Of all the city trips that can you choose from in the Netherlands, Maastricht is most likely to give you the feeling of being abroad. With Belgium and Germany just around the corner, a huge number of expats also live here, and every other student comes from another country. This is one of the reasons why this popular city is busy at weekends. NextDestination.nl decided to take a different tack and visit the city during the week. Time for a Maastricht midweekend. With all the pros and none of the cons.
The train station at Maastricht is a terminus and feels like the end of the line, which it is in a way as it is only a few kilometres to the Belgian border. We remain in the capital of Limburg and look for our room at the Townhouse Hotel, which is no more than five minutes’ walk from the station. In the hotel lobby, which is furnished with vintage pieces from the ‘50s and ‘60s, the friendly receptionist introduces herself and asks if I would like a bowl of soup from a large Creuset pan keeping warm on a hot plate next to her. We are given a spacious room on the fourth floor. The blue and white Hästens bed stands on a dark parquet floor, there are plenty of books to choose from, and an array of kitschy embroideries hang on the wall. The Townhouse is not just a place to sleep; it feels more like you’re staying with your favourite aunty.
For quite a long time, the eastern bank of the city was thought to be the inferior side of the Meuse river. However, the Wyck district is now being rediscovered and young entrepreneurs are opening up shops and bars. Even Hermès, the chic fashion empire, chose to set up in Maastricht’s Rive Droite, diagonally across from the Beaumont Hotel with its wonderful brasserie Harry’s. And this autumn will see the opening of Wyck Bazaar, a type of food hall in Wycker Grachtstraat where producers can sell their fresh produce.
Village on the river
Wycker Brugstraat takes you to the 13th century St. Servatius bridge that connects the two banks. The Meuse is a broad river where inland vessels lie deep in the water. When I look around at the Wyck district, Maastricht appears quite rural, rather like a village on the river. However, from the highest point on the bridge you can see a more urban silhouette with church towers on the other side, with St. John’s church (Sint Janskerk) and its red towers the most remarkable.
I visit the tourist office, situated in the beautiful Dinghuis, to get extra information and then hurry to reach the Wednesday market on time as it has recently been voted the second best medium-sized market in the Netherlands. On the cobblestones of the market square which surrounds the city hall, figs, raspberries, and cactus fruits have been laid out enticingly. Further on, someone is selling artisan grilled toasties from a caravan situated next to a Greek selling mouthwatering mezedes. The terraces around the square are full of people and it’s not the first time I almost feel as though I’m in a different country. Wherever I go I can hear plenty of languages other than Dutch. German ladies on a shopping expedition, elegant French women with oversized sunglasses, or Italian students chattering a little too loudly. Of all the students in Maastricht, which make up 10% of the city’s population, around half of them come from abroad.
In the Jan van Eyck Academie, a post-academy in the Jeker quarter, you constantly catch snatches of all sorts of languages. This light-coloured building often puts on interesting exhibitions and the wonderful inner courtyard is ideal for a bite to eat or something to drink.
As I continue to walk towards the city park, a giraffe catches my eye. The animal appears dead in a round cage while a woman tries to comfort it. Intrigued, I grab my telephone and a quick Google search reveals that this is a work of art by Michel Huisman. His Halfautomatische Troostmachine (semi-automatic comforting machine) is an installation from 1997 that gives a new purpose to the former bear pit in the park. Not everyone was enthusiastic, however, and the bronze statues depicting extinct animals have already been vandalized several times. By contrast, the park around the cage with its soft skimming light and first leaves of autumn shows a completely different side to Maastricht. The space and tranquillity, less than a ten-minute walk from the busy shopping streets, have enticed many a book reader as well as couples in love.
The owner of Adriaan De Smaakmaker, Angeliek Lumsden, tells me more about Maastricht while her husband James stirs chutney in huge pans. ‘Maastricht is an international city that is hip without trying too hard, stylish and elegant, and full of joie de vivre.’ She speaks enthusiastically about Maastricht’s mayor Annemarie Penn-te Strake. ‘She’s a real local, she cycles to work, she is modest, and she is really easy to talk to.’ The bar that Angeliek recommends is De Pieter where I admire the numerous paintings on the wall while sipping my tonic.
