Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Our own Elfstedentocht: Stop #1 - Leeuwarden

Have you ever heard of the Elfstedentocht?

The Elfstedentocht (in English, "eleven cities tour") is a speed ice-skating race which is held in the Dutch province of Friesland during the winter. It is a major sports event in the Netherlands, but it is only held on those years when the weather conditions allow canals and lakes to freeze, forming a natural ice track of approximately 200 kilometres joining eleven cities in this province: Leeuwarden, Sneek, IJlst, Sloten, Stavoren, Hindelopen, Workum, Bolsward, Harlingen, Franeker and Dokkum.

The route of the Marathon of the Eleven Cities in the province of Friesland.

This Marathon of the Eleven Cities has only taken place 15 times since it was officially started in 1909 and the last one took place in 1997. When it will next take place, is anybody's guess, since there are a number of factors that need to combine in order to create the right conditions for the race to be held safely. Ideally, the ice layer needs to have a thickness of 15 cm along the entire 200 km track. During the last decades and as a consequence of global warming, the space of time between races has become longer and longer.

Here, in the archives of Geschiedenis (in English, "history") a channel of the broadcasting network Omroep, you can find videos of the Elfstedentocht so that you can get an idea of what it is all about.

Since living here in the Netherlands, I have never been able to see one of these marathons which has been quite disappointing. That is why last year in the summer, we decided to do our own Elfstedentocht - by car.

The marathon begins and finishes in the capital city of Friesland: Leeuwarden, and that is where we will start this new series in the blog.

Leeuwarden (in Dutch, click to hear pronunciation) or Ljowert (in Fries, the language spoken in this province - click to hear pronunciation) lies about 140 km from Amsterdam. It is the city where the Nassaus (ancestors of the present royal family) resided back in the 16th and 17th century; and it is also the city where Mata Hari, the famous exotic dancer and spy, was born.

A swan, symbol of the province of Friesland, engraved on the façade of the Frisian Academy in Leeuwarden.

Let's take a tour of the city, starting at the Frisian version of the leaning tower of Pisa: the Oldehove.

The Oldehove, the leaning tower of Leeuwarden.

The story goes that in the 16th century, the people of Leeuwarden wanted to have a church tower. This could not be just any church tower: it had to be higher than the Martini tower in the neighbour city of Groningen.
They started building the Oldehove tower in 1529; but once the builders had reached a height of 10 meters, the tower began ostensibly to lean to one side. After several unsuccessful attempts to correct the problem -for the city had to have a tower at all costs- they realised that there was no point carrying on and the construction was halted when the tower had reached a height of 40 m. It is said that the master builder Jacob van Aacken died of sorrow after failing to provide his city with a tower that would rival that of the neighbour town of Groningen.

The beautiful park of Prinsentuin (in English, "princes' garden") was part of a palace garden created in the 17th century for the family of the Nassaus.

Prinsentuin in Leeuwarden.

The Prinsentuin was donated by the stadhouder family (Nassaus) in the early 19th century to the city of Leeuwarden.

Prinsentuin in Leeuwarden.

This park has been open to the public since the end of the 18th century, which makes it the oldest park of this kind in the Netherlands.

Prinsentuin in Leeuwarden.

The Waag ("weighhouse") was the trading centre of the city of Leeuwarden, where cheese and butter were weighed officially and where transactions took place.

De Waag, built around 1590.

The Fries Museum in Leeuwarden is a "must-see" if you are interested in getting to know the best things that the Frisian people have ever created.

The Fries Museum in Leeuwarden.

There you will find permanent art expositions, exhibitions of contemporary art, and style rooms. Within the complex, the Mata Hari museum and the Verzetsmuseum (in English, "museum of the Resistance") are really worth a visit if you want to know more about the famous spy or what life was like during the WWII in Friesland. I will come back to the Fries Museum later, dedicating a full blog entry to it in the future.

Façade of the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden.

If you take a walk around the city centre in Leeuwarden, you are bound to find very interesting architecture and old historic monuments. Let's take a look:

A street in the city centre, the Achmea Tower seen in the background.

The Princessehof, houses the Ceramics Museum in Leeuwarden.

Me posing by a water pump, close to the Grotekerk (in English, "big church")in Leeuwarden.

The "Oranjepoortje", the entrance for the royal family at the Grotekerk.

A quite elegant street in the city centre of Leeuwarden.

