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.