Maastricht may be located in the Netherlands, but its soul is Belgian. At least it feels more like Belgium than it does the Netherlands. Part of that could be attributed to proximity – Maastricht, at the southernmost tip of the Netherlands, closely borders Germany and Belgium. The south of the country is known for its “Bourgondish Levenshouding” (Bourgondish lifestyle), which emphasizes relaxing and enjoying life.
Maastricht is one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands – it has been occupied since the ancient Romans, and has approximately 1,660 listed historical buildings, making it second only to Amsterdam*. The day we arrived was rainy, so we didn’t get to sightsee as much as we would have liked. As we were walking back to the hotel – we heard a band playing Gun and Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine” (it sounds weird but they did a great job). It began to rain again so we ducked inside a dive bar to wait it out. The band came into the bar and did a few more songs, like Adele’s Skyfall:
The sound quality is not great – I am rocking an iPhone 3. Also, you can hear me say, “do you wanna do it” to Manon because she started steering my phone while I was filming.
They followed up with Jay Z’s “New York” and Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie”. After their set, the trombone player leaning against our table told us that we should get out of the city and drive around the countryside and get a biertje on a terrace. This is not bad advice: the area around Maastricht is the hilliest part of the Netherlands, and is known for its beauty:
The next day I had booked a tour through Maastricht Running Tours as a surprise for Manon’s birthday. We had our own tour with a wonderful guide, Raoul, an avid runner from Maastricht, who was took his time (we’re slow!) to show us the city. This was one of the best city tours I’ve been on – we saw Roman ruins, the area where the Maastricht treaty was signed (this was the financial agreement that led to the euro), and generally learned more about Maastricht then we ever could have on our own. Some standouts:
Boekhandel Dominicanen This bookstore is in an old cathedral, and it’s glorious. The shelves are constructed in a way that they can be disassembled without hurting the building itself.
The Saint Servatius Bridge Referred to by the locals as “the Old Bridge”, it was built in the thirteenth century and partially rebuilt after WWII.
Stads Park (City Park) – the grounds are beautiful, and some of the old city wall has been left standing. During the plague, infected people were barred from entering the city – at that time, the area was called “Hell”, and the city was called “Heaven”. This café, right outside the city gates, cheekily calls itself Hemel (Heaven).
One aspect about the tour that made it special was that we did it on May 4th, which is Remembrance Day in the Netherlands and commemorates the end of World War II. I was surprised to see an American flag at half-mast along with the Dutch and Limburg flags on Maastricht’s city hall. The American flag was there because US troops had liberated Maastricht in September 1944.
Raoul showed us a small plaque on the ground, called a Stolperstein, which is about the size of a cobblestone. The Stolperstein were created by Gunter Demnig, an artist from Berlin to memorialize victims of the Holocaust. These plaques were placed in front of victim’s homes.
Memorial Day in the Netherlands is observed differently than in the US – it is much more solemn. One tradition I’ve always admired is the two minutes of silence that is observed from 8:00 – 8:02 pm to remember the dead. During that time, there no talking and cars must pull over so that everything is completely still.
We learned about an American cemetery a short distance away in Margraten. It is the only American cemetery in the Netherlands, and the soil it resides on is considered American soil. The grounds were immaculate, and surprisingly, a number of gravestones (there are 8,300 in total) had flowers placed on them or photos alongside them. Local residents gave many of the flowers, and there has been a concerted effort to collect the photos. Last Memorial Day (2014), a Dutch and Belgian non-profit called the Foundation United Adopters American War Graves, began collecting photos from these soldiers’ family members (they had found 2,000 previously through Ancestry.com, WWIIMemorial.com, etc.) in tribute to them. Called The Faces of Margraten, the group now has nearly 3,000 photos of soldiers on display. Anyone who has a relative at this cemetery can submit a photo by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org
As for the flowers, the organization states that local residents have adapted nearly every gravestone, and they have been known to bring flowers on special occasions such as Liberation Day (May 5), or a soldier’s birthday. I was a little blown away by the fact that 70 years after the World War II ended, there is still so much reverence for these soldiers – people that they were not related to or even knew. In the US, we could benefit from the solemnness of Remembrance & Liberation Day. Maybe by acknowledging the sacrifices of war, there would be more trepidation to enter into new wars – which is not a bad value to reinforce.
Little Kingdom by the Sea – Mark Zegeling
Program – The Faces of Margraten