Valkenburg: Catacombs, Castles and Vlaai

The week I spend in the Lanaken/Maastricht area had spikier ups and downs than usual. One of the ups was this day trip to the small, picturesque town of Valkenburg. There’s not much here, but the whole town feels a little like main street Disneyland. I could not stop the opening music from Beauty and the Beast from running through my head every time I walked around. Aside from it’s rustic village charm, Valkenburg is also home to a strange and unique personal museum: a private replica of the Catacombs of Rome. I’m a sucker for weird museums, and during the crazy summer heat wave, any underground activity floated to the top of my to-do since it was the closest thing to air conditioning I could get.


The transit out to Valkenburg was a little tricky in terms of timing. Once you’re outside the big urban centers the public transit is much less frequent. Nevertheless, I made it to the catacombs in time for the 2pm tour. The tours are only offered once an hour, so I’m really glad that I made it because there is nothing to do in easy distance of the museum, and I was getting pretty fed up with walking under the scorching sun.

Not only is Valkenburg too small to have reasonable buses, most places in town only take local (Netherlands bank) credit cards, their old card machines can’t handle fancy foreign credit cards. It’s really a time capsule! Thankfully I  grabbed extra cash on my way over.

I had seen posts online about the “Roman Catacombs” in Valkenburg so I went there thinking “hey the Romans used to live here, they probably built stuff”. Nope. Well, yes, Romans did live in large parts of what is now Europe, including the Netherlands all the way up to Utrecht, and Valkenburg was well inside the Imperial borders. But, no, these catacombs in Valkenburg were in no way built by Romans.

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Our guide explained that what we were going to see is a replica of the catacombs in Rome. Back in the Victorian/Edwardian days, rich people were supposed to spend part of their wealth investing in public parks, gardens, museums, and other public displays of art and education to enrich the lives of those less fortunate. A large number of Europe’s parks and museums were built this way. The “Roman Catacombs” of Valkenburg are no exception.

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The richy rich guy who commissioned these was Jan Diepen. The museum was opened in 1910 and although it’s gone through some closings and re-openings, it’s now Valkenburgs main claim to tourist fame. Despite it’s lack of originality, it’s still massively interesting since it’s a faithful reproduction of the catacombs of Rome that were visible at the time of construction. It’s now the only place we can see some of the displays that have since closed in Rome, and because of it’s obscure location, the art generally in better shape than it’s Roman counterpart and you don’t have to share it with as many tourists. Yeah, I’ll probably still go to the real ones if I ever get to Rome, but this was a good visit.

The air was nice and cold underground, the frescoes and history were interesting, and my guide patiently reexplained everything to me in English even though I was the only non Dutch speaker in the group. He said sometimes he has to do it in as many as 4 languages.

I sadly did not write any of the stories down that day, so looking back on my photos I have a general sense of “that was fun and interesting”, but no real ability to tell you about the pictures in detail. It felt a little like we were traveling through time as well since the replicas were arranged chronologically.

 
We started with areas of the Catacombs that actually did predate Christianity, and saw the way that the Romans buried and revered their dead, and then the gradual shift in artwork and symbolism as Christianity took over and moved in. It was quite fascinating to see the artwork of the early Christians that still incorporated a tremendous amount of Pagan imagery from Rome’s pre-Christian culture. By the end we’d moved all the way up to medieval art styles of statue and fresco.

At one point our guide pointed out this particular image as being representative of a trend to depict Jesus as fair skinned with long flowing hair. Although previous generations of artists had each picked a different look for the central figure of the Christian religion, it seems this one endured and still remains the most popular depiction.

