When I was growing up, we lived on the outskirts of Heerlen. This is a fair-sized town of about 100,000 people, but the nearest big city was Maastricht. At no more that half an hour’s drive or train journey away, we would go there to shop, have a bite of lunch, and stop off at a cafe for a drink.
Now that I’m living in Scotland, and my parents have moved back here as well, I don’t go back there much. In fact, this weekend is the first time I’ve visited since 1995, and oh, how I’ve missed the place! The narrow streets, the white-painted brick houses, Dutch language all around me…. Even simple things like street signs made me ridiculously happy with floods of childhood memories. (So bear in mind while you’re reading this review that my opinion is probably heavily coloured by nostalgia.)
Also note that this is a long article, but I won’t be offended if you bale out early. I’ve split it into the following sections for your reading convenience:
Maastricht is located in the very southernmost tip of the Netherlands. If you check it out on a map, you’ll find that there’s a province called Limburg attached to the body of the Netherlands like a tail. It burrows down between Belgium and Germany. Maastricht virtually spreads out over the Belgian border, and is so close to Germany that the local airport has now been renamed Maastricht/Aachen Airport. You’ll get to Aachen faster from there than getting from Heathrow to the centre of London.
This part of the world is famous for a number of things. Food is one of them, but for the historically minded, there are Roman excavations and dozens of medieval churches and abbeys. This area used to be a hive of roman activity, and in the centre of Maastricht it’s almost impossible to do any building work without hitting the remains of a Roman villa, barracks, or bathhouse. (Famously, excavations once held up work on a city centre hotel’s basement for three years. Eventually the hotel just gave up and integrated the site as a tourist attraction.)
Under the hills of Maastricht and its surroundings (no, this part of the Netherlands is not flat) you will find miles and miles of caves. Some of these are natural, others are man made. These were used as hideouts during the wars, and in the fifties and sixties some were converted into nuclear fallout shelters. The nearby town of Valkenburg is a tourist trap of the first water, but it does have good guided tours of some spectacular examples.
Having just mentioned the wars, there are several American and British war cemeteries nearby that are worth a visit, too. Ask at the local VVV shop (tourist information) for more details.
Although there is much more to Maastricht than its city centre, this is where most of the “action” is: cafés, restaurants and shops, all in a gorgeous setting of atmospheric pedestrianised streets and cobbled plazas. There are a few department stores (Vroom & Dreesman is the main one) and large chains (like C&A), but not too many. Most of the shops are small-to medium sized, with a continental boutique feel to them. It’s great for clothes and shoes, house and kitchenwares, leather goods, and food and drink. At the moment, most clothing is between 25% and 30% less expensive than you’ll find in Britain, and it’s all in a trendy, continental style with brands and labels that will make your friends think you’ve spent a lot more money than you actually have.
For me, an ideal day out in Maastricht would consist of wandering around the town, just browsing the shops in the morning, then sitting out in a café for a beer and some lunch. The afternoon would take care of t
he hard work of shopping (actually *buying* stuff), followed by a few more drinks on a café on the Vrijthof. Drop the shopping off at the hotel, clean up, get changed, and go out for dinner. Weather permitting (Dutch summers are sunny and warm, but a little humid), the evening would be rounded off under the awnings of yet another café.
Note that Dutch shops are generally closed on Sundays, and on Monday mornings. In large tourist areas (like Amsterdam or Maastricht) you may find some places open on a Sunday, but don’t count on it.
Maastricht is also a perfect base for mounting excursions to nearby locations: Aachen, Cologne, Brussels, and Luxembourg are within easy reach, as, of course, is the rest of the Netherlands. Even Paris is not an impossible destination, but you will spend a large part of your day travelling.
If you’re worried about not speaking a word of Dutch, relax. It is quite rare to find a Dutch person who does not speak any English. It is of course polite to learn the phrase for “Do you speak English?” (“Spreekt u Engels?”), but when the reply is “A little bit,” chances are this “little bit” will contain flawless grammar and perfect idiom. Restaurants often carry English versions of their menus, and it is not uncommon for waiters or shop assistants to start talking to you in English if they’ve overheard some of your conversation.
As I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, there is an airport nearby, but it’s small, and you might have trouble getting a good fare straight into it. Flying to Amsterdam (Schiphol) might be a better bet. There is a train station right inside the airport. The Dutch adore public transport, and you’ll find the trains to be regular and punctual. A single ticket from Schiphol to Maastricht is fl 51 (£15). Alternatively, you can hire a car and drive down in just a couple of hours.
Also, although they’re in different countries, Düsseldorf (Germany) and Brussels (Belgium) airports are actually closer than Amsterdam, and you might want to check out fares for these two as well.
If you’re taking your own car from Britain with you, Maastricht is within a couple of hours’ drive from the ferry ports at Hoek van Holland and Zeebrugge in Belgium; even Calais in France is only 3-4 hours away.
Seeing as we only stayed in one hotel, I can’t really give an exhaustive list of where to stay. However, if you’re only going for a short break, it will be very much worth your while to get someplace near the centre of the city. Key location markers are the Vrijthof and Onze Lieve Vrouweplein, which are right in the heart of the old town. Anything within five or ten minutes walking distance of one of these squares will make it easy to saunter back home after a late night beer.
