A Rome away from Rome, underground in Valkenburg

When are Roman catacombs not Roman catacombs? Much more importantly, why is there an exact replica of the catacombs of Rome tucked away in a small Dutch town close to the border with Germany? Valkenburg’s Museum Romeinse Katakomben may well be proof that having too much money can do strange things to a person. Some people buy Twitter, others finance the construction of a vast underground labyrinth of fake Roman catacombs.

That man was Jan Diepen, the son of a fabulously wealthy textile magnet, who between 1908 and 1912 had an exact copy of the catacombs in Rome constructed. Private museums were all the rage in late 19th and early 20th century Europe, but this goes well beyond what most of Diepen’s peers were getting up to. As replicas go, it is pretty unique, and after spending over an hour touring the catacombs it’s hard to say that it wasn’t a brilliant idea.

Kasteel Schaloen, Valkenburg, Netherlands
Medieval town walls, Valkenburg, Netherlands
St Nicholas Church, Valkenburg, Netherlands
Goat statue, Valkenburg, Netherlands
St Nicholas Church, Valkenburg, Netherlands
Valkenburg Castle, Valkenburg, Netherlands

The tour takes you through the evolution from pagan burial to early Christian burial and then to more elaborate later Christian Rome burials. This is seen most clearly in the artwork. It all felt very real, although it probably smelled better than the original and there were certainly fewer people. Diepen’s intention was to give people who may never have the opportunity to visit Rome an immersive and educational experience.

So much so that at one point I was distracted while taking photos in a small burial room and lost sight of my group. I walked the way I thought they went, reaching a crossroads. At which point I realised that not only did I not know what direction they took, but that in the catacombs sound does not travel. Panic was slowly washing over me when the guide appeared behind me and took me back to the group.

Lesson learned, never get lost in Roman catacombs, real or otherwise. The catacombs are quite chilly and it was a relief to get back into the warm sunlight to explore Valkenburg itself. The other main sight is the ruined castle, destroyed in 1672 and never rebuilt. It was quite expensive to visit and largely disappointing but, thanks to it being the only castle to sit on a hill in the whole country, the views over the town are great.

The town itself is a small but attractive spot, and clearly popular with Dutch and German visitors. After poking around the pedestrianised centre I headed through the Halderpark past reconstructed medieval town walls and St Nicholas Church, to Dorrenplein. I pulled up a chair at an outdoor cafe next to the River Kleine Geul and, over lunch, did a bit of people watching.

Afterwards I followed the river out of town on a walk through the Limburg countryside to Schaloen Castle. It was a pleasant stroll made all the more remarkable by stumbling across a memorial to a Second World War Halifax bomber crew who were shot down returning from a bombing raid on Cologne. The plane crashed here and seven air crew were killed. Parts of the plane are incorporated into the memorial.

The moated Schaloen Castle is very pretty but not open to the public. There is a nice cafe in the grounds, but even by Dutch standards the service was glacial. I walked back to the town taking a diversion up Valkenburg’s largest hill where the 30 metre tall Wilhelmina Tower stands. The area was full of people getting a unique Dutch experience – being on top of a hill, albeit a small one.

Kasteel Oost, Valkenburg, Netherlands
Kasteel Schaloen, Valkenburg, Netherlands
Kasteel Schaloen, Valkenburg, Netherlands
Halifax Memorial, Valkenburg, Netherlands
Halifax Memorial, Valkenburg, Netherlands
Railway Station, Valkenburg, Netherlands

To prove it is a hill, someone has constructed the world’s most pointless chairlift and, a shock to no one, the only one in the Netherlands. When in Rome (even a fake one), do as the Romans do, as the saying goes. So I joined the surprisingly long queue for the chairlift and headed back to town.

3 thoughts on “A Rome away from Rome, underground in Valkenburg

  1. You really find the most amazing places… (You need to write a book)
    That little castle looks so much like a Loire valley castle. Incredible.

    1. I wanted to visit Valkenburg when we lived in the Netherlands – it’s famed for its Xmas markets in the many cave around town – but never got around to it. It’s quicker to get there from Brussels than The Hague!

      1. It can happen. Such small countries. (If you’re not stuck on the railroad for 5 hours. LOL)

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