Although there were several stone replicas of tombs and grave markers, there was one statue that struck me particularly, that of Saint Cecelia. She was an early adopter of Christianity before the Roman Empire made it the official state religion. Back then, Christians actually were persecuted by the state, and Cecelia was married off to a pagan nobleman against her wishes. When she refused to give up her beliefs, she was beheaded… almost? The legend is that she was struck in the neck three times with a sword yet did not die… right away. Her ability to withstand the pain and her prolonged life were seen by Pope Urban I as a holy sign. More than 1300 years later when the Roman Empire was long gone, but Christianity was having a great time ruling the Western world, it is said that her body was exhumed from it’s tomb and found to be intact with no signs of decay. Another miracle! Oh, and that’s not a necklace, it’s the wound from those three sword blows and a little blood oozing out. Martyr art.

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At the end of the guided tour we were turned loose at a small museum that displayed the tools and techniques that had been used to replicate the catacomb art. I admit I was a little tempted to go back and look at some of the art again, but I didn’t want to get lost by taking a wrong turn. After the main event, I did a little wandering around the town square. It is insanely quaint. There’s a whole area of shops and restaurants that looks like it’s out of a story book.

I walked all around the ruins of the castle but declined to go inside. I think I was just too tired for an above ground tour that oh so hot day. And if you think I talk about the heat wave too much, believe me, I’ve cut out most of the references to my heat-borne misery from my notes… it was soul sucking.

As an antidote to heat misery, I stopped off at a little cafe for some vlaai. Vlaai is kind of like pie. I had strawberry that day. It was cool, sweet and refreshing. The base was more like a cookie than a pie crust. It was quite thick but neither cake nor pastry. There was a thin layer of chocolate, a creamy layer and fresh strawberries in a pie gelatin. Clearly fresh berries from the flavor and texture. Served with a little shot of whipped cream and a cup of coffee. Stopping for vlaaii and coffee is a must do in the Netherlands.

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When the sun moved to take away my shade for the 5th time that afternoon, I gave up on staying cool and headed back to the bus stop. No part of the town failed to be cute so I distracted myself from the weather by taking more photos and singing Disney songs under my breath until the bus arrived to take me back.

Adventures in Maastricht

The Netherlands offered more challenges to me as a traveler than any other country I went to last summer. Despite the host of obstacles in weather, transit, and basic cultural snobbery, I still had several positive experiences while I was there. I chose Maastricht after reading a fellow blogger’s rave reviews, and I can just about imagine that if I went there in better weather… and had my own transport (rental car, scooter, heck even a bike) it would have been a significantly more magical experience. The highlights of Maastricht for me were the caves (because if it’s underground, you know I’m going), the beautiful cathedral converted into a bookstore, and the tiniest Cafe in the Netherlands.


Fort Sint Pieter

The caves I found are part of the Fort of St. Pieter and are such an extensive series of tunnels that it is not permitted to enter without a guide lest one become lost and die. Seriously. I signed up for a combo tour to include the fort, which turned out to be well worth it. Even though you can climb up to the fort and see the outside unaccompanied, the guide has the keys to get inside and also a million interesting stories.

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In 1673, D’artagnan and his army invaded Maastricht under the orders of Louis XIV. Yes, THAT D’artagnan. At the time, there was no fort atop the mountain, and the French army used that mountainside as an attack point to break down the city walls. Later when the Dutch reclaimed the town,  they decided to never let that happen again. Maastricht was a highly contested and often invaded territory for several hundred years, but eventually advances in weaponry made city walls obsolete, but the fortress atop the mountain remained.

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I was surprised at how dark and gloomy the interior of the fortress actually was. I think I expected it to be more like a castle, but the guide pointed out the necessity of thick walls and arched passages to withstand artillery fire. We got to walk though the tunnels and see the different ways soldiers would communicate in such a large space as well as some arrow slits and cannons. The communication was done by means of drums placed in such a way as to take advantage of the building’s acoustics. A leader could issue orders from the center of the building and have a drummer beat out code that would be heard all over. It was quite dark in most places, so I don’t have very good photos.

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The very top part of the fort was used by Nazis in WWII to watch for Allied aircraft, but the tunnels underneath the fort that honeycombed the surrounding countryside for miles were used to smuggle people into free Belgian territory at the same time.

