Kerstad Valkenburg

Our exploration of the Dutch bus system continued today as we successfully negotiated the 6 miles into Valkenburg. Years ago, we wouldn’t have had the confidence to use public transport in a country whose language we don’t understand. However, that was before the magic that is Google. We entered our destination and Google Maps gave us three alternatives, including the name of the stop where we were to leave the bus.

Valkenburg’s Christmas Markets are rated so highly because they are held in the towns labyrinthine marlstone caves. The local hills have been mined for stone leaving 70 kms of corridors which provided shelter and refuge during times of conflict. Excavations date back to the Romans and in more recent times provided a safe haven for the town’s Jews and other residents during WWII.

In our eagerness not to be late, we arrived an hour early for our pre-booked entrance into Gemeentegrot (Municipal Cave) and whiled away the time with a cuppa, watching tourists walk up the hill ahead of us, before we joined the queue.

The cave was beautifully lit and dressed for Christmas with stalls selling everything from fleece pants (don’t ask) to ornaments hand carved from local stone. There were plenty of samples on offer – we managed to taste handmade chocolates, peanut butter, cured meats and cheese all before lunch!

After almost two hours underground, we emerged back into daylight and thankfully it had stopped raining. With time to spare before our next visit to Fluweelengrot (Velvet Market) we walked up to the castle. Not just any old castle, the only Dutch castle to be built on a hill. For centuries, the Lord of the Castle had authority over the trade route between Maastricht and Aachen. The House of Valkenburg ended when, with no male heirs, the quarrelling females enabled the Duke of Brabant to seize the land. No comments required on quarrelling females!

The Velvet Cave was a far simpler affair, which initially felt a little disappointing until we noticed the paintings and etchings on the walls. This cave, particularly, shows it’s long and eventful history.

During the Second World War, Velvet Cave served as shelter for 700 residents of Valkenburg until after six days of heavy fighting the town was finally liberated by the Americans with the aid of the Dutch Resistance. Unfortunately the town museum where we had hoped to learn more was closed on Mondays, so we visited a florists instead!

We all know that the Dutch know a thing or two about plants but we did question the need to chop up perfectly good Christmas tree foliage to turn it into fake trees and spray bulbs with glitter.

Walking to the Railway Station to catch the bus, we passed an unattended dragon. He seemed fairly harmless perhaps waiting for a witch? Also a lesson in not riding your broomstick while drunk?

Finally, nothing says Christmas quite like this couple does.

Back to a land of good manners and liberal attitudes

We haven’t had enough holidays this year and decided we could manage another micro adventure. What started as a seven day driving trip to some interesting French museums has been condensed to a few days experiencing the build up to Kerst in Holland. Although, quite frankly, we are here for the Christmas Markets. We visited one in Monschau the year we spent Christmas at Auderath and they are just not the same at home.

It was pouring with rain when we left at 3am and that weather kept us company until we reached Maastricht. Thankfully, it decided to give us a break and became a faint drizzle.

Our plan was to visit the Maastricht Christmas Market today and Valkenburg tomorrow. According to The Guardian, Valkenburg’s Market is the second coolest in Europe. We will leave you guessing why until tomorrow.

Our Maastricht adventure started with a bus ride into the town centre. At every stop, the bus driver announced ‘hotel Valk guests remain seated’ until finally allowing us off the bus at the correct stop with clear instructions on how to catch the bus back.

Our first stop was Vrijthof, the square where Andre Rieu hosts his famous concerts, expecting to see a traditional Christmas Market. To be fair, we could see it behind hoardings. Despite double checking our dates, it doesn’t fully open until 1st December and we made do with some fantastic cheese stalls instead.

Walking back into the pedestrianised area, we came across an unusual looking pottery shop and wandered in for a browse. The shop is run by volunteers raising money for a Children’s charity. The stock comes from a derelict ceramics factory in the town. Decades ago, the owner literally locked the doors and left everything as it was. A ceramics factory had been on the site since the early 20th century as JEMA making lustreware figurines. A useless fact – JEMA made figurines that were very like Hummels until the German Goebel manufacturer sued them.

Next stop was Bookshop Dominicanen. You could lose yourself for hours in this converted church which we resisted. As we left we were caught up in a protest March which was very peaceful despite their flags, drums and posters. Of course, we don’t actually know what they were saying but the police officers on their bikes , escorting the participants, weren’t perturbed.

Exploring the back streets away from the tourist ‘Magical Lights Trail’ we came across a cafe advertising ‘the best coffee in the world’ so John had to stop and try some. We were greeted by a very helpful lady who had obviously been indulging in the local Wiet. Various options on how best to drink espresso were provided followed by a long ramble about the correct way to orientate a table fork. John agreed it was one of the best coffees he has ever tasted and we are now fork etiquette experts.

We do love Maastricht and not just for the free samples we have indulged in – cheese, pancakes filled with lemon and fruit compotes, fruit teas. Friendly bus drivers are included too. Unfortunately, frites and mayo weren’t free so points have been deducted.