-influenced dream pop in Annelotte de Graaf, aka Amber Arcades.

De Graaf, who alongside Thijs Kuijken's I Am Oak project is the most critically celebrated of Utrecht's own musical exports right now, has an otherwise ambivalent relationship with her hometown. Even she is unequivocal about the wonder of Le Guess Who?, however: "It's my number one festival anywhere," she says. "The lineup is always just incredible, so broad and diverse and in November I finally played the full festival myself, which was amazing."

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Annelotte de Graaf, aka Amber Arcades

Barry Spooren, one of the festival's main organisers, is understandably happy with how things are going. "I think LGW is the exact right size now," he tells me. "We don't aspire to make it any bigger, so I think that will make it easy to keep to the idea of programming it in exactly the way we want. LGW couldn't exist in Amsterdam in the same way as it does here because the fact that almost all of the 15 venues are within walking distance of each other creates a special atmosphere that couldn't be replicated in a large city."

By definition in a place as compact as Utrecht (its population is around 340,000), there isn't an endless supply of notable venues and bars, but the ones there are mix cosiness and coolness with rare skill. This is particularly obvious during Le Mini Who, an offshoot festival of LGW that plays out on the Saturday of LGW in the bars of the Oosterkade/Westerkade area of the city. At the 2016 edition I caught Glasgow electro-disco pair Happy Meals, Amsterdam voodoo/psychedelia duo Stopcontact, a spine-tingling performance of traditional Arabic music from the Syrian/Iraqi Ornina Ensemble, and Belgian riot grrrl sorts Cocaine Piss, all in space of a couple of hours and all in various wonderful little bars on the same street.

"Le Mini Who is a really valuable part of what we do," Spooren says. "It's run separately but people always seem to love playing at it and being at it." That's certainly how Lewis Cook of Happy Meals saw it: "Although we couldn't stay in Utrecht for too long, we had a great time playing at Le Mini Who," he told me. "We played in the middle of the afternoon but the room was full of people of all ages (a pair of two year olds were among the most appreciative audience members) going full throttle. Things like that are special."

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A show in a clothes shop during last year's Le Mini Who (Photograph: Juri Hiensch)

Utrecht also hosts the world's largest record fair during the weekend of Le Guess Who?, an event of completely overwhelming hugeness that I lingered only briefly at before retreating to a canalside bar for a Kwak beer and a sit down. Another unexpectedly massive element of Utrecht's music scene is Kytopia, a rabbit-warren complex of 24 recording and rehearsal spaces that, alongside LGW, has fostered a good deal of Utrecht's new-found status as a music city.

"We love Utrecht because it's a blank canvas, and I mean that in both a very positive and very negative way," laughs Erik Benders, who along with his son Colin runs Kytopia. "This is the centre of the Netherlands, the crossroads through which everything passes, and until recently that meant that because it had access to everything it had nothing of its own. But in its own way that's meant it has been a great place for us to develop what we do."

Kytopia began life in an abandoned factory space in 2010 but has now moved to the premises that the Tivoli concert hall used to inhabit before the construction of TivoliVredenburg. The artists who work there are all long-term residents, and Erik and Colin select the people they want to give spaces there to on a basis of "creative affection," as Colin puts it. "We prioritise that over whether the person can actually pay the rent," he continues. "Because we want to make sure the people are really making the most of the space. A person who is kind of inactive and not releasing stuff but has an insane collection of synths could be the missing link for five other people there who are super-productive but don't have the means to get there with their recordings, and we try to recognise when that might be the case and make allowances."

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A modular synth at Kytopia

80 people now work at Kytopia on a day-to-day basis, and its residents include classically trained pianists, electro and drum'n'bass producers and lo-fi guitar bands, as well as graphic designers and video artists, working in studios that range in size from three square metres to entire concert halls. "The core idea of Kytopia is that we have a lot of musicians in a small space together, and that enhances the chances that people will end up making things together in some way," Erik says. "The people we have here are under no obligation to collaborate, but in this environment there's a better chance of people getting involved in each others projects, whether it's by playing in them, sharing equipment, sharing opinions, or whatever. We aren't a programming venue and our contract says we're not allowed to have public concerts, so we have concerts and then tell people afterwards that we had the concert," Erik laughs. "It's done on a word-of-mouth basis, and it seems to work well."

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Julia Holter playing in TivoliVredenburg's Grote Zaal hall during Le Guess Who? 2016 (Photograph: Jan Rijk)

"We're actually beginning to compete a little with Amsterdam," Spooren says, returning to the big-brother/little-brother relationship between the two cities. "Of course Amsterdam will always be bigger but I'm beginning to see acts that would previously have played only in Amsterdam also come to Utrecht. They mainly play in TivoliVredenburg of course, and when it was built there was quite a lot of criticism — people asking why a city as small as Utrecht needed such a huge place. But I think Tivoli has actually really benefitted the local scene, because while it gets most of the big international acts, the city's smaller venues like De Helling, Ekko and the rest are stepping up as places where the city's own smaller acts (many of whom have strong links with Kytopia) are able to play on a regular basis and become better at what they do."

"Utrecht could probably be described as the city of endless 'potential'," Colin Benders concludes. "But it's gradually starting to follow through on it now. One of most amazing things about Utrecht these days is how many musicians and artists have moved here in the past few years. As in many other cities there are official forces at work that are closing down clubs and venues and tightening licensing laws, but on the other hand a vibrant force of creative people are clustering together and creating stuff regardless. There's an ongoing and ever-changing mix of creative partnerships forming, and under the surface those people are beginning to shape the city. That's really exciting, whether the city as a whole realises that it's happening or not."

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How to get there:

KLM and EasyJet operate daily flights to Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport from all major Scottish airports. Utrecht Centraal station is a half-hour train journey from Schiphol.

What's on next?

This year's Le Guess Who runs from November 9 to 12, 2017. TivoliVredenburg, Ekko, De Helling and the city's other venues have events all year round, check individual websites for details.