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The caves themselves were originally quarries, but became shelters where fathers could bring families and livestock to hide during invasions, and we’re used from Roman vs Viking times up through WWII for that purpose. There were places to cook and sleep like little apartments carved into the tunnels. They also grew mushrooms and chicory, which my guide was surprised to learn Americans brew into coffee (New Orleans!).

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Now the tunnels are full of art.

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The guide stressed the importance of staying with the group since people still can easily get lost without a guide because there are hundreds of km of tunnels. He told a story of a couple of young men who just barely escaped death because they happened to find a “chimney” or vertical tunnel that led up to a field. A farmer heard them and a rescue was organized, but it was pure luck.

Going underground was probably the highlight of my day/days because it was only 11°C underground, which was a wonderful relief from the 30°C+ weather of the day. Surprisingly, despite the drought, a million beautiful wildflowers grew around the fort and caves which made for a lovely scene to walk to and from the bus stops with.

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Downtown Maastricht

During my week in Lanaken/Maastrict, I was having the worst week of my holiday due to some serious personal emotional stuff, so I spend a goodly amount of time in the Airbnb trying to stay cool both thermally and mentally. I also did more than average day trips away from the city including the Fort and Caves above, the amazing Carolus Thermen Spa in Aachen, and the oddly Disney-esque town of Valkenburg. On my last day, I decided to try out the city of Maastricht one last time.

When I arrived downtown, there was a large flea market in the nation square and it was mostly full of the kind of antiques and knick-knacks I found endlessly fascinating as a child, but don’t really know what to do with now. I mean buckets of old spoons? Art made from driftwood? It’s neat to look at but no room in the luggage. I did buy a nice summer dress, lightweight and a soft gray that reflected the bright blue sky. I changed into it as soon as I could and it made a world of difference. It was easily the best purchase of the trip.

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After exploring the market, I set off to find the bookstore in a cathedral, which is dead cool as a concept. I read about it in other blogger’s “things to do in Maastricht” and decided I would check it out if I was able. I am so glad I made the time! Bookstores are already a little bit sacred space for me, so to combine the deliberate awe-inspiring architecture of a Gothic cathedral with thousands of beautiful books! Stunning.

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Because cathedrals have such incredibly high ceilings, the bookstore installed multiple levels almost like balconies, allowing more book space but keeping the room open and the architecture continuously observable. I’d been in other converted churches that lost a lot of what made the cathedral “style” by breaking it up into usable space. This was by far the best combination. It was awesome to climb the central column of books and see the high vaulted ceilings up close. I got a little vertigo but worth it.

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Not only was it beautifully constructed, it was also a great bookstore! Well stocked and diverse. I saw several books I wanted to make better friends with as well as lots of old favorites. I was amazed by the number of people inside, not just admiring the architecture but loaded down with books to buy. There’s even a small cafe in the back and a kid’s section! If you have to live in a city that has a plethora of leftover cathedrals, I think this might just be the best way they can be put to use in the modern era.

On my way to my next stop I encountered another unique street performance. I was growing used to seeing buskers performing for money on the streets, but this couple decked out in ballroom gear waltzing around accompanied by live, tux-clad musicians definitely stood out!

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Finally I headed over to have vlaai and koffie at the smallest cafe in the Netherlands. Vlaai is a kind of pie that’s popular in the Netherlands. It’s not a specific flavor (I had several flavors while I was there) but more the fact that the construction is mid-way between pie and tart that I can’t really say it’s exactly like any other dessert I’ve had. It does tend to be thicker in crust than either of those treats, which was startling at first, but the more I ate, the more I liked them. The vlaai I had that day was apricot, and so cool and fresh you could believe they just picked the fruit this morning. It was the exact balance of sweet and tart I look for in a perfect apricot, somehow even capturing the texture of perfectly ripe.

In addition, “cafe” doesn’t only mean “coffee shop”. This place has a full menu of food, beer/wine/cocktails, dessert and coffee. It’s also very popular. The indoor seating is nearly non-existent, but the patio seating seemed quite generous, even though it was completely full. I ended up sitting on a cushion on a curb next to the building with a tiny table lower than my knees. It was under a tree and so I had shade, and didn’t mind at all. By the time I finished there was a line even for those small curbside spots!


