Visitors to Maastricht will find bustling streets, a lively international atmosphere, pavement cafés, good food and good shopping, coupled with 20 centuries of history, art, culture, historic buildings and tradition to match.
Maastricht’s wealth of churches, mansions and treasure houses bear witness to its prosperous past, while the remains of the city walls and fortifications are relics of its more turbulent periods. Some 2,000 years ago it was an important Roman outpost called ‘Mosae Trajectum’, implying that it lay at the junction of the river Maas with roads leading to other Roman settlements. Merchants, farmers and traders gathered at this point and business burgeoned.
The historical buildings in Maastricht
Today, Maastricht is a vibrant cultural, educational and political centre full of bon vivants. Ceramics, paper, beer and cement are its main products. Students from the six universities in the area add to the city’s vitality. The centre of Maastricht is declared a protected area, and walking is the best way to enjoy it. The VVV has detailed walking tours to help you find both historic and modern sites, exploring the old city walls in the process. (VVV, Kleine Staat 1, (043) 350 6262, www.vvvmaastricht.nl)
The Basilica of St Servatius, Keizer Karelplein 6, is a medieval cruciform basilica on the site of a 6th-century Roman ‘sanctuary’, its heart dating from ca. 1000. The crypts (11th and 12th century) hold the remains of St. Servatius, Maastricht’s first bishop. Situated next door is the St. Janskerk, Henrie van Veldekeplein. Built in the 14th century as a Catholic parish church, it has been Protestant since 1633. The 70-meter tower looks out over the adjoining Vrijthof, a large square – where in the past executions took place -lined with shops and restaurant terraces for outdoor dining.
Also on the square at number 18 is the Spanish Government House (1545) with a fine collection of artefacts. The attractive double-stairwell Town Hall and Markt in the city centre date from the 16th century. The 13th -century Dominican Church on Dominicanerplein, is a sandstone church with ancient wall paintings. North of the Markt is St. Matthias’ Church, Boschstraat 99, (14th-16th century); financed primarily by the cloth weavers’ guild. It has a beautiful 15th-century Pieta. The Dinghuis, Kleine Staat 1, built in 1470, was the seat of the Chief Justice and is now home to the VVV office. It has a beautiful stone gable and timbered wall.The Museum De Historische Drukkerij (Historical Printing Museum), Jodenstraat 22, is a printing shop dating from 1900 – its old printing presses are still in operation.
Perhaps the oddest-looking church in the Netherlands is Onze Lieve Vrouwe Basiliek – Basilica of Our Beloved Lady, O.L. Vrouweplein 20, with its tall brick facade with hardly any windows, and two turrets. Resembling a fort than a place of worship, it has functioned as both. Maastricht has been under siege 21 times in its history; Onze Lieve Vrouwe Basiliek served both a spiritual and a practical function as part of the city’s defences. The west wing and crypts are the oldest parts of this 12th-century medieval basilica. The structure was built on Roman foundations and enlarged, altered and restored a number of times. Also of interest is the Stella Mare Chapel, with its 500-year old statue of the Virgin Mary. In the 1600s the statue was credited with numerous miracles.
When construction began in 1983 on the Derlon Hotel, the remains of a Roman settlement were discovered some six metres (20 feet) below, which have been ingeniously incorporated into the hotel’s design. The Derlon Museum, Plankstraat 21 is located in the hotel’s basement. You will see part of a 2nd and 3rd-century square, a section of a 4th-century wall and gate, a 3rd-century well, and part of a pre-Roman cobblestone road. Additional artefacts are displayed in illuminated glass cabinets. The Stokstraat Kwartier (Quarter) runs from just south of the VVV office, after the St. Servaas Bridge, to the area of the Derlon Hotel. It should be explored on foot to admire the restored period houses of the 17th and 18th centuries, and to ‘appreciate’ the many fine shops along the way.
For 1500 years, Maastricht residents erected walls to protect their strategically-located city. The Romans built walls in the 4th century, but those remaining today were built in the 13th century and later. The walls are of particular interest to military buffs. The VVV has a ‘Fortifications Walk’ brochure, a self-guided walk that takes you on top and alongside the walls, and past most of the sites such as the Helpoort (Hell Gate), St Bernardusstraat. Close by on the south bank of the Jeker River is a white building, the Pesthuis or Plague House. Formerly a water-driven paper mill, its name is attributed to its proximity to a nearby barracks housing plague victims. The Onze Lieve Vrouwewal is the section of wall which overlooks the river Maas. Further along is The Natural History Museum, which deals with the natural history and geology of the Limburg area. (De Bosquetplein 6-7, (043) 350 5490, www.nhmmaastricht.nl)
Nearby is the Huys op den Jeker, Bonnefantenstraat 5, a pretty little 17th-century structure that straddles the flowing waters of the Jeker. The Bishop’s Mill, Stenenbrug 1, is close to the first wall fortifications. St. Martin’s Almshouse (1715), Grote Looierstraat 27, is also nearby and consists of 13 cottages with a beautiful gable stone over the entrance. You can visit the courtyard of Faliezusters Convent (1647) near the fortifications, built in Maasland Renaissance style.
