Maastricht in the Netherlands

Although I’d been to the Netherlands twice before, I still had to pull out a map to locate Maastricht. Admittedly, geography was never my best subject.

Maastricht is an unusual, almost “unDutch” city, and its location is the reason. It rests in a finger of land in the southeast of Holland, almost totally surrounded by Belgium and Germany. There’s so much traveling from country to country in that region, most of the currency changing hands at weekly markets is German and Belgian.

Location, too, has had a major impact on Maastricht’s history. Its name comes from the Latin “Mosae Trajectum” (or where the river Maas is crossed), and the Romans had a full-scale urban center here complete with baths, temples and barracks for soldiers. In addition, illustrious names are associated with Maastricht. Charlemagne heard mass at the church of St. Servatius; St. Bernard of Clairvaux preached the Second Crusade there in 1145; and d’Artagnan of The Three Musketeers fame ended his days on the city’s ramparts.

The church of St. Servatius is often on the itinerary for travelers and rightfully so. This house of worship is one of the oldest in the Netherlands. The building is said to stand on the site of the saint’s burial and contain his relics. Wars, strife, weather and humankind haven’t managed to destroy it yet, lucky for us.

Speaking of things well-seasoned, Maastricht is considered the oldest fortified city in Holland, with ancient city gates and ramparts still standing. In fact, a number of the streets have changed little since the 16th century. Authorities have identified nearly 1,400 historic monuments within the walls. Dozens of historic buildings have been restored as private homes, stores and restaurants.

If you visit Maastricht, it’s worth your time to take a trip outside of town to the remarkable place known as the Mount of St. Peter. There you’ll find a miniature mountain made of marl, a type of sandstone well-suited for construction.

When they wished to build something, the locals simply carved great blocks of stone from the mountain, which in turn, created vast caves. As early as 50 A.D., the Roman historian Pliny was describing these unusual caverns. Through the years they’ve been an attraction for visitors such as Sir Walter Scott, Voltaire and Napoleon, all of whom couldn’t resist carving their initials in the walls. It just proves human nature changes very little!

At other times, battles have been fought at the caves, and during World War II the 200 miles of tunnels were turned into a refuge.

Art treasures such as Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” were stored there for safekeeping. Like the intriguing plot of an espionage story, servicemen escaping the Nazis were hidden in the tunnels.

Ever a practical people, the Dutch set up a bakery, hospital, library and church within the cool walls, in case the entire population had to retreat inside the hill.

You can take a guided tour of the tunnels to hear some of their long and amazing history. Along the route, your guide will point out a number of drawings and signatures, including those from World War II.

Because of Maastricht’s curious location, it makes an ideal homebase for those who want to see something of the area. We visited a specially placed stone beacon, which marks the spot where three countries meet. Most everyone walks around this marker so they can claim they were in three countries in under 10 seconds. Never one to miss a unique experience, I did it – amusing even in the rain.

Our ramblings also took us to the ancient Roman baths and museum at Heerlen. Unlike some Roman ruins I’ve seen, these are nicely enclosed and have a central walkway suspended over the grounds.

Their discovery is an interesting story unto itself. Back in 1940, because of the war, city officials decided all the vacant lots needed to be cultivated into gardens. This particular patch of earth held much more than they realized. As often happens, a farmer attempting to plow the land found a section of Roman column, which in turn led to more extensive finds.

Today, visitors see the Roman building foundations that outline each section of the baths. A recorded presentation talks you through the typical visit of a Roman citizen who goes to the baths for the first time.

Both informative and entertaining, you learn the Romans were very fond of their baths, which were more social gatherings than anything else. A small museum is housed in the back of the building.

Finally, the Netherlands American Cemetery, roughly six miles from Maastricht, is a stirring experience and should be on everyone’s must-see list. The Dutch, at least the mature ones, still talk about the Americans who liberated them during World War II.

The site occupies 65.5 acres of gently rolling farmland. It was liberated on Sept. 13, 1944, by troops of the U.S. 30th Infantry Division, a part of the U.S. First Army. The spot was officially established as a battlefield cemetery in November 1944.

At least 8,302 men made the ultimate sacrifice in the effort and were left behind to remain forever. They came from every state and the District of Columbia, with others mixed in from England, Canada and Mexico. A total of 106 are unknowns.

I searched for a few minutes in the light rain before finding a memorial to a serviceman that read “Indiana,” the place he and I call home. He never had the good fortune to return to the Hoosier state and loved ones. At least it was a tranquil place and the only sounds to be heard were raindrops falling on the headstones.

Scanning the pastoral landscape, I decided it wasn’t so different from rural Indiana, and that was reassuring.

There are many fine hotels in and around Maastricht, running the gamut from inexpensive to top-of-the-line. Across from the main train station is the Grand Hotel de l’Empereur, part of the Best Western chain, if your budget allows. They have all the amenities you could want, including internet access, a restaurant and much more.

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