After spending the day in Antwerp, I spent the evening getting to Maastricht. Here, I opted to stay for 2 nights instead of 1, and sprung to stay not in a hostel, but in a “botel” – a boat turned hotel, it floats on the river Maas, and it has very affordable weekday prices.
The Botel Maastricht:
The rooms were very tiny, but after staying at hostels, it felt quite spacious to me. Even the towel, folded on the bed, felt like a real luxury! (in hostels, there is usually the option to rent a towel if you want one; at the hostels I stayed in, towels cost between 1 to 4.50 euros).
I spent a restful first night at the botel, and then started out early on day 4. Maastricht is currently vying for the position of the Netherland’s oldest city (it’s in fierce competition against Nijmegen), and the history is evident everywhere you go. In the park right across from my botel, I got to see many remnants of the city’s old fortifications (there used to be a wall encircling the city) as well as Helpoort, the oldest surviving town gate in the Netherlands (built in 1229). After that, I went to the Bisschopsmolen, a bakery with a working 7th-century water wheel.
This wheel powers the flour mill that supplies the bakery, and you could walk around in the back and take a good look at the mill. Here I stopped for a cappuccino and a slice of strawberry-rhubarb vlaai (seasonal fruit pie).
Next I walked to the Fort Sint Pieter, builton a hill on the south side of Maastricht. This fort used to be in charge of defending the city. Here I took a tour of both the fort and the underground tunnel system and it was so cool!
They offered tours in both English and Dutch, and the English tour guide was phenomenal. She was a student of art history and was very passionate about what she was showing us, going overtime on both the fort and the tunnel tours. I wrote down everything I could remember afterwards and filled about ten pages… for the sake of keeping these blog posts a reasonable length and not novel-sized, I’ll try to cut it down a bit here.
The fort was built between 1701-1702; it was completed in just 11 months because they were worried that the French or Spanish would attack at any time. And the fort was built primarily by women, because most of the men were off fighting! The fort was initially just one floor; a second floor was added later, but by the time it was finished, it was no longer needed and would end up never being used. From the top, though, it did offer amazing views of the city! If you looked west you could actually see Belgium, and Germany was only 30km to the east.
The Fort Sint Pieter:
View of Maastricht from the top of the fort. The red tower you can see on the left is Sint Janskerk.
The tunnels were even cooler than the fort, both literally and figuratively. The temperature is always 11 degrees Celsius in the tunnels, and it is extremely damp. All the walls are limestone, with some slate mixed in, and the tunnels weren’t built for military purposes at all, but initially for mining. The old Dutch law stated that farmers owned whatever was beneath their land, so they could carve out blocks and sell them for extra money. The limestone was also used in building the fort, which sits above the tunnels, and for building many of Maastricht’s famous sights. One of these is the Sint Janskerk, which has a very unique reddish hue to it; the rumour is that the colour comes from the church being painted with ox blood. Our tour guide told us that this has never been verified, but back in the day people often added substances to the limestone to strengthen it, such as iron (the limestone is actually very easy to cut through – we even got to try it during the tunnel tour!). So the ox blood may very well have been added to strengthen the stone. The original colour has since faded, so the church is repainted every few years (with normal paint).
Also, because the tunnels were created by a whole bunch of individual miners, there’s no rhyme or reason to the tunnels themselves; they go off in all directions. Many areas are no longer safe to be in, and some sections have collapsed.
There was also a vast amount of artwork throughout the tunnels, commissioned for the purpose of beautifying the tunnels! The artwork mostly consisted of sculptures, carvings and lots of charcoal drawings. They couldn’t use paint down there; because of the humidity, the paint would never dry.
Charcoal drawing in the tunnels:
There was also a “party room” in the tunnels, that the locals in Maastricht used to use for parties and hanging out, especially if they were planning to be very loud. This room also contained some decorative artwork, though the tour guide pointed out that this artwork was not commissioned.
Artwork in the party room:
After the tunnel tour, I headed back to the botel. I spent the evening walking to the ramparts across the river, also once a part of Maastricht’s fortifications, and relaxing on board.
The morning, I set out early and started by visiting the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwebasiliek (Basilica of Our Lady). Another beautiful church, I went in only briefly before going next door. The tour guide from the fort and tunnels the previous day had told us a tip; in the basement of one of the hotels just two doors down from the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwebasiliek, there was a large collection of Roman artifacts! She told us it was officially only open on Sundays, but if you asked nicely, they might let you in. They let me in.
This turned out to be a highlight of Maastricht – the Roman ruins and artifacts were layed out beautifully in the basement of the hotel, right beside the hotel’s restaurant.
Some of the artifacts were even as old as the 2nd century!! The tour guide from the fort/tunnels believes that similar artifacts are beneath the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwebasiliek, but so far it is not yet known for sure, as people are still trying to get permission to do an expedition underneath the church.
Finally, I walked to see the Sint Janskerk (the red one) and the Sint Servaasbasiliek (which is home to the only saint’s grave in all of Holland!).
Unfortunately for various reason I was unable to go in either of those churches, but I did get to admire them from outside. There was also a very nice fountain featuring a statue of Sint Servatius outside the Sint Servaasbasiliek.
That was the end of my sightseeing in Maastricht, and I headed for the train station after that. Maastricht was phenomenal. I’m so glad I spent two nights there, because one day would really not have been enough. As one friend pointed out, seeing all the history that’s right there in Europe makes you realize how young Canada is in comparison…. in Maastricht, there are things from the second century, and this year in Canada, the government is celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday!
The botel was also a highlight of Maastricht. It was lovely being on the water and felt like living on a houseboat; very peaceful, although by the second night, I found myself missing the companionship you find in hostels, where you’re always with people.
Next stop: Hoge Veluwe National Park.