Weekend in Maastricht – Fort St. Pieter, the Zonneberg Caves, and the Best Bookstore in the World

If you look at a map of the Netherlands (which I should do more often, since I know many of its cities only as final destinations for the trains I take), you see that Maastricht sits in what Wikipedia refers to as an “eccentric location” on a little extra tail that dips down between Belgium and Germany. Of course, as always, there are a variety of strategic historical and military reasons for this, which you can read about in Alexandre Dumas novels and various other places. In more modern times, it was chosen as the location for the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht, establishing the European Union, which I hope we can all agree to go ahead and continue to keep intact. Please.

At any rate, this weird location also results in a geographical phenomenon that in the Netherlands is noteworthy: hills! Yes, the rest of the country is very flat, which is good for biking, but can get a bit boring from a landscape perspective. This may have been what made us think that climbing the hill up to the fort sounded like a nice idea. And it did turn out very nice. While we decided to skip the line and not go inside the early 18th century fort, there were beautiful views of the surrounding countryside, and it’s a bit of a novelty to be able to look out over two different neighbouring countries.

We took a nice little walk around that lovely countryside, and also caught a tantalizing glimpse of the famous Zonneberg Caves, which would be our next destination for the day.

The caves of Maastricht date back thousands of years, to when the Romans began quarrying limestone. The ground beneath the city is honeycombed with human-made passageways, which at one time reached 200 km in total length. Due to ongoing quarrying, “only” 80 km of the caves are left. To reach the entrance of the caves, we took a pleasant boat ride down the Maas River.

A guide (holding a real kerosene lantern, which was atmospheric, but a bit much for those of us with sensitive lungs) led us into the caves. At which point my inner geek surfaced and I was reminded of this Gimli soliloquy from The Two Towers:

Caves, they say! Caves! Holes to fly to in time of war, to store fodder in! My good Legolas, do you know that the caverns of Helm’s Deep are vast and beautiful? There would be an endless pilgrimage of Dwarves, merely to gaze at them, if such things were known to be. Aye indeed, they would pay pure gold for a brief glance!

I have to concur with Gimli that “caves” is a bit of a misnomer. These are soaring, wide corridors that feel weirdly out of place underground rather than under the blue sky in a stately Roman city, like perhaps Dougga in Tunisia. Many of the walls are covered with interesting charcoal drawings from the past few hundred years, ranging from the religious to the random.

Large numbers of fossils of extinct animals have been found in the limestone, including one of the mosasaur, a fearsome prehistoric sea reptile which took its name from the Maas River. The fossil was carried off by Napoleon, and Dutch efforts to get it back from the French have so far been in vain. One of the most fascinating murals in the caves is one from the 19th century portraying many of the animals whose fossilized remains have been found there.

The caves also have a history in modern times; the entire population of Maastricht sheltered in them during the 1944 liberation of the city. Although we were happy to come back topside after an hour down there in the dark, we quite enjoyed the caves, and I would highly recommend visiting if you are in town.

By now our weekend was winding down, but before we left Maastricht we couldn’t resist the chance to give Grandpa Bringhurst a taste of a nutella-covered waffle. You can see that Axa is vicariously enjoying it almost as much as he is.

Our final stop was really the highlight of our trip: The Boekandel Dominicanen, #1 on this list from the Guardian of the ten best bookshops in the world. My story with this bookshop actually starts at the archive where I work, which will be publishing a book next year highlighting the work of ten international artists who are creating pieces in response to archived items from our collection. I’m heavily involved in the project, so I was thrilled when the Boekhandel Dominicanen agreed to exhibit the art, as well as our book (be still my nerdy little heart!). But I had never been to the bookshop, which may possibly have been one of my motivations for dragging my parents and the whole rest of my family down to Maastricht for the weekend (there are perks of being the chief vacation planner). Here I am at the entrance, with all of that passing over my face in a flash.

I wandered around in a bit of a daze, just drinking it all in. The place is gorgeous and wonderful, and if only I could just LIVE there!

Here’s the children’s book section. You wouldn’t think it would be possible to accomplish magnificent and cozy at the same time, but the Dominicanen manages it.

Of course when the children asked if they could have a book, I said have two (and Axa, enterprising as ever, found a three-for-two sale on Rick Riordan novels, so she got three). It was the perfect ending to a perfect trip, and kept them occupied for the entirety of the three-hour train ride back to Amsterdam

Map credit


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