Fascinating history, boutiques, markets and little restaurants make for a great city break
Naturally, the north and south regions of many countries account for differing characteristics and lifestyles. However, it can be surprising that this applies in Holland.
Maastricht is a charming old border town with a colourful international ambience. It is the capital of the Dutch province of Limburg, a long narrow area that reaches south between Germany and Belgium. The climate is several degrees warmer than elsewhere in Holland, and Maastricht has a great outdoor café culture. There is a lively student population, and the laid-back citizens revel in a riotous annual pre-Lent carnival. It is even said that some who live here can take offence if you call them ‘typically Dutch’.
Originally a Roman settlement on the banks of The River Maas (also known as The Meuse), Maastricht has been one of Europe’s strategic military fortresses. French and Spanish ruled here before Dutch sovereignty was re-established 1814, and the 1992 Maastricht Treaty gave birth to the euro.
Maastricht is a compact city, ideal for walking. Everything centres on the magnificent Vrijthof Square, one side of which is dominated by Saint Servaas Basilica, dating from 1000 AD www.sintservaas.nl
A comprehensive history with time lines and maps can be seen on the website ‘A View of Maastricht’ www.zichtopmaastricht.nl from where, with a Smartphone or PDA, you can download a multi-media tour with images and sounds, in four different languages, free of charge.
Where to stay
We stayed at the venerable Hotel du Casque, where some rooms overlook the Vrijthof. Originating in the 15th century, this is one of the oldest hotels in the Netherlands. It was totally refurbished in Art Deco style in the l930s and the décor remains a fascinating time-warp. There is a breakfast room, but no hotel restaurant. If you arrive by car it is advisable to book a space in the hotel garage (€20 a night). Double rooms from €65 includes Dutch breakfast (Helmstraat 14, Maastricht).
Where to eat
One side of the Vrijthof is lined with numerous bars, cafes, bistros and restaurants. Choices in Maastricht range from French and Belgian Michelin star establishments to ‘brown cafes’ (pubs) and wine cellars. International dishes are on most menus, alongside local specialities such as Limburg vlaai (sweet flans); zoervleis (tasty meat casserole); and Rommedeo cheese (infamous for its powerful aroma). Local beers are popular, as are wines from nearby vineyards. There are also a few eating places on the Basilica side of the square, where we enjoyed Café de Perroen, 34 Vrijthof www.perroen.nl
Indonesian restaurants are a much-loved Dutch institution, just as Indian restaurants are in the U.K. I really recommend Gadjah Mas, across the river in the Wyck district, about 10 minutes walk from the Vrijthof. The extensive menu includes Nasi Rames (fried rice and chicken kebabs served with spicy peanut sauce €17.50) and several noodle dishes as well meat, fish and vegetarian choices. The fabulous Rijsttafel (rice table) consists of numerous tasty dishes and sauces to share, all served at once on a hot plate; there are several versions of this, including vegetarian (from €20) Booking is recommended (Rechtstraat 47, (0) 43 371 1568 www.gadjahmas.nl)
A maze of pedestrian-only little streets leads off from Vrijthof Square. Individual shops sell interesting clothes and accessories, as well as jewellery and antiques. Dutch fashionistas come from all over Holland for the designer boutiques and exquisite shoe shops. Selexyz Dominicanen, situated almost opposite the entrance to Hotel du Casque, is a book-lovers’ dream. In fact The Guardian newspaper has described it as ‘A Bookshop from Heaven’. Set up in a disused 13th-century Dominican church, it has sections in several languages, racks of unusual cards, and international newspapers. Their café, in the former chancel, serves light meals and the iconic Maastricht coffee supplied by local company Coffeelovers. (Dominikanerkerkstraat 1, (31 (0) 43 3210825 www.selexyz.nl). Coffeelovers is a small chain of cafes serving authentic coffee from the revered roasting house of Blanche Dael (Ruiterij 2), and their flagship café is on Plein 1992 at the foot of the pedestrian bridge over the Meuse www.coffeelovers.nl
Most shops are closed all Sunday and on Monday mornings; open other days 9-6pm; late night shopping on Thursday (open to 9pm) www.shoppenmaastricht.nl .
The huge, sprawling ‘Euro-regional’ Friday market on the Markt (open 9am-1.30pm) has stalls selling all kinds of produce, flowers, plants, clothes and household goods. The impressive section selling fabrics includes many aisles of gorgeous silks and brocades from the Middle East. The statue of S. P. Minckeleers holding a burning flame stands in the midst of the market: this is the son of Maastricht who invented gas lighting. The Saturday Flea Market (10am-4pm Stationstraat in the Wyck district) can be a treasure trove for antiques and fascinating bric-a-brac.
You can join a city walking tour; ride in a horse-drawn carriage or take a solar eco-tram. Tourist Information (31 (0) 43 325 21 21 www.vvvmaastricht.eu)
Cruise on the Meuse
River trips, with meals on board, can take you around the inner harbour or to the Belgium city of Leige. (31 (0)3 43 351 53 00 www.stiphout.nl)
By far the easiest way of getting to Maastricht from the U.K is by Eurostar: London-Brussels: 1hr 51 minutes (from £69 return; www.eurostar.com). Then take the Maastricht-Brussels Express - 1 hr 15 minutes www.maastrichtbrusselexpress.nl