In the past I’ve read and repeated that the first and last things you do on a holiday define the experience. While Lanaken/Maastricht was in the middle of my summer, and in many ways represents the most difficult things I had to overcome, I’m glad I had these positive experiences on my last day there. It leaves me with a sense of what could be if I hadn’t been so ambushed by my health and the weather that week, and it reminds me that even in the midst of dark times, there are still wonderful adventures to be found and enjoyed.

The Foods of Cherry Blossom Season

20160401_141325The last two years of living in Korea has been cherry blossom heaven. I had amazing experiences at the nation’s biggest cherry blossom festival in Jinhae both years (2016, 2017) and didn’t see the same thing twice. When I announced my move to Gyeongju, the museum without walls, everyone said “oh what a beautiful place! you’re going to love the spring”. And I was. I was excited to love spring until it turned out to be the bipolar spring from hell. It’s late April still vacillating back and forth from  10C with rain 30C with sun. Neither the flowers nor I know what to do.

I was so ready for a couple weeks of stunning cherry blossoms and sunny afternoons by the lake and river, but instead I got about two days (both of which I was working during) and then the rain drove all the blossoms away.

Since I couldn’t attend a cherry blossom festival this spring, I’ve decided to focus on the other bounty of cherry blossom season: the themed food and drink. Bearing in mind I’m not in Seoul where the trendy boutique cafes all live, I decided to try and find as many cherry blossom themed consumables as possible in my small town of Gyeongju.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. Every town has a few local variants, and who knows how many tiny cafes and bakeries were selling their own seasonal specials that I never even encountered. Nonetheless, it should be obvious that cherry blossom season isn’t only a feast for the eyes.

Coffee:

2016-04-15 15.45.30Starbucks Cherry Blossom Frappuccino: This one is available in several countries. It’s a seasonal milkshake style beverage. I like that it wasn’t too sweet. I don’t feel like it tastes especially floral, but it’s pink and festive and fun, so why not?
3 stars

Ediya Cherry Blossom Latte: As a result of the Starbucks trend, every other cafe here offers some variation on the cherry blossom latte/frappe. Ediya is probably the most famous, but I found it to taste like strawberry milk. The iced latte version was thicker than flavored milk, but not all the way to frappe/milkshake status.
1 star

Bliss Blooming Latte: The one coffee shop I really wanted to visit this year and didn’t get to try was the cafe Bliss out by Bomun Lake. They have a latte with a “blooming” blossom. A confectionery of some sort that expands in the coffee. No other branch offers this cherry blossom special. I saw the video online and was instantly captivated. However the lake is rather far away and I never made it out there a second time after learning about it. I’ll put it on the list for next year.
(not rated)

Kanu Spring Blend: This is my go to instant coffee brand, a phrase I never would have believed I could have uttered 5 years ago. I admit, I did try it at first because of the ads, but it’s so much better than most of the other packet coffees in Korea that it soon became a staple at my office desk for emergency pick me ups. I was so excited to see it show up in the seasonal line up, but I haven’t seen it in any of Gyeongju’s shops.
(not rated)

Drinks:

20180325_135358Cherry Blossom Soda: GS25 is a major convenience store brand here in Korea and they also have their own line of drinks and snacks. In the spring, they offer a couple of cans decked out in cherry blossom art. The pink can is a bright pink bubbly soda pop that wins hands down for the most floral flavor. It reminded me of drinking sweetened rose or orange blossom drinks in the middle east. I don’t know if it’s made from real cherry blossoms or if they use a more common flower to get the flavor, but it’s legit. My only complaint was that it was so insanely sweet I had to dilute it. I wanted to mix it with gin, but I haven’t found a local supply since moving here. I tried it with water, but that didn’t work well. Finally, I mixed it with milk, Italian soda style, and that was delicious.
4 stars

