Province to province: Limburg
The first province we cover in our new series on the Dutch provinces is the most southerly province of Limburg.
Valkenburg Castle ruins
Limburg is the most southerly province of the Netherlands, hugging the borders of Germany and Belgium. A scenic area, it changes from farmland and woods in the north, to flat, river and lake-dominated terrain in the centre, and to hilly, undulating countryside in the south.
People lived in Limburg as early as 750 BC. Roman warriors built a settlement (todays town of Maastricht) and wealthy Romans followed, building villas and hot spring baths, planting vines, and mining the hills for marl – a clay used in building. Limburg’s strategic position on the river Maas meant it was often a target of invaders.
Following the period of Spanish rule, the regions of the Netherlands developed differently. The north became a maritime trading region; the people spoke Dutch and were Protestant. In the south (Brabant and Limburg provinces) the emphasis was on manufacturing and coal mining; people spoke French and Flemish and were strongly Catholic. Limburgers, as a result, have a strong affinity to the shared past with Belgium and Germany. They also appreciate outstanding French cuisine, fine wines and there’s a ‘joie de vivre’ as well as great hospitality here, with an amicable atmosphere.
A drive through the region holds some lovely discoveries, from asparagus to caves, castles, spas and a white town. The Venlo area is famous for its white asparagus; a delicacy nicknamed ‘white gold.’ With over two million square meters of greenhouses, it is the second most important garden region in the Netherlands, supplying over 80% of the Dutch production of white asparagus. May through June, is asparagus season and a main feature in restaurants throughout the area. The National Asparagus and Mushroom Museum is north of Venlo in the town of Horst. Called De Locht, Koppertweg 5, (077) 398 7320, it shows how mushrooms and asparagus used to be grown. It’s housed in an authentic 19th-century farmstead, with a poultry house, herb and flower garden, and a bake house where bread is still made in the traditional way.
Thorn: The White town
Thorn is known as ‘The White Town’ due to the predominance of white painted buildings, and also as the ‘Musical Town’ because of the musical societies it has always supported. For 800 years it was an independent principality and home to the royal residence of a small kingdom. A walk around the old town will transport visitors back to the era when aristocratic ladies had everything to say about the town and its famous abbey, dating from 1250. There are 22 sites to discover as you negotiate the cobblestone streets…comfortable shoes are recommended. Begin with a visit to Stiftskerk – The Abbey Church of Thorn with its Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque additions and The Museum Abdijkerk (Abbey Museum), Kerkberg 2, housing church relics, silver and paintings.
Valkenburg is home to caves, its castle (one of several in the vicinity) and the spring waters below its surface, which made it the first town in the country to win the right to call itself a ‘spa.’ Summer and winter the city is abuzz with visitors. If you plan to stay the night, make reservations in advance, particularly during the holiday season.
High above the hill overlooking Valkenburg the ruins of Valkenburg Castle (Grendelplein 13 and Daalhemerweg 27), still give a good impression of its former glory and offer a fine vantage point to view the surrounding countryside. A secret passageway leading to the Fluweelengrot (Velvet Grotto) was discovered in the 1930s. It was put to good use during the 1940s when it sheltered hospital patients and was a wartime hiding place for the resistance. (043) 609 0110; www.kasteelvalkenburg.nl
The Provincial VVV offices are housed in the Kasteel Den Halder, Wilhelminalaan, formerly part of the city’s defensive wall in the 14th century. The present structure was built around 1635. Kasteel Oost, Oosterweg, from the16th century, is now a party centre. Kasteel Genhoes, Oud-Valkenburgerweg, goes back to the 11th century. Burned down in 1577 during the 80 Years War, it was rebuilt in the 17th-18th centuries. Many other castles in and around Valkenburg are now hotels.
The Town Cave or Gemeentegrot, dates back about 2,000 years. The Romans first discovered marl as a building material, and that the hills around Valkenburg were rich in it. Over the years, stone continued to be taken from the mine so that when the mining stopped, the town was left with a maze of underground passageways. Visit on foot (60 minutes), or on a small train (30 minutes). In both cases a tour guide will lead the group. (043) 601 2271; www.gemeentegrot.nl. Somewhat eclectic, the cave is well worth a visit. You will see subterranean passages that go off in all directions, evidence of prehistoric fossils, and layers of shells – some of which are 100 million years old! Dress warm, wear comfortable shoes and bring a flashlight. In mid-November and December the Gemeentegrot and Fluweelengrot hold Christmas markets. VVV Valkenburg Th. Dorrenplein 5, (0900) 9798; www.vvvzuidlimburg.nl
Other underground offerings include the Steenkolenmijn (Coal Mine), Daalhemerweg 31, (043) 601 2491, www.steenkolenmijn.nl, a replica of a coal mining cave, designed to be as realistic as possible, showing how coal was mined in Limburg before it became uneconomical. The Roman Catacombs, Plenkertstraat 55 (in the Rotspark), (043) 601 2554, a faithful reproduction of parts of the best-known Roman catacombs, laid out around 1910 under the guidance of Dutch architect P.J.H. Cuypers. In addition there are all sorts of activities at Rotspark, including a theatre in the woods, and a cable car to Wilhelminatoren…the views are superb. Valkenier Fun Park, Koningswinkelstraat 53, (043) 601 2289, has attractions that include auto-scooters, a rollercoaster, House of Horrors, mini-car circuit, toboggan run, playground and restaurant. Valkenburg’s Grottenaquarium (Grotto Aquarium), Trichtergrubbe 2, (043) 604 2929, is a cavern with piranha, crocodiles, an electric eel and more in 35 aquariums hewn out of the cave’s walls. The Lourdes Grotto (near the Gemeentegroot) is a copy of its famous French counterpart.
For some extraordinary relaxation, visit the Thermae 2000 – Spa situated on top of the Cauberg at number 27, an extraordinary Roman-type spa. Made almost entirely of glass, it offers splendid views of the valley below. Three wells have been drilled into its over 40,000-year-old underground mineral-rich water reservoir. One provides fresh drinking water for those wanting to ‘take the cure,’ while the other two supply warm thermal waters for the baths. The sauna complex includes steam baths, eucalyptus and sauna cabins, a solarium and indoor and outdoor pools connected by water-filled corridors, so one can swim from one bathing area to the next. (043) 609 2000; www.thermae2000.nl.
The kids will enjoy Theme Park Sprookjesbos, Sibbergrubbe 2A (043) 6012985, with its fairy-tale woods; an African theme park section with elephants, lions, etc.; an American section with a Wild-West show and a saloon snack bar; as well as water rides, bumper boats and a laser show.
Next Tuesday we feature Limburg's capital, Maastricht, which boasts 20 centuries of history, art, culture, historic buildings and tradition to match.
13 November 2007
The article is excerpted from Here’s Holland : “Simply the best all-in-one guide to travel and life in Holland.” (9th edition) by Sheila Gazaleh-Weevers, Shirley Agudo and Connie Moser. Available in bookshops and via www.heresholland.com.
Photo credit: Bert Kaufmann
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