Stadhouderlijk Hof Palace (1564), former royal palace now houses a 4-star hotel.

Another street of Leeuwarden.

The shopping centre Zaailand in Leeuwarden.

Leeuwarden is definitely an attractive city from every point of view. It has a lot to offer, with its historic city centre and interesting museums, its many art galleries and antique shops and of course, the active waterways where you can take boat trips and admire the city from a different perspective.

Our Elfestedentocht will continue in a few weeks, this time visiting the city of Sneek.

Some useful links:

* Official site of the association of the Elfstedentocht or "Vereniging De Friesche Elf Steden" where you can find information about the marathon.

* Visit Frysland, tourist information about the province of Friesland, including the eleven cities of the Elfstedentocht.

* More tourist information of the Eleven Cities.

* Official website of the Fries Museum Leeuwarden.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Exploring Amsterdam

In the six years that I have been living in the Netherlands, I have been to Amsterdam just a few times; and then only when I had a specific purpose to visit the city, like seeing a special exhibition in one of the great museums -for example, the Rembrandt/Caravaggio comparative held in 2006 at the Van Gogh Museum- or attending a performance of Het Nationale Ballet at the Muziektheater of Amsterdam. Indeed, up until very recently, the biggest city and capital of the country, did not seem to attract me enough to spend a day or two exploring it as I very often do in other parts of the Netherlands.

My indifference towards Amsterdam came to an end about a year ago thanks, to a great extent, to my friend Nicolás.
Nicolás and I are members of the Argentinian forum at SkyscraperPage, an international community about achitecture, town planning, photography and travel. There we talk about different cities in the country, urban projects, tourist destinations, etc. Last year Nicolás contacted me asking for advice as to the places he should include in his itinerary during his holiday in the Netherlands and Belgium. I certainly suggested Amsterdam, but I am pretty sure that I was not very enthusiastic in my praise of the city at the moment of recommending places that he should visit during his trip.

Upon his return to Argentina, Nicolás started participating in a thread about Holland that I had opened in the SkyscraperPage forum, sharing with us his views of the city, his anecdotes and adventures, illustrating everything with his wonderful photos. That was when my indifference towards Amsterdam turned into curiosity: Nicolás' pictures made me want to see the city for myself and to explore it like he had done.

The opportunity presented itself last July, when another friend, Amy, invited me to spend a day exploring Amsterdam with her. Amy had done some research and carefully planned our itinerary in advance; we more or less managed to stick to it, also stopping for lunch at the Café De Jaren and later in the afternoon, for emergency shoe shopping when the straps in one of my sandals came loose... (it was an emergency, I have a witness!)

One of the places Amy took me to, was the Albert Cuyp Open Market in the area known as De Pijp in Amsterdam. Click here to find the location of the market on the map.

Albert Cuyp Street Market in De Pijp (Amsterdam)

De Albert Cuyp Market is one of the most popular markets in the Netherlands. Approximately 300 stalls lined up on both sides of the street offer just about anything you may think of, from great fresh produce (like veg, fruit, fish, cheese) to exotic delicacies from around the world, rare spices, trendy clothes, bedding textile, leather wear and even jewelry.

But apart from the diversity of the products on offer that you can find at this market, what really makes a visit worth is the true Amsterdam atmosphere that you can enjoy there. The market is frequented by regular customers from the area Oud-Zuid (Old South) of the city and is very popular with the residents of Surinamese, Antillian, Turkish, Moroccan and Hindustani origin from Amsterdam which gives the place a rich, multicultural feel.

A bit of history:

De Pijp, where the Albert Cuyp market is located today, used to be an area occupied by sawmills and timber merchants. By the end of the 19th century the housing shortage in the city was so serious, that the place had to be cleared to make room for new town development which once finished, housed a large population of mainly shopkeepers, craftsmen, low-rank civil servants and students.
The stretegically situated Albert Cuypstraat (a street named after Albert Cuyp, a Dutch painter from the 17th century) soon attracted pushcart vendors who would go up and down the street selling fresh produce and all sorts of goods to the inhabitants of De Pijp. The concentration of a crowd of vendors with their pushcarts, vehicles and customers, produced such a traffic chaos in the area, that the police often chased the vendors away, but these kept coming back for the local residents needed the goods they had for sale.
In 1905 the city council finally legalised the market which was at first held only every Saturday, and as of 1912, every working day of the week.