20180423_200958.jpgCherry Blossom Grape Juice: The green can was actually my favorite drink of the season. Instead of a soda, it’s green grape juice with the same intensely floral flavor as the soda. It doesn’t have the crazy pink dye, or the bubbles. It’s a bit less sweet, and it has some tasty fruit jelly bits in the bottom. It was still strong, but I diluted it with just water and it was perfect. I’m thinking of buying a bunch to stash for the summer.
5 stars

Cherry Blossom Milk: Koreans love flavored milk. Banana is the most popular flavor here, but I’ve seen several others including green grape and apple. While perusing at a local 7-11 I noticed a single serving milk container with pink blossoms on it. Upon closer inspection, it was indeed cherry blossom milk. It wasn’t bad, only mildly too sweet and somewhere between floral and fruity. Worth drinking once, more than once if you love sweet milk.
2 stars

Alcohol:

Hoegaarden Cherry Beer: It’s technically cherry flavored and cherry blossom scented, but it was released seasonally and decorated with pink blossoms. I was expecting it to be similar to a lambic, but it ended up tasting more like a shandy made with cherry-ade. Not too sweet, and certainly not bad.
3 stars

Kirin Sakura Viewing Can: This beer is decorated with the signature unicorn dancing amid the sakura. Kirin is a Japanese beer company and sakura viewing is an important part of spring. The seasonal can is decorated to put you in the mood for spring, but the inside is the same classic Kirin taste. I happen to like Kirin beer, so this wasn’t a big disappointment.
3 stars

Soju: I saw posters around town for soju (the Korean distilled rice wine) that had cherry blossoms on the label, and usually when there’s something on the soju label other than bamboo it signifies flavor, so I was very hopeful when I finally found some. Sadly, it turned out to be regular soju, which I don’t care for as much as the cheongju (like soju, but smoother with less of that nail-polish-remover aftertaste).
1 star

Foods:

20180311_163719.jpgCherry blossom popcorn: GS25 is a chain of local 24 hour convenience stores. The same brand that created my favorite floral soda and juice, as a matter of fact, and they didn’t stop at drinks. Amid the food offerings was a light pink bag of cherry blossom popcorn. This was my first find of the season this year and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. When I opened the bag, I was hit by a powerful and pleasant perfume making it clear that this was not merely pink popcorn, but genuinely floral. It was sweet and tart, with a base coat of kettle corn and a top note of something like Smarties. I didn’t realize at the time, but I suspect it was made with actual cherry blossoms. More later.
4 stars

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Cherry blossom Pepero sticks: By now the world knows Japan’s famous Pocky sticks: crisp shortbread sticks dipped in chocolate and other flavors. When my family lived in Japan in the 80s (yeah… old) the iconic treats weren’t available in the US and I spent years pining for them after we moved back to America. Although Korea has gotten past it’s hatred of all things Japanese enough to import Pocky, they also have their own national brand of the delicious snacks called “Pepero”. There’s even a national holiday for Pepero where all the stores sell huge boxes and decorated gift sets and we all buy and exchange boxes of Pepero. Not Pocky. The Lotte brand of short, double dipped pepero are delicious anyway, but then I spotted this special pink package and had to try it. The first dip was white chocolate and the top coat had the same sweet/tart taste that I’m coming to realize is the ‘authentic’ cherry powder flavor. It was more creamy than sweet, which was refreshing. It’s not going to replace chocolate as my favorite Pepero flavor, but still enjoyable.
3 stars

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Cherry blossom frozen yogurt: Since many coffee shops here are also dessert cafes, it wasn’t only coffee drinks that came in exciting cherry blossom themes. Yogurpresso is a dessert cafe that specializes in, as you can imagine by the name, frozen yogurt and espresso drinks! Unlike American fro-yo, this is quite tart, like actual yogurt instead of ice cream with an identity crisis. The large “blossoms” are crisp meringue and the sprinkles are some kind of candy. It might be one of the preserved cherry blossom additives. I’ve seen them mostly advertised out of Japan. More likely they are random berry flavored sugar bits. However, the little carafe of pink milk down there is the cherry blossom flavor. A tiny pour over to add floral goodness to the sundae. It was tart and refreshing with a variety of flavors and textures to keep it interesting.
4 stars

