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June '19 - Mestreech (Maastricht)

Updated: Oct 11, 2019

Beyond heading to Maastricht (Mestreech in local dialect) in The Netherlands there remains no plan for how this trip will unfold. I have no particularly strong links to Maastricht (some distant family) yet somehow I feel quite at home here (sorry Brisbane). It’s a strange feeling (that I also had last time), like a plant being replanted in its native soil, but will I flourish or whither during the winter?

The 13th Century Sint Servaasbrug connecting the two sides of central Maastricht. Walk and cycle only and the right side raises automatically when barges pass through (you can still cross as it's rising/lowering)

To set the scene, some random facts about Maastricht:

  • Located at the south-east tip of the Netherlands in the province of Limburg, wedged between Germany (20km east) and Belgium (3km south); awkwardly located during WWI and WWII. Distance from Amsterdam since you ask: 175km.

  • Settled in 50 BC although Neanderthal remains were found nearby, and Celts lived in the area around 500 BC.

  • The city is cut in half by the Maas River, or Meuse.

  • It was an important link in the Roman Empire; the Romans built a bridge across the Maas River in the 1st century AD. While still visible in part, the bridge collapsed in 1275 from the weight of a large procession, killing 400 people; it was replaced the Sint Servaasbrug.

  • Population: 120,000 with a density of 2,100 people per sq. km.

  • Students make up one-quarter of the population, attending one of 6 universities. Most students are international.

  • For student and general well-being there's 180 cafes/bars, 7 museums, 3 theaters and 3 cinemas.

  • As a border town it has a notable number of ‘coffeeshops’ (drug tourism), including three river boats converted for this purpose.

  • The city has almost 1,700 national heritage buildings, second only to Amsterdam.

  • The Maastricht Treaty was signed here in 1992, which gave birth to the EU and euro.

  • One of the ‘Three Musketeers’ (d'Artagnan) died here in 1673 when Louis XIV commanded the Siege of Maastricht (the Dutch lost).

Looking toward central Maastricht across an unusually calm Maas

My Airbnb was located on the eastern side of the Maas, in 'suburban' Maastricht about 5 min by bike from the centre. The street had the catchy name of Aalmoezenier Roumenstraat, just near the equally elegant Baron van Hovellstraat, Kardinaal van Rossumplein and Paus Leo XIII Plein. Despite being in a central suburb, the first thing I noticed when I shut the door was how silent it was, like really really quiet. Most houses have double glazing but even on the street it was always incredibly quiet. A simple reason really, the lack of traffic, that low ‘hum’ we all know and love in cities wasn’t there, and I really appreciated it.

The other great thing I noticed about these tightly-planned cities is how close the surrounding countryside is, no travelling through endless suburbs, it’s right there. 10 min by bike and it's cows and countryside, forests and fresh air. Maastricht has some stunning scenery nearby, one area is called “Little Switzerland”.

At this time of year it gets dark around 11pm so my routine was to have dinner (for the Dutch this MUST be at 6pm!) then grab the bike and explore the countryside near the Belgian border. I find it unique that a country so small (half Tasmania) with 17 million people has so much (easily accessible) green space.

Nearby countryside (3km from Maastricht city centre)

Like most Dutch cities, the bike dominates the way people move around in Maastricht. It’s amusing to see the things people do while riding: texting of course but I’ve seen hair brushing, putting on a tie, and one guy eating porridge from a bowl. There’s also a lot of e-bikes (popular among the elderly), as well as electric cars and all metropolitan buses are electric. I also saw an electric semi-trailer truck, so quiet! The Netherlands plans to ban the sale of conventionally-fueled cars by 2025; there's already public charge points all over the place.

Now where did I park that bike...

I'm getting carried away about urban/ transport planning, but together with design / architecture it's impossible not to notice how massively this influences the experience (as a visitor) and liveability (as a resident) of a place. Anyway, I did do more than critique the city's layout and transport system, including:

Taking photos: Cobblestone streets, lantern lights, old buildings, funky architecture, always a great combination for street photography. During one outing at around midnight I saw a rare phenomenon called Noctilucent clouds, which are clouds of ice crystals formed at the edge of space (up to 85km high) that get illuminated by either the moon (in this case) or recently set sun.

Noctilucent clouds at around midnight

More cycling: I did a few longer distance day-trips on a borrowed 1990’s Giant Peloton steel road-bike through neighbouring towns and the ‘heuvelland’ or ‘hill country’. This is the only place in The Netherlands with hills and because of the scenery it's very popular for bike touring; routes are well marked and there's cafes everywhere.

Rural road - cars travelling both directions must share the somewhat skinny central lane

Partying? Not quite, but in the name of photography I went to a skateboard themed house-party in an abandoned factory that’s home to squatters (students and ‘alternatives’): weren’t expecting that one were you! Only my dodgy shoulder stopped me from dropping into the half-pipe to show the youth of today how it was done in 1990's.

Working? Not quite but via the work-away website I started 'work' at a 3-acre organic permaculture farm near Germany being set up by a Dutch couple, mainly rebuilding their house in an ecological way, tending the vegetable garden and collecting water from the creek (which is actually the German border) with the occasional swim, yes it's cold, real cold. There's also a 27 yo Hungarian who’s chosen this lifestyle for life, a 30 yo Italian still finding his path, and a 20 yo Swiss lingerie embroidery designer (as you do). Might do a separate blog on the farm project as it's quite interesting, particularly the wildlife: badgers, foxes, beavers (so many they require culling!), woodpeckers, buzzards, finches, frogs, bumblebees, and a cacophony of song-birds like the Blackbird.

View from the kitchen window of the permaculture farm. Germany is on the far side of the forest line (creek).

Moving house: I moved from my Airbnb apartment to the ‘Student Hotel’, which has studios for long stays. The hotel is in the former Sphinx toilet factory (operating 1834 – 2009), which makes for interesting industrial décor.

Time for some more photos, to view click the gallery below.

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