The Albert Cuyp street vendors had a very hard existence. Every day, they would get up in the small hours of the morning and go to the central market halls in order to get their supplies for the day sell. They would then rush to the Albert Cuyp street, still very early in the morning, and wait there with their pushcarts ready. At a fixed time, a policeman would blow a whistle and a crazy race would start, for the vendors, pushing fully loaded carts, competed with each other to get the best and most strategic places along the street in order to attract more customers .

But despite this natural competion, camradership and solidarity always existed among the tradesmen of the Albert Cuyp market. During the 1930s crisis, for example, poverty struck the vendors very hard; and later, during the German occupation, Jewish tradesmen were not allowed in the market, there were curfews in the city and everybody was having a hard time. But the spirit of unity among them brought them closer together in those difficult times and they often helped each other out whenever it was possible.

In the 1960s and 1970s the market became even more popular attracting not only tourists from around the world but also local residents from outside the Oud-Zuid district in Amsterdam who came looking for a koopje (bargain) or special or exotic items that could not be found anywhere else in the city. The locals have a saying which goes, "if you can't find it in the Albert Cuyp, then it doesn't exist or it has not been invented yet".

Today the Albert Cuyp street market is not only a place where you can find good bargains or exotic goods. It has
also become a place where you can meet with friends for a nice cup of coffee and enjoy the lively atmosphere around you.
At the Albert Cuyp you can also try some of the typically Dutch delicacies, such as stroopwaffels (a sort of treacle waffel) or the Hollandse Nieuwe Haring in one of the stalls you will find along the street.

The Albert Cuyp market is then a place for everyone. Whether you are spending a holiday in Amsterdam or are there just for the day, you should definitely not miss this place. You can for example, combine a visit to the Albert Cuyp before or after your tour of the museums which are located not very far away.

And if you are currently living in Amsterdam and you often go there to do your shopping or occasionally, to nose around the stalls, please share with us your views about this very special area of Amsterdam! How does it feel to be a part of the Albert Cuyp market crowd on a regular basis?

Here is some practical information about the Albert Cuyp street market:

  • The market can easily be reached by tram from the Central Station or from the Dam Square - with trams 16 and 24 you need to get off at the Ferdinand Bolstraat stop and then walk to the Albert Cuypstraat.
  • If you decide to go by car, you can park in one of the P+R (park and ride) garages for 6 euros a day and you also get an OV (public transport) card for free. Here you can find the locations of P+R parking lots in Amsterdam. The P+R Olympisch Stadion (Olympic Stadium) is the closest to the Oud-Zuid district.
  • The market is open every working day (Mon. through Sat.) from 09:00 to 17:00.

Note: Many thanks to Amy for the very nice photos she made of me that day in Amsterdam! Harstikke bedankt, Amy!

Thursday, 17 September 2009

I've got one word for you: GEZELLIG!

When I arrived in the Netherlands back in April 2003, I couldn't speak any Dutch at all. Learning the language before coming to the country wasn't that urgent for me; I knew that once here, I would have to follow an integration programme, which would include Dutch lessons. Therefore, I could use the first few months to settle down in my new home and learn my way around things in general.

Nevertheless, as it normally happens when you are exposed to a foreign language in your daily life, I soon began to pick up words and short phrases. The roads and the supermarket provided enough entertainment to keep me busy with things like parkeerterrein, snelweg, fietspad [parking lot, highway, cycle path] or kassa, aanbieding, rundvlees [cash-register, bargain, beef]. Television and radio were an endless source of new words and they showed me how the language sounded. My mind was like a sponge without me even noticing it most of the time. All the new words would dance in my head wherever I went, all day long.

Overhearing other people's conversations, I tell you, is not always a bad thing. Especially, when you are learning a new language and you get plenty of opportunities of catching new words and phrases from just listening to what other people around you are saying. During those first months in the Netherlands, neighbours exchanging greetings on the street, people talking at a nearby table in a café, clients and shop assistants at the winkel [shop] they all contributed to enlarge my still very reduced Dutch vocabulary.

It is during many of these "eavesdropping sessions" that, along with the classic Goedemorgen! [good morning], Dankjewel!! [thank you] and the cheerfully long Dooooooeeeeeiiiiiii![byeeeeeeeee] that Dutch people keep repeating over and over when they part, one word caught my attention because it seemed to come up in conversations all the time: "Gezellig!"
You may have noticed that I haven't immediately offered a translation in English, just as I do with every Dutch word I include in my posts. There is a very good reason for this: the word gezellig doesn't have an exact equivalent in English, or any other language for that matter. If you look it up in the dictionary, you will find that it is often translated as "enjoyable, pleasant, cozy, snug, social...." (from the "Van Dale Groot Woordenboek). The point is, gezellig means every one and all of these things at the same time.

