Disembarking at Maastricht’s tiny station after a 20-minute train ride from Liège, I was heartened to discover that gloom, Euro or otherwise, wasn’t on the agenda. I’d been flicking through the grim headlines in the Economist on the way over and as a result, was expecting a few dark moments from the town that gave us the Maastrict Treaty and the Euro. Instead, found myself in a chirpy little settlement that looks as if it’s barely been disturbed by the passing of the last 100 years.
Bustling crowds swirled around me, some on bikes, others on foot. A wide tree-lined avenue stretched down to the river, bisected by tram lines and crowded with cream coloured buildings and twinkling shop fronts. In short, far from the Dutch Hull that I’d been expecting, I seemed to have ended up in the Dutch version of York.
Founded by the Romans, Maastricht is the capital of the southern Limburg region of the Netherlands and is the country’s oldest city, although Nijmegen would beg to differ. As a result, it’s crammed with wonderful old buildings beginning with pre-Christian remains and finishing up somewhere in the 18th century. Much like, it must be said, the UK’s very own York. That impression of mediaeval prettiness was reinforced the further in I got. Around the central square is a warren of winding streets, dotted with churches and shops selling local fare.
There’s a few high street chain stores (including, weirdly, Clockhouse – a franchise I thought long defunct) along Grote Staat, made up for by a wealth of street stalls selling yummy local specialities such as waffles and apple doughnuts. Up in the main square was a market selling local food and plenty of crafts, including some fabulous cable knit gloves. Best of all though, was the bookshop.
Located in an 800-year-old Dominican church just off the main drag, Selexyz Dominicanen is a bookstore that is literally heavenly. High vaulted ceilings featuring some utterly wonderful mediaeval frescoes, a sympathetic layout and racks of unusual tomes, both in English and Dutch, make shopping here less of a consumer event and more an unmissable experience. What's more, if you start feeling peckish while perusing the shelves, there's a wonderful little café named Coffee Lovers tucked away at the back. With plenty of homemade cakes to choose from and Fairtrade coffee on tap, it's perfect for wiling away a rainy afternoon.
Fabulous bookshops aside, Maastricht has far more going for it than shopping. Its winding cobbled streets make cars an irrelevance, with most inhabitants going about on foot or by bike. What’s more, it’s small enough to navigate easily without the need for a motor, although if you do decide to head into the pretty surrounding countryside, there are plenty of buses and trams to be found around the station. But Maastricht’s real beauty is in its eclectic architecture, with Roman ruins butting up against mediaeval town houses and gracious neo-Palladian hotels. Strung out along the banks of the Meuse River, the best way to see it is on foot and for that you need a good guide.
Enter Cor Halmans, Maastricht resident and local expert. With a brain packed with witty one-liners and a wealth of local knowledge, a wander round Maastricht with Cor is like taking a trip with a Dutch version of John Cleese – in short, brilliant fun. We began by checking out the city’s mediaeval street art, which, said Cor, used to double as street signs. Out of the merchant’s quarter and over the river, and we headed deeper into the medieval quarter, ducking into the wonderful 12th century Basilica of Our Lady to avoid a seasonal splatter of rain and get a closer look at its Mosan frescoes. Outside in the square, we stopped for coffee at one of the little pavement cafes, before dropping in to the De Bisschopsmolen bakery. Uniquely, it specialises in spelt bread, using flour ground with an on site water wheel. With the next stop a local chocolate shop, my tour of Maastricht was fast becoming a gourmet experience. Tucked away on Havenstraat, Benoit Nihant puts the lie to the notion that only the Belgians and Swiss can do chocolate properly. Offering a medley of extravagantly and unusually flavoured sweet treats; this is where you’ll find dark chocolate and lavender side by side, organic milk chocolate and amazing salted caramels. They aren’t cheap, but they beat anything you can buy at home.
Need to know
Eat: If you like your food local and your portions hearty, head to Restaurant Witloof where you’ll find plenty of both. Owner Ad Fiddelers has transformed the beautiful old building in which the restaurant is housed into a mash-up of vintage emporium and cosy diner, so it’s perfect for anyone who fancies a spot eco-friendly decorative inspiration along with a slap-up supper. www.witloof.nl
Stay: The wonderful, historic Hotel Beaumont has just been given a makeover by British architect, David Chipperfield, and offers low-impact hospitality in a seriously chic setting. Better still, it’s just a short hop from the mediaeval city centre and perfectly placed for river walks. The railway station is a short 10-minute stroll away. www.beaumont.nl
Getting there: Fares from London to Maastricht by train start at £113 standard class return. All prices are per person and subject to availability. For bookings visit www.raileurope.co.uk or call 0844 848 4070. Personal callers are welcome at the Rail Europe Travel Centre, 1 Regent Street, London SW1.
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