From 1575 to 1825, mining created a network of passageways which could be used in times of siege for the underground movement of troops and as hiding places. One such area is the Casements. Enter at Waldeck Bastion near Tongerplein.
The Caves of Mount St Peter resulted from centuries of excavation of marl; a clay used in building. There is a labyrinth of over 20,000 passages, over 200 kilometres (124 miles) long with some sections as high as 16 meters. Throughout history these caves have been a place of refuge, and signs of habitation can still be seen. In both World Wars they were used as escape routes between Holland and Belgium and as a place to hide Allied soldiers and resistance workers. Within the large Van Schaik tunnel in Sint Pietersberg (Mt. St. Peter), lies national storage facility no. 9, better known as the ‘vault’. From 1942 to 1945, this space provided protection for a large part of the Dutch national art treasuries, to protect it from the bombings and hide it from invaders. About 780 works of art – including Rembrandt’s Night Watch, were brought here and stored until the end of the war.
Fort St. Peter is located just a short walk from the northern caves entrance. The fort, which is shaped like a 5-pointed star, was constructed in 1701-02 and was instrumental in the siege of Maastricht in the battle with the French in 1748. Located on the west side of town behind Statensingel and between Pastoor Habetsstraat and Cabergerweg, is Linie van Du Moulin, a complex of fortifications covering 37 acres. It was developed from 1773-77 by General Du Moulin, an expert on defence.
Museums and historical bridges in Maastricht
The Bonnefanten Museum resembles a fat silver space missile perched on the east bank of the Maas. This modern design, by Italian architect Aldo Rossi, houses some ancient finds – including Limburg archaeological relics as old as 250,000 BC. But archaeology is only one part of the museum. It also has a collection of sculpture, paintings, earthenware and silver from the 14th to 17th centuries, as well as temporary exhibits of contemporary art. (www.bonnefantenmuseum.nl)
The nearby St. Servaas Bridge (1280-98) was originally a nine-arched wooden bridge; it is one of the oldest in the Netherlands. Having crossed it, turn left on Oeverwal to St. Martins Church (1858) on St. Maartenslaan. Inside is ‘The Black Crucifix’, a life-size image of Christ made of walnut wood. Further south, along part of the medieval ramparts, is the Water Gate along the stone wall and the Meuse Tower on the Maaspuntweg. Walking east along Hoogbrugstraat, you will see Monumentale Panden, a former place of refuge of the deanery of Meerssen (1690). The almshouses across the street at St. Gillishofje date from 1759. Walking back along Rechtstraat, note the interesting facades and gable stones.
The city centre of Maastricht is a delight for shoppers and once again will be transformed into a magical Christmas shopping village with beautiful lighting throughout the historic shopping streets and shop windows. From 1 December 2007 up to and including 6 January 2008, the Vrijthof Square will again be transformed into a Winter Paradise: Winterland Maastricht, with a great many attractions, including a large skating rink, a big wheel, and a variety of interesting Christmas stands. Winterland will be open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.: admission free of charge. (www.winterland.nl)
The Floating X-Maas Market will be held on the Meuse River on board the MPS ‘Geulvallei’ operated by Rederij Stiphout, anchored between the St. Servaas Bridge and the Wilhelmina Bridge. The boat will be completely decorated in the spirit of Christmas and will offer visitors a warm and cosy atmosphere. Combine the boat trip with a visit to the caves beneath the St. Pietersberg hill. About 20 minutes after departure, the boat anchors near St. Pietersberg and you step on shore for a guided tour of the marl caves lasting about 1 hour. Weekends, Dec.1 thru 6 Jan.
A circus with international allure: artists and acts from all over the world will come together for the third time to create the MECC Winter Circus, a spectacular circus show lasting 2 1/2 hours, Wed. 12 thru Sun. 16 December at a magically transformed MECC complex. (www.mecc.nl)
Maastricht markets draw crowds from far and near. Market day is Mon. 9am-12:30pm, Walramplein. The general market is held Wed. and Fri. 8am-1pm on the square around City Hall; an antique and curio market is held Sat. 10am-4pm on Stationsstraat.
Some Maastricht specialities worth discovering are the Limburgse flan (vlaai), gingerbread, apple dumplings, a local cheese called ‘rommedou,’ mushrooms and trout, Limburger cheese, the Maastricht beer, wine, and their hard liquor ‘Els’.
Maastricht annual events
Special yearly activities include one of the largest Carnivals in the Netherlands just before Lent, the prestigious International Antique Market TEFAF in March; St. Servatius Fair on the Vrijthof in May, and the Burgundian Gastronomic Festivities Preuvenemint on the Vrijthof in August.
In September, Het Parcours, opening of the theatre season, and JIM Jumping Indoor Maastricht, a spectacular Equestrian programme at the MECC. For ticket information: (www.uitburo.nl/maastricht)
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.