The southernmost city of the Netherlands, Maastricht (pop. 121,500) lies on the River Meuse, at a stone's throw from the Belgian and German borders. It is without contest one of the most beautiful cities in the Benelux.
The city became famous in Europe in 1992, when the Treaty of Maastricht was signed there, creating the European Union (which was till then the EEC), the European citizenship (including EU passports) and effectively removed visa regulations and border checks between member states.
Starting as a Celtic settlement from at least 500 B.C.E., Maastricht evolved as the Roman city of Trajectum Ad Mosam ("Meuse-crossing"). It was the second city located in the present-day Netherlands to gain civil rights under the Romans (after Nijmegen), and the first with Medieval city rights (in 1204).
Saint Servatius of Tongeren died in Maastricht and is buried in the crypt of the basilica that bears his name (see below). In the Middle Ages, the Prince-Bishopric of Liège and the Duchy of Brabant held joint sovereignty over the city.
The celebrated Comte d'Artagnan, Captain-Lieutenant of the musketeers of the king of France (the one from the 3 musketeers by Alexandre Dumas), was killed in Maastricht while attempting to take the city.
After the Napoleonic era, Maastricht became a part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815. When the southern provinces sought independence from the North to form Belgium in 1830, Maastricht and the whole province of Limburg was at first almost entirely under Belgian rule. In 1839, the Treaty of London was imposed on the Belgians and the city and the eastern part of Limburg, despite being geographically and culturally closer to Belgium, were permanently added to the Netherlands.
Maastricht's charm resides in its homogeneity and atmosphere, rather than in impressive buildings. Its architecture contrasts with the cities of Holland, and resembles cities upstream the Meuse, like Liege and especially Namur.
The Meuse splits the center in a western and an eastern half. The station and business area are on the eastern side, while the historical centre and greater part of the shopping streets are on the other side. The modern pedestrian John F. Kennedy Bridge links the two.
Maastricht boasts not just one, but two 1000-year old basilicas. Both edifices were built in a similarly sober Romanesque style. Onze Lieve Vrouwebasiliek (Basilica of Our Lady) stands opposite the pedestrian bridge over the Meuse, near the visible section of the ramparts. Sint Servaasbasiliek (Basilica of Saint Servatius) dominates the Vrijthof Square at the other end of the shopping streets, a few hundreds metres inland.
The delightful traditional Mosan-style (i.e. from the Meuse region) is at its best in the old Maastricht, within the ramparts. Note the Dinghuis, built in 1470 in the Mosan Renaissance style. It was originally used as a courthouse by the Principality of Liège and the Duchy of Brabant, which ruled conjointly over the city. It was converted into a theatre in 1713, and now houses the Tourist Information Centre.
The handsome bluestone Stadhuis (townhall) occupies the Markt, the second largest town square in the country. There are two modern shopping centres, one west of the square, and the other one east.
Facing JFK Bridge, the Helpoort is a section of the medieval rampart (with towers) that survived almost intact. It dates from 1229, making it the oldest such fortification in the country. The delightful Nolenspark, Stadpark (city park) and Aldenhofpark surround the southern section of the city wall, along the Jeker canal and two large ponds. The area southwest of the historic centre is endowed with cute orange-roofed white houses reminding of Bruges' Beguinages.
Every year in February, Maastricht stages one of Europe's biggest and most lively carnivals. It may not have the beauty of Binche's carnival in Belgium, but the festive spirit is there.
Maastricht has a reputation for excellent dining in the Netherlands, and even surpasses her Francophone Belgian sister, Liège. If you are in for a splurge, do not miss the following places.
- Beluga ☆☆, Centre Céramique, Plein 1992, no 12 - 6221 JP Maastricht. (French)
- Toine Hermsen ☆, St-Bernardusstraat, 2 - 6211 HL Maastricht. (French)
- Tout à fait ☆, St-Bernardusstraat, 16 - 6211 HL Maastricht. (French)
- Au Coin des Bons Enfants ☆, Ezelmarkt, 4 - 6211 LJ Maastricht. (French)
- Château Neercanne ☆, Cannerweg, 800 - 6213 ND Maastricht. (French)
How to get there
It is more practical to visit Maastricht from Liege in Belgium, which is only a 30-min ride away. The nearest Dutch city of considerable touristic interest is Den Bosch, 1h30min away by direct train -- about as long as from Brussels.
Trains from Amsterdam to Maastricht take from 2h30min to 3h and require a change in Utrecht (2h). Trains from The Hague (2h45min) or Rotterdam (2h30min) also necessitate at least one change, usually in Eindhoven (1h). There are no direct trains from Aachen in Germany -- you'll need to change at Landgraaf, so that it ends up taking about 1h15min to cover the 15km (you'd better go by bicycle !).
Coming by car, Maastricht is on best accessed via the E25 motorway (Den Bosch-Eindhoven-Maastricht-Liege-Luxembourg). The A79/A4 motorway links it to Aachen and Köln in Germany. There are also roads from/to Hasselt and Genk in Belgium.
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