On the river Maas, cradled by Belgium and Germany, lies Maastricht, a nearly forgotten town of Holland. I first heard about it more than a year ago, from a friend who had been there for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration meeting. From his descriptions, Maastricht took a form in my imagination, and I was certain that I would love it, if someday I was to visit it. And then, when the German Unity day fell on a Thursday, I decided that I needed a trip out of town in the weekend, and out of several plausible destinations, I chose to go and find out what I thought about Maastricht.
And boy, what was in store for me!
A Flixbus trip of eight hours, with a break in Dusseldorf, took us to Maastricht. It was a rainy afternoon. But grey skies failed in dampening my spirits when I hopped off the bus onto the banks of the Meuse, wide eyed and dazed by the charming town that surrounded me. In fact, the greyish hue actually added to the idyllic effect. A happy grin bloomed on my face naturally, just as I realised that I had made a wonderful choice for a weekend destination and that I have two days to soak in everything Maastricht has to offer.
A walk across the bridge, and through the town would take me to the railway station. Throughout, I tried to see, hear and smell everything around me, for the town had some very pretty first sights to offer. Of course, the alleys were cobble stoned. Do I even need to specify that? But there were these street lamps that looked as if they were sitting on a bushy plant with red and pink flowers, everywhere.
Splashed here and there were some autumn colours, slightly confused in the showers which were perhaps untimely. But the rain had left the paths glistening and the gardens all fresh and sprightly. It was a pedestrian’s heaven, buildings of European architecture, cute bakeries, coffee shops and florists adorned a pathway, which was not the least crowded. I walked amidst them all, wondering aloud how glad I was that not many tourists thronged the place!
Half a day
I had less than half a day before the sunset. The first thing to see was the Basilica of St.Servatius which sat in the town’s central square called Vrijthof. On the way there, I saw the colourful sculptures of carnival music, called ‘t Zaat Herremenieke and a fountain called Hawt uuch vas, both public art which enhances the liveliness of the square. A friend had enlightened me about the carnival, which is an attraction of the months of February-March.
The Basilica has a characteristic bulge in its exterior and extends over a considerable area in all. Inside, it has a tranquility bestowed upon the visitor by St.Servatius, who is the patron of Maastricht.
I was excited the most to visit the Dominican church which was turned into a book store. Can you imagine being in the middle of two floors of books inside a medieval church? I like to think of it as the church that turned into heaven. And of these, an entire floor was dedicated to English books! I love Dutch book stores! After wandering through the collections of the church bookstore, I settled down in a corner, with a copy of ‘The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories.’ I picked the shortest short story, ‘War is Fun’ by Bob den Uyl, and delved into a tale from Holland for the first time after ‘The Diary of Anne Frank.’ This story was the antithesis to Anne Frank! It talked about a young boy’s excitement during WWII, including his expectations that the bombs would kill his teacher, thus putting an end to the dreariness of his schooldays. Dutch literature is indeed interesting! I should explore it more.
A stroll along the Meuse is a must! Or in my case, a stroll followed by a considerable amount of time musing about life watching the Meuse. A flock of seagulls were also involved in a similar activity. The sunset happened hidden behind the grey clouds. By the way, there is also the Jeker, if your heart is not filled by just one river. I did not get to meet that one though, although I walked across the Meuse at least ten times in the two days.
Maastricht by the night was bustling with life, partly because the rain had subsided and the locals flowed into the streets to have a drink and the dinner. I like any city when it is lit by yellow lamps, and this one was no exception. The view of the river stole my heart though.
My preferences for travel are small towns and countryside, which can show us what life there is actually like. Also, for the meadows and mountains left untouched. Whenever travel plans take a detour for some unfortunate reason, but in the end brings me to a wonderful place, I am reassured of the fact that plans are meant to be changed!
Valkenburg aan de Geul lies to the northeast of Maastricht and is an icon of Limburg, the province to which all these places belong. It was initially not an idea to visit the place, yet it was irresistible, considering the charm of the countryside it might be bathed in. A walk of half an hour from Houthem St.Gerlach, which is three stops by train from Maastricht, though lush green meadows and mustard seed farms brings you to Valkenburg.
