Maastricht, Dutch and much more

Some of the best experiences in life come from seizing an opportunity. I accepted an invitation from my friend Jim and his wife Roberta to accompany them to Germany, France, and Luxembourg before meeting up with our Northern New Jersey Skal club friends in Belgium and then heading to Holland. I packed my bags, embraced “the more the merrier” mindset, and away I went.

Maastricht-Castle
After visiting four countries in four days I was ready to hang my hat in Maastricht, one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands.

The Golden Tulip Apple Park Hotel provided rest for the weary. A warm welcome was followed by a complimentary upgrade to the Executive Floor and the associated amenities. The Executive Lounge was a perfect gathering place for our group’s pre- and post-excursions.

I was aware that the Maastricht Treaty, signed on February 7, 1992, led to the creation of the euro but knew little else about this fascinating city.

Maastricht-Wall

Our adventure began with a guided walking tour sponsored by the Maastricht Tourist Board (VVV). The entire city has been assigned the status of a protected national monument. Maastricht is truly an outdoor museum. Reminders abound of the city serving as a Roman fortress, a religious capital, a fortified city, and early industrial center.

Our guide, Tanya, beamed with local pride, and passionately shared stories as she led us through the most beautiful sights in the historic center.

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Our walking tour was highlighted by “koffie en vlaai” (coffee and pie) at the Bisschopsmolen, a water mill and bakery that dates back to the 11th century.

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We visited a 13th-century Dominican church that had been converted to a bookstore. As I walked through the magnificent structure, I thought of the possibilities of repurposing historic architecture for new uses.

One European custom I truly enjoy is that of the aperitif, a light and refreshing alcoholic beverage meant to spark the appetite. I sipped my aperitif while marveling at the beautifully decorated Molo 5 Restaurant—a converted barrel vault in the old Bassin harbor. Our group enjoyed a gala dinner featuring Dutch cuisine at this unique semicircular restaurant.

The following morning we visited the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten. American troops liberated the Maastricht region during World War II.

A fog hung over the 8,301 headstones and swept across the green lawn setting the tone of our visit.

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Three engraved maps describe the achievements of the Allied operations in the region during the ensuing campaign. We also visited the Court of Honor with Reflecting Pool and Memorial Tower containing a chapel.

After honoring those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for freedom, we visited the Grotten of Sint-Pietersberg. Our guide, Joe, who is also a history teacher, led us through the famous caves.
The underground labyrinth, which once had 20,000 passageways covering more than 200 kilometers, originated from the extraction of limestone for building material and served as refuge during sieges on the fortified city of Maastricht and air-raid shelters during World War II.

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Decades old charcoal artwork made by the cave dwellers remain intact throughout the casement network.

Although I endeavor to not let my intermittent claustrophobia prevent me living life to the fullest, the combination of locked gates, lanterns illuminating complete darkness, and the 120-mile maze made the one-hour tour seem like an eternity. As fascinating as the caves were, I was the first one out and hightailed it up the path and over the hill to our next destination.

The Grand-Cafe Buitengoed Slavante was the antidote to all things subterranean. A traditional Dutch lunch was hosted by Cees van Stiphout the owner of this rural estate dating back to 1846 located on the eastern slope of Sint-Pietersberg.

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The historic city center is a shoppers dream come true. An endless array of small upscale boutiques, specialty shops, and retail chains offer the latest trends in fashion and accessories.

The Netherlands is well known for its windmills and flowers and I expected to see them. The highlight of all my journeys include the unexpected delights of each destination. Forever etched in my memory of Maastricht will be:

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• The ring of church bells from a centuries-old cathedral

• Locals dining al fresco completely unfazed by the chill in the air because they are wrapped in blankets provided by the cafés

• The melding of contemporary with historical and cultural overtones added over the centuries by the Romans, Germans, and French

• Beautifully decorated shop windows, some complete with wooden shoes

• The sound of horse-drawn carriages throughout cobblestone streets

• People riding their bicycles in parkas carrying baguettes and fresh flowers in their baskets

• The aroma of fresh baked “vlaai” wafting through the air

I visited Maastricht as part of my Skal club’s 10th anniversary friendship. The city offers a wealth of interesting experiences including history, culture, shopping, and dining. Add it to your list of places to see – whether as a primary destination or an excursion from a nearby region.