We stayed at Hotel Botticelli on the Papenstraat, just round the corner from the Vrijthof. This is a lovely little hotel done in an Italian style. It has a luxurious lounge, a stylish breakfast room, and a small courtyard, covered in plants, where breakfast is served if it’s a nice morning. The rooms are medium-sized, well decorated, cosy and extremely comfortable. Ours was quite warm at night, but an almost silent fan kept us cool while we slept. Breakfasts are typically Dutch, with lots of bread rolls, cheeses and sliced meats. Given its location–right in the centre of a major European city–the price of fl 160 (£45) per room per night is impressively good value. Breakfast is fl 22.50 (£6.50). You will need to book well in advance, though: we only just managed to get in a room over a mid-August weekend by booking in May.
Three magic words: Frites with mayonnaise.
If you’re used to thick, chunky chips with salt and vinegar, having mayonnaise on them instead may sound ever so slightly disgusting. It isn’t, though! Dutch and Belgian chips (“frites”, “friet”, “patates frites”, “patat”, etc.) are thinner and crispier than their British counterparts, and are deep-fried to a perfect golden colour. The mayonnaise is yellower and thicker, and tastes richer than British mayonnaise, too. To be honest, I don’t find the thought of a spoonful of Hellmans on a plate of soggy British chips very appealing, either, but if you’re going to be in the Netherlands, do give it a try. Chip shops (“fritures”) and snack bars are all over the place.
While you’re at it, you might want to try some of the other things the Dutch have with their frites, like a frikandel (a long spicy sausage), a kroket (meat paste inside a crispy breadcrumb shell), a loempia (like a huge spring roll), or sate (pork or chicken kebab sticks in peanut sauce).
Down in the South of the Netherlands, the cuisine has soaked up Belgian and French influences like a piece of bread soaks up warm garlic butter. French restaurants abound, though they’re not always labelled as such. Take for instance the restaurant “‘t Plenkske”, whose name means “the little plank” in the local dialect. It’s a local name, but the food is French, done in a local style. When we went there this weekend I had snails in garlic and herb butter to start with, guinea fowl with mashed potatoes on a bed of green beans and mangetout for my main course, and crème brulée for dessert. The rest of my companions had things like smoked salmon salad, steak, bouillabaisse, and veal and pork stew. It was all utterly gorgeous, and the portions were huge.
How much for this feast, do you think? Between £20 and £25 a head, excluding wine. And we’re talking a top Maastricht restaurant here. Don’t let anyone tell you that “the continent” is expensive.
Another favourite place of mine, and almost a Maastricht institution, is the café/restaurant “In ‘t Knijpke.” It has a wonderful cellar bar downstairs, built into the ancient sewers and vaults. We didn’t get a chance to go this time, but the menu doesn’t vary much. This is the place to go for the best French onion soup, snails, frogs’ legs, and cheese boards in Maastricht. (Actually, I’m not sure if they still server frogs’ legs: the species of edible frog was in danger of extinction about seven or eight years ago, and the restrictions on catching them may still be in place.)
The café is a huge part of Maastricht culture. The locals have evolved café-based relaxation into a true art form. If you go in the summer, most cafés will have some seats outside. Grab yourself a table, sit down, and usually a waiter will come and attend to you shortly. If you’re just having a drink, or a cup of coffee, custom is to pay when your drinks arrive. If you’re settling down for lunch, your waiter will usually scribble your orders down on a little tab which he or she will leave on your table.
As for the drinks themselves, I am reliably informed that Dutch coffee is very good. It’s not anything special like Turkish coffee, just freshly brewed, high quality filter coffee. Most places will server cappuccino or espresso as well.
Beer is the other national drink. There are a truly vast number of breweries around the Netherlands, only the biggest of which have made a dent internationally. Everyone knows about Heineken and Grolsch. Fewer people are familiar with Oranjeboom and Amstel. My personal favourites, though, Ridder and Brand, I’ve never seen outside of the Netherlands. Like pubs in Britain, most Dutch cafés are affiliated with a particular brewery.
If you ask for just a beer (“een pilsje, alstublieft”) you will get it in a 200ml glass, with (if it’s perfectly poured) two fingers of head. If you ask for a large one (“grote pils”) it will probably come in a 400ml glass. These may seem like small portions, but remember that most Dutch beer is stronger than the average British pint
If you’re up for trying something a little different, try a white beer or a dark beer instead. White beer is made with wheat, and is very popular right now. It has the same golden colour as pils, but it’s cloudy rather than clear. Dark beer (Ridder Donker, or Brand Oud Bruin) is my own drink of choice. It is dark in colour, but light and sweet in taste, like caramelised lager. It goes down so easily, you could almost mistake it for a beer-flavoured alcopop.
For a stronger tipple, try a “jenever”, which is Dutch gin. Very strong, flavourful stuff, it tends to be drunk on its own rather than with mixers. (And it comes in very pretty ceramic bottles if you want to take some home with you for a gift.)
One very pleasant thing to be aware of on a warm summer evening is that cafés don’t suddenly kick you out at 12 o’clock because it’s closing time. On a Friday and Saturday evening, most of them stay open well into the night, and only shut down when the last customers leave, or when the staff decide to close up. And if you want to keep drinking, chances are that in a place like Maastricht, which has a large student population as well as lots of tourists, there will be another café open just down the street. During the week, of course, they do tend to close earlier.
Well, I hope I’ve given you a taste of what Maastricht is like. Most of what I’ve been talking about applies equally well in summer and in winter–except the parts about sitting at the outside tables of the cafés. If you go just before Christmas, you get a festive atmosphere and Christmas markets (Aachen and Cologne are especially good for these); if you go in February or March you can catch the Carnival (not my favourite time, but you might like it).
Check it out at your travel agent, or on the web. If you decide to go, remember to come back and write about what you thought!