Valkenburg is yet another lesser known gem of Netherlands. We kept walking aiming for the castle ruins which are famous in the town. But when the entry to an ‘Openluchttheater,’ or open-air-theater appeared on the way, we took another detour. Especially because it was at an elevation, and who can say no to the possibility of a good view from the heights?
Once again, this turned out to be the right decision, because progressing along the forest trail, the path ended at a cute open church, set under a rock. It was actually ‘Lourdesgrot’ or a Lourdes grotto. For a walk that underwent so many diversions from the intended route, I cannot reckon a better endpoint.
The major attractions of Valkenburg are the castle ruins and a number of caves and a Roman Catacomb. Considering the time available, castle ruins seemed to be the thing to do. A castle that was built in 1115 and witnessed various Dutch wars to be reconstructed and destroyed again, definitely deserves a visit! After the visit, one understands what it really looks like for a building to have stood through all those times. Because, not much remains, and whatever were excavated over years have stories to tell. One can see what is left of the fortified walls, loopholes for the royalty to escape in case of an attack, a bomb-free dungeon, an altar, and the Knight’s room to name a few. The thing about visiting castles and their remains in how easily you can imagine the past while you walk amidst them. You can almost see soldiers positioned in their strategic locations, fighting the enemy, you can see the royal women watching the happenings from their personal rooms, you can see little princes and princesses run around the quadrangles laughing and playing perhaps with their toy weaponry, I don’t know!
Know of the Vlaai, a special kind of pie which one finds in the Netherlands or in certain parts of Germany bordering with the Dutch? Well, the delicacy known mostly by its second name is formally – ‘The Limburgse Vlaai,’ because it originates from Limburg. Have the Vlaai with a coffee, especially when you are in Valkenburg! I tried one with a cherry filling, and my friend had a more simpler Vlaai with no fruits. They were wonderful!
Almost time to return to Maastricht, we walked to the railway station in Valkenburg. Soon, in the entrance of the town, I realised that we had sneaked to Valkenburg through its back, and now were exiting it through the front door!
Half an hour in the train, and Maastricht is here. I have to tell you about the grandma in the train! As the train eased into Maastricht station, the announcement said, ‘Maastricht station, uitstappen links,’ which means, ‘This is the Maastricht station, the exit is on your left.’ To de-board the train we have to walk backwards to get to the door. This is in opposite direction to which the train was moving before it stopped. So the door to the station is on our right. It’s now that I finally pay attention to the announcement that is still being repeated and I wonder why the woman says the exit is to the left while it is actually on the right. Perhaps mistakes are made in Dutch-land unlike in Deutschland? I pause to give way to an old woman moving out of her seat to join the queue of people making the exit. She has silvery white hair and is bent over on her walker. After noticing her, I return to my judgement about the Dutch. In a couple of seconds it strikes me that the Dutch are not wrong, but I am stupid, because I, facing the direction opposite to the front of the train, find the exit on the right for me. While I seethe in self embarrassment, I hear the grandma in front of me mutter, ‘rechts, uitstappen rechts,’ which means, ‘right, exit is on the right.’ I smile to myself, am not alone in my stupidity. I can almost hear her think, ‘I don’t know when this country will finally learn!’
I watched out for her from behind, as she climbed into the elevator and disappeared amidst the crowd. Dear grandma, your country has made it possible for you to ‘uitstappen’ into the streets without anybody’s help, and live your life with dignity without depending on anyone.
Bonnefantenmuseum for fine arts is a must visit in Maastricht. Boasting of artwork from contemporary artists and their medieval counterparts, the museum has a lot to offer to visitors who have plenty of time. With an hour in hand we chose what we want to see and took our time through the works of Ine Schröder, photographs by Andy Summers and abstract painting by Dan Walsh.
The last stop was where one could view Maastricht as a symbol of the European Union. The Euro was born here, back in 1992. Meetings which were milestones to the integration of Europe, took place in this scenic town.
Thus, my Autumn travel came to an end. A beautiful Dutch town later, I am indeed more convinced to go to smaller and lesser visited places to see, feel, eat and enjoy the real Europe! Maastricht-Valkenburg could ideally be a three day trip, if you want to go through everything this combination has to offer. And one can certainly include this province in your trip to Netherlands, for a more complete experience of the country.