Cherry blossom pastries & snack cakes:

Once again in a convenience store (they are truly ubiquitous) I found a rack of blossom themed snack cakes. I’m not a huge fan of the packaged pastries here in Korea. Although they are super cheap, they are far inferior to the fresh pastries offered on every other street at the cafe/bakery combos like Tous le Jous and Paris Baguette. I got one bun to try, but it turned out to be strawberry creme. The darker red is red bean (a common bun filling and one I actually quite like), but I prefer my red bean filling with fresh cream. The strawberry was too sweet and there wasn’t anything cherry blossom about it other than the pinkness. The other snack you see here is a variant on the ever present snack cakes. I read this one before grabbing it and it’s also just strawberry and cream cheese. I didn’t bother to buy it after all.
1 star

Festival food:

I didn’t go to any festivals this year, but I decided to throw in my festival food observations from previous years. Every festival in Korea has shaped and colored cotton candy. I’ve seen cartoon charaters, animals, and abstract art created in spun sugar. Cherry blossom festivals of course bring out cherry blossom shaped cotton candy. I didn’t eat any because I figure it’s all cotton candy flavored when we’re talking about festival street carts.
(not rated)

I did eat the cherry blossom fried ice cream at last year’s festival, however. It’s not very pretty, and it’s hard to tell in the paper cup that it is blossom shaped, but you can sort of make out the petals at the top? The best part of this treat is watching them make it. The vendor removes a super frozen blossom of ice cream and dips it in batter before dropping it in boiling oil right before your eyes! When it’s done, the outside is warm and crispy and the inside is cold and creamy. It was vanilla, and I loved it anyway.
4 stars

Honey Butter Cherry Blossom Potato Chips: I was not going to eat this. I saw it early in the season and turned away. This is because when I first arrived in Korea I tried the Honey Butter Chip. I do not know what the obsession with honey butter flavor here is, but you can get WAY too much stuff in honey butter. The problem was it was awful. It was cloyingly sweet and the butter was really potent (maybe because they use French fermented butter?) I was glad to have the experience once, but had no desire to repeat it.

Then I read another blog about Korean snacks and discovered that the limited edition seasonal flavor is actually made with domestic cherry blossoms, harvested from Chilgok County in north Gyeongsang. That’s really close to where I live!Untitled.png

Only 1.4 million bags were released, by the way. That sounds like a lot, but there are more than 51 million people in Korea, soooo I guess we’re sharing. As you can see, the chips are not pink. I’m fine with that since it means no dyes. The smell of cherry blossoms is the first thing that hits you when you open the bag, which is saying something, since potato chips have a fairly strong smell of their own. I tasted a crisp and was pleased to find that the cloying sweetness I’d disliked in my first honey butter experience was dampened significantly by a gentle floral tartness. I became extremely curious at this point. So many of the things I’d tasted had been more tart than floral, and I’d just been assuming it was a matter of artificial flavors, but this was made with real flowers!
4.5 stars

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The Last Word on Cherry Blossom Flavor:

I looked it up, because that’s me. I found that in Japan, there’s an ages old culinary tradition of salt pickling cherry blossoms in plum vinegar. But, Haitai Corp. was very clear about the Korean origin of the flowers they used (equally proud of the French origin of the butter they use, by the way). I broke down and worked on translating the package and ingredients list to try and get more information, but all I could gather was that it’s domestic Korean flowers and not artificial flavors.

My only conclusion is that cherry blossoms are actually tart in taste. This explains why every cherry blossom treat I tried was either a little sour or way too sweet. The flavor has to be treated more like lemon or green plum in contrast to sweeter flowers like jasmine or lavender. Considering how many times I was surprised by sourness, maybe I ate a lot more real cherry blossoms this year than I realized.

Happy spring and happy snacking!