Maastricht Netherlands: Famous Violinist, Cave Art, and Other Offbeat Attractions
Intriguing History Dating Back to RomansThe city started when the Romans found a place they could cross a river they called the Mosa. These days, it's called the Maas or the Meuse, depending on whether you're speaking of it in Dutch or French.
The Romans called their crossing point Mosae Trajectum, or 'ford across the Maas', which name was, in turn, assigned to the town which sprang up to support the garrison guarding the ford.
It's really a bit of a geographical accident; a sort of appendix of the Netherlands only a few miles across, bounded by Germany on one side, and Belgium on the other. But, it wasn't always in the Netherlands, for that country didn't exist in its present form until 1815.
In that year, the city became part of 'The United Kingdom of the Netherlands', after alternating between Spanish, Dutch and French rule since the Middle Ages. In 1830, some provinces revolted, and seceded from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands to form their own country, Belgium. But, Willem I, the King of the Netherlands, mindful of Maastricht's important strategic position, gave orders that the narrow strip of land was to be held for the Netherlands at all costs, regardless of the wishes of its citizens.
European Union and the Maastricht TreatyPerhaps it was this central position which led to its being chosen as the meeting place for Europe's leaders in 1992. They discussed the mechanism by which the European Community became the European Union, and laid the groundwork for Europe's common currency. At the end of their conference, they signed the Treaty of European Union, better known as the Maastricht Treaty.
But, the reason most people see Maastricht as a destination in its own right today is due mainly to one man.
Celebrated Genius -- Andre Rieu'Have you come for the concert?' asked our taxi driver, as he took to our hotel from the railway station. He explained that, every year in July, Maastricht was packed tight with people who had come to see the celebrated violinist and conductor Andre Rieu.
'The man's a genius!' he went on 'If it wasn't for him, this town would be nothing'
I'll agree wholeheartedly with the first part. Andre Rieu, whose home is in Maastricht, is noted for his infectious, charismatic style. He's the conductor and leader of the Johann Strauss Orchestra, which gives concerts worldwide, to audiences more like those at a rock concert or festival.
And, every year, in Summer, his open-air Homecoming Concert in the Vrijthof, in Maastricht, attracts visitors from all over the world.
The orchestra was formed in 1987, and performed mainly Viennese waltzes. But, over the years, the repertoire grew to include classical, popular and folk music, performed by an ever-growing orchestra, who can be seen to be enjoying every bit of their performances. And, it's not just music and song, the concert usually includes fireworks and special effects, too.
Attractions of Maastricht: From Statues on Fire to Limestone MinesBut, I would disagree with the second part. Previously, I'd thought that, if not for the concert, I wouldn't have made a special trip there. But, I found it's a very pleasant place to spend a day or two.
Our first task was to find lunch. The Markt, or market place was only a few paces from our hotel, and lined with outdoor cafes, bars and restaurants.
Every fifteen minutes, the music of a carillon marked the quarter-hour, and I noticed something odd about a statue guarding the entrance to the Markt.
'Hey, I swear that statue's on fire!' I said.
It was; the statue, holding a flaming torch, is in tribute to Jan-Pieter Minckeleers, a Maastricht native, who invented the gaslight. And, he's even more spectacular in the dark.
Next, we found the Vrijthof, the square where the open-air concert was to be held the following night, to ensure we could easily find the way there. It's tree-lined, and again, there are many outdoor cafes from which people can watch the concert, and I'd guess the residents of the apartments above the cafes have many friends at this time of year.
The churches of St. Servatius and St. John dominate the square; just two examples of the splendid architecture of Maastricht. You can view this by taking a bus tour. In Maastricht, they use a traditional American school bus; surplus, I suspect, from one of the many US military bases in Europe.
Now, those buses were designed to get the kids safely to school, not for sightseeing. There isn't a very good view out of them, especially if you don't have a window seat, and I'm afraid that, although the route took in most of the interesting sights, I found the tour rather disappointing
Stiphout, the firm that runs these tours, also run the river cruises. We found nothing whatever to complain about there. There's a good selection available, from a 20-minute trip up the river to the St. Pietersberg caves to longer trips to Liege or Vise.
We took the cruise up to the caves, and found the boat well turned out, with the woodwork highly polished. They gave a commentary in Dutch, French and English, and the whole thing made for a pleasant experience, at a reasonable price.
Our main reason for calling at St. Pietersberg was to visit the caves. These caves aren't natural; they're limestone mines, some of them dating from Roman times, from which most of the stone with which Maastricht is built was won.
You'd think that artificially-hewn caves wouldn't be very interesting. The main attraction is the cave art, to which several artists made a contribution. I have a theory that the miners made first drawings, in order to identify their position in tunnels which were otherwise featureless, and easy to get lost in, And, of course, they make the Sint Pietersberg caves much more than just a hole in the ground.
On the slopes of St. Pietersberg, we found a vineyard, claimed as the oldest in the Netherlands.
It dates from 1967. Hey, I'm older than that!
When we went to Maastricht to see another concert two years later, it was raining. This put off a lot of things I wanted to see and do -- seek out the statue of Charles de Batz, Comte d'Artagnan for one thing. Dumas' hero of The Three Musketeers' was loosely based on a real person and it was here, at the Siege of Maastricht in 1643 that he was killed. But, there was one place on the list that was indoors, interesting and free! The Selexyz Dominicanen bookshop.
It's been listed in various places as being in the Top Ten of the most famous, quirkiest, or just best bookshops in the world. As the name suggests, it was once a Dominican priory, and this is reflected in the architecture. They've done well to preserve the fabric of the old church, but still manage to accommodate a fairly modern shop.
There are books here on every conceivable subject, in most European languages. I was particularly intrigued by a coffee-table book titled 'Dutch Mountains', which I thought must rank with the proverbial 'Famous Belgians' (seriously, in both cases, they are there, if you do a little research!)
Then, to dinner. I just can't leave the Netherlands without eating at least one satay!
On our way to the concert . it stopped raining! And, it didn't rain throughout the concert. Someone once told me that it's never rained at an Andre Rieu open-air concert. Does the guy have a direct line to the Weather Man, or someone higher?
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Keith Kellett Having written as a hobby for many years while serving in the Royal Air Force, he saw no reason to discontinue his hobby when he retired to a village in the south of England, near Stonehenge. With time on his hands, he produced more work, and found, to his surprise, it 'grew and grew' and was good enough to finance his other hobbies; travelling, photography and computers. He is trying hard to prevent it from becoming a full-time job.
Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author