The Netherlands was home for almost five years and, outside of perennial favourite Amsterdam, it’s a country that is underrated by tourist hordes flocking elsewhere in Europe. The further afield I explored, the more clear that view became. Just about scraping a few hills in Limburg province, sure it lacks mountains, forests and truly epic landscapes, but the gentle Dutch countryside is dotted with attractive medieval towns and villages, and there’s a glorious coastline.
A high quality of life is made better by the best cycling infrastructure in the world. It’s a mystery why it isn’t more popular. The food is definitely northern European – pickled herring anyone? – but infused with much needed flavour from Indonesia (I’m from Britain so can’t complain). Maastricht ticks all of these boxes, except when it comes to food culture. Here French and Belgian influences have made this Limburgish town the exception that proves the rule.
It’s a small town with a long history, the first recorded of which begins when the Romans arrived around 50 BC and built a bridge across the River Maas, also known as the Meuse. There are still traces of that Roman history to be found, but the town is best known for its medieval fortifications, inside of which are ancient churches and 18th and 19th century town houses. It’s all knitted together by winding cobbled streets and pleasant squares.
On a hot Saturday in summer, the streets were busy, outdoor tables at cafes and bars buzzed with life, and the whole place had a easy going feel. It helps that much of the ancient heart of Maastricht is pedestrianised and the scourge of electric scooters seems to have been stopped at the defensive walls. You still have to keep an eye out for cyclists, this is the Netherlands after all, but this is a city for leisurely strolling.
I started in the Vrijthof, the main square dominated by the hulking medieval Basilica of Saint Servatius and the red-towered Saint Jan’s Church, two of the most famous sights in town. A short walk brought me to the Markt and the massive Stadhuis. Another fine square, and a good place for a drink, is the Onze Lieve Vrouweplein, home to the Basilica of Our Lady with its remarkable shrine illuminated with candles.
In between these sights are plenty of winding streets to explore giving a good sense of how the medieval town was laid out. Maastricht though is not just ancient history and close to the centre is the Sphinx Kwartier. Maastricht was home to a flourishing ceramics industry – once employing about 70% of the working population – that began with the founding of an earthenware factory in 1836 that would become Sphinx Ceramics.
Maastricht ceramics were famous, but post-Second World War competition led to a huge decline. The industry hung on by a thread, no longer producing fine porcelain but turning out toilets. The old Sphinx factory is now an urban regeneration project, but a passage in the old factory containing 30,000 ceramic tiles tells the story of Sphinx and Maastricht’s ceramic industry, and its ultimate demise in 1969.
It’s a short walk to the river from here and I made my way along the west bank before crossing over the ancient Sint Servaasbrug to the east bank. On this bank a wonderful car free park runs along the riverfront and there are several museums here as well. Including, Maastricht’s premier cultural attraction. It’s difficult to miss the futuristic design of the Bonnefanten Museum, but the exterior is less important than what it contains.
Inside is a cornucopia of fantastic art: medieval Dutch and Italian paintings, wooden medieval sculptures from as early as 1300, and an array of 17th century Dutch art, with masterpieces by Rubens and Brueghel. There was just time after my visit to wander along the river to the site of the former De Ridder brewery, now reborn as the Stadsbrouwerij Maastricht.
Some 165 years of brewing tradition can be found here, so I pulled up a seat overlooking the river and ordered a De Dorstige Lambertus, or the Thirsty Lambertus, before heading back to the train station.