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Home » Focus, Netherlands

Maastricht – a Jewel in the Crown of Northern Europe

Submitted by on 18 Jul 2012 – 10:00

By Simon Gillon, Managing Editor, Government Gazette

I first visited Maastricht in 1989 on the recommendation of some Dutch friends with whom I had been staying in Dordrecht. It was the end of carnival on the evening I arrived there, to find a beautiful little town centered along the banks of the river Maas, festooned with tens of  thousands of little red, yellow and green flags hanging across all the cobbled, pedestrianised shopping streets, with multi-coloured crepe paper hanging down the walls from the ceilings in every café and restaurant, and a subtly dazed population who were up slightly later than usual the following morning, as I pottered around the eerily quiet town.

History

The town vies for the title of the oldest in the Netherlands, along with Nijmegen. The leaflet I received from the tourist office at the time (http://www.vvv-maastricht.eu/home.html) skirted round the issue quite neatly – “not necessarily the oldest town in the Netherlands, but most certainly the prettiest” was its indisputable description. Certainly the town  was settled prior to the Romans, who built the first bridge over the river, there, from whence comes its modern name. When the Roman bridge collapsed in 1275, the current stone one, St Servaas brug was built, with work starting in 1280 and taking 18 years to complete. In the 1850s a deep channel was dug on one side of the river for heavy boat traffic, and it was repaired after the second world war after suffering damage during heavy local fighting.

The town is the capital of Limburg province, and in its history, located not far from Cologne, and half an hour by today’s transport from both Liège in Belgium and Aachen in Germany, it has been located in a highly strategic position, which has been to its great advantage in terms of trade, and to its detriment in terms of wars and sieges.

There are extensive city walls remaining, both running through the centre of town and along one side, such as the Helpoort, from the 13th century, and also along the river front from the 18th century, with castle towers and gateways still intact, and cannon proudly on display. Further out the fort of St Pieter remains in good condition, although stretches of sections of the city walls have disappeared into allotments and general greenery.

The Spanish occupied the town in 1579, the Dutch in 1632, and the French in 1673, 17 48 and 1794. The Germans occupied it in 1940 and it was liberated by the allies in 1944. During the siege in 1673, the real-life D’Artagnon, immortalised by Dumas as one of the Three Musketeers, was killed during an assault on the town by a musket ball which hit him in the throat.

Squares and Buildings

One of the most beautiful surprises for the first time visitor to Maastricht is that all the winding shopping streets lead you into three different squares, each with its own completely different character. The main square, the Vrijthof, with restaurants and cafes on one side, has the most impressive buildings in the town, the Romanesque Basilica of St Servaas, the Gothic St Janskirk, and the Theatre. The square is used these days for a wide variety of concerts and cultural activities. On one side of it is the market square, with the (to my mind very Belgian-looking) town hall, while tucked away on the other side, down a winding alley, ringed with charming little restaurants, is the wonderful Onze Lieve Vrouweplein, with the two narrow, round towers of the 11th Century Basilica of Our Lady standing tall over the large trees which surround the drinkers and diners.

The Surrounding Area

Boat trips along the river Maas are possible both day and night. Both Aachen with its awe-inspiring cathedral and museum, and its old town hall, and Liège, are worth a trip. There are extensive caves which can be visited on a guided tour, and the round dial where the three countries’ border intersect, is also of interest to visitors with an interest in European history.

Modern Maastricht

Shopping, food and drink, international tertiary and professional education, and a huge range of cultural activities are all to be found in Maastricht today, and the town’s museum, the Bonnefantenmuseum has a wide range of artefacts suiting all eras of interest, whether ancient or modern.

The town has always been a popular tourist location, although not always for reasons that please all of the inhabitants. In May 2012, the town introduced a new policy towards the sale of soft drugs, to combat the perennial problem which Dutch border towns have with drug tourism and associated criminal activity. When I visited the town for the first time, I was proudly informed that it boasted the largest number of pubs, restaurants, cafés, bars and coffee shops per capita of population in the whole of Western Europe. As of 1st May 2012, however, foreign tourists have not been permitted to enter coffee shops to purchase soft drugs. With the shifting political sands in national Dutch politics, it remains to be seen how this will be viewed in the medium or even the short terms, but it is certainly an idea which currently has some traction in the country, and it will be being watched with interest by the civic administrations of several other towns.

Capital of Culture 2018 Bid

The city is one of a large number which have applied to be a European Capital of Culture in 2018.

According to the tourist office website, “The capital of Limburg is running in close co-operation with the province of Dutch Limburg and the cities of Heerlen, Aachen, Liège, Hasselt, and Sittard-Geleen. The Belgian provinces of Limburg and Liège, the German-speaking Community of Belgium, and the Region of Aachen are also participating.”
“The intention is that the candidacy will reinforce the artistic climate and cultural life in the entire Euregion; Maastricht 2018 hopes to present the specific qualities of the region to Europe by means of an internationally appealing programme…”

“Consequently, Maastricht’s candidacy will have a solid international and European character. The Euregion extends over three countries with three different languages, five cultures, several dialects, an extensive area of outstanding natural beauty which is suited to a variety of leisure activities, top-class restaurants and cafes with a relaxed ambiance, and a dynamic business environment.”