In this blog, besides sharing my experiences as an expatriate living in the Netherlands, I also want to talk about and show you all the beautiful places that I have been lucky to visit so far. Holland is a small country, but even though in appearance you would think that there is not much variety of landscape or culture around, in fact, it is quite the contrary.
One of these places that I have visited is the southern province of Limburg, one of the most scenic and beautiful areas of the country that I have seen since I came to live in the Netherlands.
In March 2008 my husband and I chose this region as our destination for a short holiday to celebrate our wedding anniversary. I was told beforehand that the landscapes of South Limburg were quite different from what I was used to around the area where we live. The word "hilly" that my husband chose to describe it really got my attention. Everything was so flat around me, that I was really looking forward to a change in the landscape.
Limburg is then, the southernmost of the twelve provinces of the Netherlands and is bordered by Belgium to the south and west and by Germany to the east. The region has a very distinctive character for it has a strong Burgundian cultural background. The landscape is really very beautiful: everywhere around, you can admire the undulating horizon with green hills and enchanting small villages interspersed with romantic castles here and there. Besides offering idyllic landscapes, the region is also known for its fantastic cuisine (Burgundian) and great biking and hiking facilities.
We arrived on a sunny Friday at noon in the town of Valkenburg, situated in the valley of the river Geul. This city is nowadays especially known for its touristic character. It was actually here that the first Dutch Tourist Office (the "Vereniging van Vreemdelingenverkeer" or easier to remember, the "VVV") opened its doors at the end of the 19th century, so the city is the oldest tourist place in the Netherlands.
The "VVV" office is located in the Spaans Leenhof (Spanish manor), a building from 1661 that once served as residence for the Spanish Lord.
Even if the city is small, there is so much to see and do! We started by taking a city walk following an itinerary we had printed from the South Limburg official site. We began near our hotel on the main street, the Grotestraat, from where we could see up in the distance, the silhouette of the ruins of Valkenburg Castle. This street is one of the busiest in the city, for it is where you will find lots of restaurants, cafés and bars. At night, with its lights on and the heated cosy terraces, it is very attractive for tourists and locals.
The itinerary then took us along the river Geul where we found quaint little houses with decorated bridges. The decorations included, for example, a full-sized naked woman standing on a bucket and an old man in rags!
We continued our walk finding along our way, views of more cute bridges crossing the river Geul.
We then went on with our walk until we got to the train station, a construction of the local marlstone built in 1853, which is the oldest station existing in the Netherlands today.
We went on along the river Geul until we arrived at Den Halder Castle, originally a defense tower that formed part of the defensive works of the city. The castle as we see it today, dates from 1635 and it is built in the typical marlstone extracted from the underground mines of the region. In 1804 the castle was bought by a French family who also built an oil and flour mill which is since then known as de Franse Molen or French mill.
A touching moment during our itinerary came when we reached the "Old Hickory Bridge", the place where the Allied troops crossed the river Geul on 14 September 1944 and started the liberation of this area of the country. A plaque on the bridge commemorates this event.
The Ruins of Valkenburg Castle:
Our next stop was to pay a visit to the remains of Valkenburg Castle, the only elevated castle in the Netherlands. The first fortifications on this site were probably built around 1115 by the then Lord of Valkenburg and consisted of a rectangular keep surrounded by wooden defenses. The castle was in later centuries enlarged and it once was a very imposing structure looking from the hilltop down onto the fortified town.
But along the centuries, Valkenburg castle was continually besieged, attacked and destroyed and subsequently rebuilt, until the year 1672 when it suffered total destruction at the hands of King-Stadholder Willem III to prevent it from falling into French hands. Since then, the ruins of the castle have stood in this elevated part of the town as a symbol of the city.
Today, you can visit the ruins wandering from what once was the Great Hall to the fortified towers and the old chapel. From the different levels of the ruins you can get interesting views of the town of Valkenburg below. In their website, the Valkenburg Castle Foundation gives information about opening times, prices and activities within the complex, which includes a visit to the Velvet Caves that lie under the ruins of the castle.
The Caves of Valkenburg::
Valkenburg does not only offer things to see and do above ground. Underneath the city, there is a whole world of fascinating surprises with hundreds of kilometres of caves and passages that intertwine and go on and on.
Visiting the caves in Valkenburg takes you back to ancient times, when the Romans started mining the ground to extract the building material -the marlstone- they needed for their constructions.During the visit you also come into contact with different artistic expressions in the form of paintings, drawings and sculptures left behind by generations of people that inhabited the area. In times of hardship, like wars and sieges, the caves were also used as refuge by the townspeople; the last of such occasions being during the bombings and the liberation during the Second World War.
The Town Hall of Valkenburg owns part of this system of caves and passages under the city. You can visit the "Gemeentegrotten" taking a guided tour only, and you can explore them either by train or taking a walking tour. Here you can find all the information you need to plan your visit.
After we finished with our tour of the caves, we decided to walk up the Cauberg street (the N590) to get a view of the sorroundings from higher up.
The following day we visited the city of Maastricht and spent almost the entire day there until a heavy storm chased us away and sent us back to Valkenburg, where our hotel was situated.
Exploring the Geul river valley:
Finally, on our last day in South Limburg we decided to explore a bit the sourroundings.
That is how by following the N595, the road took us along one of the most picturesque landscapes in the Netherlands. We passed the town of Old Valkenburg until we came into view of the beautiful façade of Schaloen Castle. We got off our car there, to walk through the castle grounds which border with the St. Jacob's Forest.
The oldest records of the existance of a castle in present day Schaloen date back to the 1200s but very little or nothing remains of the original fortification. In the 1570s the castle was completely destroyed by Spanish troops during the Spanish-Dutch wars and could only be rebuilt in the 1650s using the ever present marlstone from the local mines. Later, in 1894 it was restored in a neo-gothic style by the famous architect P.H.J. Cuypers.
Today, Schaloen Castle is used as a hotel and appartment complex. Here you can find more detailed information about the history of the castle and the hotel.
After our refreshing walk around Schaloen Castle, we got back in the car and continued along the N595 that took us past little quaint villages like Schin op Geul, Wijlre, Gulpen and Wittem, where we stopped to take photos of the castle where the legendary Willem of Orange spent a night during his campaign to expel the Spanish from Limburg.
From Wittem we continued our trip towards Germany, our final destination being the city of Monschau in the Eifel valley, where we spent the rest of our last day of the holiday.
We certainly enjoyed our stay in Valkenburg enormously. To visit this small city in Limburg is to take a dive into the past, especially when you visit the castle ruins or the caves. It also offers one of the best looking landscapes of Holland: the hills surrounding the Geul valley - ideal for hiking, cycling or just taking a relaxing stroll absorbing the views.
There are also other attractions to enjoy with the whole family, like the cable-lift that takes you up to the 68 meter high tower with bar and restaurant, the Valekenier family park with fun rides for the kids and grown-ups or activities especially designed for the children in the caves.
Here are some useful links for you if you want to plan a visit to this area of the Netherlands:
Tourist Board of South Limburg (in Dutch)
Town Hall Caves of Valkenburg (in Dutch and English)
Ruins of Valkenburg Castle and the Velvet Caves (in Dutch and English)
Schaloen Castle Hotel and Appartments Complex (in Dutch)
Valkenburg, a True Christmas Town (in Dutch and English)
Family Park A GoGo Valkenburg (chair-lift and other attractions) (in Dutch and English)
Sauna and Wellness (Spa in Valkenburg) (in Dutch and English)
Casino Holland (in Dutch)