Blending the old with the new

Last Updated 01 August 2009, 10:20 IST
Blending the old with the new

Maastricht, one of the oldest cities of the Netherlands holds great significance where ancient and modern history is concerned. Situated in the hilly landscape of Limburg, Maastricht has been influenced by Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and France so it is a multi-cultural city. So I was quite intrigued when a trip to this pretty, very sparsely populated place materialised.

First of all getting to Maastricht, needs careful planning. It has to be either by road or rail as there is no air service although there is an airport. The options are to fly to Brussels, Amsterdam, Düsseldorf Aachen or Frankfurt and then take a train or go by road. The rail and road run parallel so it is a picturesque trip through fields and factories and small suburbs but train timings need to be checked carefully as changes can suddenly send schedules into a tizzy. We chose the train from Amsterdam which is a two-and-a-half hour trip through scenic countryside with a change at Utrecht.

Maastricht which means town on the River Maas, is a beautiful quaint place, with cobbled streets, old and new bridges across the river Maas that link both sides of the town and ancient architecture with a few modern steel and glass structures.  The buildings are centuries old but beautifully maintained and the centre of town near the City Hall is a shopping area where the top fashion brands are on display and De Bijenkorf the Dutch equivalent of Marks and Spencer’s has its store.

Heart of Europe

Maastricht is called the heart of Europe. It is here that the EU treaty by the 13 countries of Europe was signed in 1991 in the magnificent government building and the plaque with the signatures of the heads’ of states is on display in the caves at the Chateau Neercanne the only terraced castle with amazing sprawling lawns and grand restaurants, reception and meeting rooms.

Walking through the streets of Maastricht to explore the town is a delight. Not much traffic, not many people — just tons of cyclists old and young whizzing past. Large tug boats, steamers and mini ships chug down the river. The people are friendly, gentle quiet and speak German, French, English and Dutch so getting around is not difficult. The weather depending on the time of year varies. We went in October when the mercury plummeted to three degrees Celsius with forecast for rain but it was so sparse one could stroll around without an umbrella. The air was crisp and clean and the best way to see the city is to walk.

The sights to see in Maastricht are the many castles which have been renovated into luxurious hotels. There is Kasteel Ernetein, Winesellerhof, Chateau St Gerlach, Chateau Neercanne and Kruishenhotel Maastricht.

All these have wonderful rooms, restaurants and wellness centres and recreate an era long gone by with their architecture, manicured lawns and sprawling estate grounds.

There is of course the modern Crowne Plaza Hotel on the banks of the Maas River very conveniently located within walking distance from the railway station. Maastricht is a favourite for business where heads of state meet for conferences and even the International Apparel Federation had its 24th annual convention with delegates from around the world and a fashion designers annual contest. The Maas divides the city into the east bank and the old quarter. The market was the hub of the city with the City Hall built in the 17th century which is a great tourist attraction but a stone’s throw away is the New City Hall very modern and metallic with glass. We took a stroll down the Latin Quarter where the students hang out with all the university buildings and the Maastricht academy of music. For art and culture lovers amongst us there were the museums, churches the medieval city wall built in 1229, the beautiful forts and the basilicas.

Square that makes a whole

Everyone heads for the Vrijthof where the grand St Servaas Basilica and St Jans church is in the largest square in the city which is lined with restaurants and cafes. It is a great place to get the feel of the city its people and culture.

For a small city, Maastricht is quite a shopper’s paradise. It has all the popular fashion labels which Amsterdam has, along with some great bargain stores. Ceramics, antiques, strumpfwaffel (a Dutch specialty and very delicious), Gouda cheese (a must buy), jewellery are some of the exciting items to shop for. The flea market on Saturday is where we headed as it had the most exciting array of art antiques and old curios; it was a collector’s paradise.

What is quite amazing is the distance between the countries. We drove for 20 minutes and were in Belgium where the amazing De Grotten van Kanne restaurant which is in the catacombs of tunnels is where we had dinner with a live band. Getting to the restaurant which is in the centre of the maze of tunnels is either on foot through a torch lit path or by a trolley bus which will whiz you in and out. One should, however, stay on the lit route, although there were several by lanes in the maze which could drive a person crazy once inside.

Roadside cafes, restaurants with multi cuisine and bakeries are a common sight in Maastricht and like any European city they are popular throughout the year. Food is not a problem. We could choose from Continental, Italian, French, even Chinese and the wines and beer of Maastricht are a must try since the locals claim they are different.

What struck and appealed to me the most about Maastricht was the calm peaceful atmosphere of this city which engulfs you as soon as you arrive. You are totally relaxed and at home in Maastricht which is quite unusual considering it is a city that is not on the popular tourist trail.

There is no hustle or bustle just a languid leisurely lifestyle that dates back to days gone by. Yet there is the thrill and speed of the modern era, as sports cars whiz down the highways and high powered conventions discuss the future of the world economy.

(Published 01 August 2009, 10:20 IST)

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