The Dutch use the word a lot and it is mainly used to describe something that is fun doing, things that look nice and cosy or old but quaint; people who are friendly and gregarious; situations that involve people being together sharing time in a pleasant atmosphere.

So, how is the word gezellig used in Dutch? Let's take a look at some examples:

A gezellige café is a place that you want to recommend. If someone tells you that in a recent trip to the city he or she discovered this gezellige café, you might want to take note of its location and visit it yourself at the first opportunity. The general atmosphere of the place will probably be friendly, the decoration quite pleasant and the food unpretentious but good.

That night out you spent with friends, when everyone was in a congenial mood and time flew without you noticing it because you were having so much fun sharing drinks, light talk and laughs; and if at the end of the evening before going home everyone said, "we should do this again soon!", dat was gezellig! [that was fun]

You invited some friends over for coffee and, if you are like me living in Holland, that probably means they arrived at around 8 in the evening and you were expecting them with the coffee and one biscuit klaar [ready]. You had arranged the room prettily, making it comfortable, maybe you lit some scented candles and, if you have one, the fireplace as well.
If these friends were visiting you for the first time, when they arrive, they will probably look around approvingly (we hope) and exclaim: wat een gezellige zitkamer! [what a cosy or inviting room!]
And finally, since you are an excellent host/ess, your guests had a very nice time and at the door before leaving, they thanked you for your hospitality and told you that het was erg gezellig! [it was very pleasant, we enjoyed it very much]

Trust me, if you heard this compliment from your Dutch friends, your evening was a complete success!

Can you think of other gezellige situations, places, things...? Do you have in your own native language a word that compares to the Dutch word gezellig? I'd love to hear from you!

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

A Taste of Home: the Argentinian passion for Dulce de Leche

If you ask any Argentinian expat what things they miss the most from their country, you will almost certainly hear them reply -among other things to be sure, "dulce de leche!" I know I miss it - I miss eating it on my toast every morning or in my pastry on special occasions; and just by talking about it, fond memories of childhood tea-hour when the dulce de leche was nearly always present, spring up in my mind.

We, Argentinians, are known to be passionate about many things, like football or tango - but our love for dulce de leche is definitely as strong and constant as our passion for that sport or the legendary music and dance for which we are known all over the world.

What is dulce de leche, you may ask?

Mmmmmmmmm ..... dulce de leche is........ sticky, rich, sweet, luscious, shiny, smooth, creamy, voluptuous, toothsome, scrumptious, delicious, yammy .... caramelised milk and sugar. Simple as that! It is prepared by slowly heating milk with sugar for a couple of hours until it acquires the desired brownish, and creamy consistency that is typical of this sauce. This happens thanks to a chemical process known as the Maillard reaction, which is responsible for the browning and the flavours of many foods, such as toast, biscuits, roasted meat, roasted coffee, and of course, dulce de leche.

As for its origins, it is not very clear who came up with the idea for the first time or where it was invented, but it is especially popular in Latin American countries: in Mexico it is known as dulce de cajeta (which you don't want to say up loud in Argentina, by the way), in Colombia and Venezuela it is called arequipe, and its goes by the name of manjar blanco in Perú, Chile and Ecuador. In France they have something similar called confiture de lait, which they usually serve with fromage blanc.

In the Americas, the origin is undoubtedly colonial. According to the Argentinian journalist Victor Hugo Decrot in his book "Los sabores de la Patria" (flavours from the fatherland), dulce de leche arrived from Chile, first to the region of Cuyo and from there it passed on to the north in Tucumán, where it quickly became popular as a filling for another local delicacy, the alfajor (a sandwich biscuit we are also very passionate about).

But in Argentina we love our legends and myths (think of Evita, for example), and this sweet delicacy has its own story. We like to think that dulce de leche was discovered by accident, in the year 1829, and that this accident involved two of the most important figures of those turbulent times in Argentinian history: Juan Manuel de Rosas, a political leader and landowner of Buenos Aires, and his archrival, Juan Lavalle.

