Wedged in the far south west of the Netherlands on a strip of land that, if it poked out into the ocean, would be considered a peninsular, Maastricht is at once the oldest town in the Netherlands and a place that feels less Dutch than almost anywhere else I’ve been in the country. In part that is because Maastricht is sandwiched between Belgium and Germany, but also because throughout its long and turbulent history, the town has been under the control of many different rulers.
It can only truly be said to have become Dutch after the defeat of Napoleon, and its history and geography is reflected in the food and culture of the town. The last time I was here was in the dead of winter to visit the underwhelming Xmas market. That was 2015, 200 years after the Battle of Waterloo. Even with cold weather and tacky stalls, Maastricht felt special. A return visit in summer proved this to be true. It’s a glorious town.
Now that I live and work in Brussels, the ‘capital’ of the European Union, it felt even more appropriate to visit the birthplace of the European Union. It was in Maastricht in 1991 that EU leaders met to agree not only on the union, but on the euro currency. As a newly disenfranchised EU citizen, it was a bittersweet part of the town’s history to revisit, but on a warm summer’s day in Maastricht nothing could dampen my spirits.
I arrived early to walk in the attractive park surrounding Fort St Pieter, a hulking 17th century fortress once at the heart of the city’s southern defences, before descending to the River Maas back to Maastricht. The park has several walking trails, most take you past the brilliant turquoise waters of the ENCI quarry, now a nature reserve. The beauty of the quarry is that there is a dramatic viewing platform that sticks out over a long drop below.
To get to the park, I first strolled from the railway station over Sint Servaasbrug, a mostly intact 13th century bridge. The views of the town from the river were magnificent in the early morning sun. On the western bank I wandered along quiet, narrow streets past the 11th century Basilica of our Lady, and through the 10th century twin-towered Helpoort, literally Hell’s Gate, said to be the oldest city gate in the Netherlands.
In the cool of a summer morning the walk through the parkland was a real pleasure. With only a few cyclists and dog walkers for company it was a peaceful stroll. When I returned, Maastricht had been transformed. The streets had come to life – and it’s a town famed for its vibrant outdoor cafe and bar culture. I made my way towards the epicentre of the Old Town and the action, the Vrijthof.
Vrijthof is a fabulous square, on three sides are historic buildings including the Basilica of St. Servatius and Sint Janskerk with its massive red stone tower. On the eastern side of the square though are numerous cafes and bars that make a perfect people watching spot whether over a coffee or a beer. I pulled up a seat at an outdoor table, ordered some breakfast and relaxed.
Maastricht is a small city that defies expectations. There is history and ancient buildings in abundance, some excellent museums, great food (not always guaranteed in the Netherlands), and a buzzing street-life, day and night, that is helped along by a large and international student population. It is definitely on the tourist radar, but still feels low key. I finished my coffee and set off to explore.
6 thoughts on “Vibrant Maastricht, a city of surprises”
Maastricht is where d’Artagnan died. At the siege, under Louis XIV
Ah, yes, there’s a statue of d’Artagnan in one of the parks commemorating that fact. I hadn’t realised that Dumas had based the fictional character on a real life person.
He did. Charles de Batz Castelmore, Seigneur d’Artagnan… 😉
Yes Maastricht is a lovely town for a weekend visit. Thankfully it’s only an hour down the road for me!
It definitely won me over, lovely in the summer.
Love Maastricht- it’s such a long time since we’ve been there!!!