Lured by the fact that it serves several different Dutch wines – and also because of its ninth position on TripAdvisor’s list of 314 restaurants in Maastricht – I enter Mes Amis full of expectation. Next door at Bar Ma van Sloun, hordes of new students in identical outfits spend their time drinking, but the ambiance at Mes Amis is considerably more sophisticated. I am welcomed by Patriek Doelen who says he has a surprise for me. This is always a good thing, especially if the aperitif is a Dutch sparkling wine, the Pareltjes van Annaline (Pearls of Annaline), inspired by Patriek’s mother Annaline who is a viticulturist. What follows is a delicious three-course meal comprising a Vitello Tonnato, a succulent quail with corn prepared in different ways, and a highly labour-intensive forest fruits dessert. The wines of St. Martinus and Wijndomein De Planck are the perfect accompaniment.
It’s Thursday morning and as I cross the Wilhelmina bridge with the sun on my back and a blue sky that promises a beautiful day ahead, I go in search of the inner city harbour of ‘t Bassin. Boats bob about on the water while their owners sit on folding chairs, soaking up the morning sun. The Eiffel building further along offers room for creative types and in the Brandweerkazerne (the former fire station), a table full of young mothers are catching up with one another. The light interior is furnished with second-hand furniture from the 1950s, there is a wonderful terrace with red seats and young fig trees, and the coffee is served just as coffee should be. It’s a great asset for the city and when I next visit I definitely want to experience the evening market where regional products are on sale on Thursdays from 5:00 PM onwards.
At Bams off-licence, Jos the owner tells me enthusiastically that he has almost finished making his own brand of gin, even though he sells fifty types of gin in his shop alongside 1200 different whiskies. He tells me that Maastricht can indeed get rather busy at the weekend because of the many events that are organized. ‘A midweek visit is a good alternative. If you come outside the weekend, it is quieter here and you can fully enjoy the history of our city. Personally, I also enjoy looking at an empty Vrijthof square again now and then.’
Following his advice, I end up on the terrace of In Den Ouden Vogelstruys, also known as Maastricht’s living room. The huge square is empty and the view of the St. John’s church is breathtaking.
At Maison Blanche Dael, a coffee roasting house and tea packer dating back to 1878, Marcel Zeegers gives me a mini lecture on coffee, tea, and even peanuts, which are also roasted here on site. Blanche Dael is one of the many independent stores that make shopping in Maastricht such a pleasant experience. As does Boekhandel Dominicanen, an enormous bookstore in a former church where you can literally spend hours.
The last district I decide to visit before taking the train back home is Céramique. I follow the Meuse river past Café Zuid towards the Bonnefantenmuseum that was designed by Aldo Rossi and walk along the Avenue Céramique, a street lined with plane trees that can rightly be called Avenue, before ending up at the Centre Céramique where there are always interesting exhibitions on display.
Right near to the station I pop into Bagel & Juice Bar SAP for a healthy juice and then board the direct train back to Amsterdam. My batteries are recharged after a midweek in Maastricht and I know it won’t be long before my next trip to the city.
Maastricht has created the website maastrichtmidweekend.nl which offers a special deal to visitors wanting to visit Maastricht during the week. Click on the following links for more information on the places visited during our midweek trip to Maastricht:
www.vvvmaastricht.nl www.townhousehotels.nl www.beaumonthotel.nl www.wyckbazaar.nl www.janvaneyck.nl www.adriaandesmaakmaker.nl www.mesamis.nl www.brandweerkantine.nl www.drankenshopbams.nl www.blanchedael.nl www.bonnefanten.nl www.centreceramique.nl www.sap-bar.nl
Joost is a freelance travel journalist and a regular blogger for Nextdestination.nl. He visited the capital of Limburg province at the invitation of the Maastricht tourist office