The legend goes that during a visit that Lavalle paid to his opponent Rosas in his estancia (ranch) to discuss the terms of a pact they were about to sign, he felt exhausted from all the horse-riding and fighting he had been doing, and upon finding the stretch bed of his enemy at hand, decided to take a nap until Rosas arrived for the meeting.
A servant who was there cooking milk with sugar for her boss' mate (an Argentinian kind of tea) later, thought that this was unacceptable, and left the pan with milk on the fire to go out and warn the soldiers about Lavalle's insolence. When Rosas came into the room, he found Lavalle sound asleep and he ordered that he should not be disturbed under any circumstance. When Lavalle woke up, a friendly Rosas ordered the servant to pour the mates for him and Lavalle, at which point the poor woman remembered the pan with the milk she had forgotten on the fire. What she found was a rich dark brown paste that tasted like heaven. She served this caramel to her boss and his guest, who found it very tasty - and this is how dulce de leche was first "discovered" in Argentina 180 years ago!

Just in case, we coined the phrase: "Más argentino que el dulce de leche!" (he/she/it is or I am more Argentinian than dulce de leche)

Whether this myth about the origin of dulce de leche is true or not, what remains certain is that Argentinians can't live without it. We grow up eating it, for breakfast or for tea, spread on bread and butter. We also find it on many recipes that are classic desserts usually prepared at home, like panqueques (crepes), alfajores ( sandwich biscuits) and flan (a soft caramel custard). Piononos (a sort of swiss roll), croissants, pastry and cakes are filled with dulce de leche and it is an icecream flavour as well. Dulce de leche candy is a big favourite with both, children and grown-ups - never mind how challenging it is afterwards to remove the sticky bits from your teeth when you eat it!

And the word is spreading: the worldwide known American brand Häagen-Dazs, offers a dulce de leche icecream, a flavour "inspired by the Latin American treasured dessert" which combines caramel and sweet cream, "swirled with ribbons of golden caramel", as it reads on their products menu.

Also the famous American chain Starbucks, offered in 2007, a dulce de leche special version of their frappuccino, a frozen coffee drink for which Starbucks has created different varieties.
The Girl Scouts of the USA have been "converted", too: for their annual sales programme in 2008, they came out with dulce de leche cookies for the South Florida area, targetting in that way the large Argentinian and Latin American population of this part of the state.

Outside Argentina, dulce de leche can be found in supermarkets in countries with large Argentinian communities, like the States, Spain or Italy. Here in the Netherlands, it is not widely available though.
In some of the big supermarket chains here in the big cities, you may be lucky to find it, but so far I haven't seen it in any of the supermarkets in my area.
There are several online shops that sell dulce de leche and other products from my part of the world, like Mate-tee from Germany where I normally buy my Argentinian tea (mate).

Then of course, you can try making it from scratch, which is fun to do, too. Here's the recipe:


2 l. of milk
500 g. of sugar
1 vainilla pod or 1 teaspoon of vainilla extract
1 small teaspoon of baking soda
1 teaspoon of corn syrup (optional, the glucose in it helps to keep the caramel moist and thick)


In a thick-bottomed saucepan bring the milk to the boil first, and then add all the other ingredients stirring with a wooden spoon until the sugar is completely dissolved. Turn the gas down and cook for about 2 to 3 hours or until the caramel reaches the desired consistency and colour. The longer you cook it, the thicker and darker the dulce de leche will be.
When it is ready, turn the gas off, let it out to cool and then you can put it in a jar, seal it and keep it in the fridge.
If you are going to use it to fill pastry or prepare any other recipe with it, take it out of the fridge beforehand and allow to reach room temperature. This will make it easier to spread or mix.

Give it a try: spread it on your toast, fill your pastry with it, spread it on your sponge cake or your pancakes. I assure you will find it hard to resist the temptation of just eating it with a spoon from the jar and thinking, every time you try to put it away:

"Quiero más dulce de leche!"


Note: I would like to thank my good friends Andrea Sosa de Rauhofer (from Uruguay) and Bianca Pacheco de Zafra (from Venezuela) for contributing with their own photos of dulce de leche Chimbote and arequipe Alpina.
Gracias, amigas!
Also, many thanks to Claudia Gibson (from Córdoba, Argentina) for letting me use her photos for this blog entry. Very generous of you, Claudia! Thanks!

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Going South: a trip to Valkenburg, in the Burgundian province of Limburg

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.

City Walk:

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)