The Magic of Maastricht & Amsterdam in Summer

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André Rieu first came into my conscious awareness quite a few years ago.  We both loved his romantic music of Strauss, Lehar, grand opera, and the popular tunes which are so beloved of so many globally from different cultures and countries.

holland-flowers

We would watch his concerts on television and feel relaxed and happy and I wistfully said it would be nice to go to a live concert in his beloved Maastricht and that is what happened this July – as a birthday gift from my sons.  We went to Maastricht for his 30th anniversary concert and this is the account of our incredible time in Holland.

Maastricht is in southern Holland and very easy to reach by flying KLM to Schiphol and then taking the KLM coach to Maastricht right from Schiphol Plaza.  One books the coach at the same time as the air ticket.

It departs at 10.15 and takes approximately three hours to reach the train station in Maastricht, but the coach is comfortable, air conditioned, with WC, and the driver serves tea, coffee and bottled water.  The coach is even styled in KLM livery of blue and white and one boards it at Bay 6 having arrived in good time that morning.

Naturally there are other ways to get to Maastricht but for us flying in from Edinburgh it was so easy and pleasant.  The train journey requires one change of trains and has Wi-Fi, whereas sit in the coach and use free Wi-Fi or read a paper and one arrives in Maastricht near the station!   We both enjoyed seeing the countryside unfold in front of us and arriving in time for lunch we registered at Hotel Bigarre which provided a very spacious top floor room and lovely shower room.

The hotel is so well located that within about ten minutes we found the Market Square (De Markt) and were seated with a cool drink and the prospect of a fine lunch.

The market takes place in frontof the beautiful Town Hall on Wednesdays and Fridays.  This building is gracious and interesting for us as apparently it is built out of stone that was quarried in Scotland!

town-hall

That afternoon we found our way to the Dominican Bookshop which is in the former Dominican Church that originates from the 13th century. There is a welcome coffee shop and the whole building is intriguing as it has in its own way stood sentinel for Maastricht through all the centuries past.

Ton Harmes, the store’s owner warmly welcomed us and educated us to the history and significance of this ancient building.  He is very proud of the fact that it is often referred to as the most beautiful bookshop on earth!

The Coffee Lovers provides excellent refreshment and I only wish I had had the time to peruse the books. Recently, the Dominican church has been completely renovated but except for the entrance to the building the gothic architectural style prevails.  It has a modern brutalist steel door entrance and this bears the word book in 25 different languages.

bookstore

In around 1230, the Dominican monks were first seen in The Netherlands; the founding of the order in Maastricht can be dated to before 1260.  The church was inaugurated in 1294 and the great building went through first religious and then secular challenges throughout the last 700 years, but this was the first church on Dutch soil that was completely erected in Gothic style.

Thankfully, in 2004 the plan to transform the Gothic heritage into a modern bookstore was outlined and the result is a beautiful success.  The coffee bar serves coffee from the oldest coffee makers of Maastricht – Blanche Dael.  I really recommend a visit.

That evening armed with our excellent map, we set out for a beautiful restaurant Rozemarjn which is situated on one of the nicest, quietest squares in the heart of Maastricht – De Thermen – in the middle of the Stokstraatkwartier.  It was a glorious warm sunny evening and we were warmly welcomed to this fine restaurant which was full of people enjoying their evening.

The warmth of welcome, the knowledgeable sommelier, the restaurant owner, the intriguing bonne bouche, the first course, the champagne, the wines, the seafood, the fish, the desserts, oh yum, it was all so good in a lovely ambiance and a great many of our fellow diners were there like us for the world-famous André Rieu concert the following evening.

I asked if they would do a gin tasting with me the following day for which we returned.  I like gin and Holland and gins go together; but what is not generally known is that in Scotland we now create some of the finest gins and indeed 70% of the UK’s gins are now distilled in Scotland with charming accents of different botanicals, so the sommelier’s choices were interesting to me!

We asked for a taxi back to the Bigarre because we had been up since 0300 hours to get to our flight in Edinburgh and by 23.00 hours that was beginning to be felt! The taxis are efficient and not too expensive. The breakfasts at the Bigarre are stupendous; one is offered champagne, orange juice, tea, coffee etc, but omelette with bacon and steak, fish, cheese and charcuterie on a 3-tier stand and of course various breads, yoghurts and fruit.  Outstanding!!

Touching Belgium on its west and just a few miles from Germany to the east, Maastricht is the capital of Holland’s southernmost region, Limburg. A town rich in history and culture, Maastricht boasts two wonderful town square – de Markt as I have mentioned and  the Vrijthof, with Sint-Servaas Church, Sint-Jan’s Cathedral and many bars, cafes and restaurants; The city’s Vestigingswerken, or old town fortifications, are another big draw.

Underground, still more historical treasures await. There are guided tours at different times of the day every day in the various Maastricht Underground locations and the Caves prove fascinating for many; this city has been besieged throughout its history and the caves have proved a refuge for its people as recently as World War 2.

I was content however to walk around on the surface and enjoy the river, the ancient walls – this town of at most 125,000 citizens is a gem. Maastricht developed from a Roman settlement to a Medieval religious centre, a garrison town and an early industrial city.

Today, Maastricht is well-regarded as an affluent cultural centre. Maastricht has 1677 national heritage sites, which is the second highest number in a Dutch town, after Amsterdam. It has become known, by way of the Maastricht Treaty as the birthplace of the European Union, and the single European currency, the Euro.

The town is popular with tourists for shopping and recreation, and has a large growing international student population. I like the fact it is still quite small and walkable.

We were taken around in the morning the next day by the most excellent Guide Kitty who loves her city and we enjoyed her company – that is the essence of travel, to find people and engage with them and see how they value their surroundings. Indeed, she calls herself City Kitty!

 

Maastricht Cafe Culture & Music

Café culture in Maastricht is alive and thriving and we went with Kitty to a most charming Kitchen shop Dille & Kamille, which, guess what, had a lovely coffee area and the kind manager had baked a gluten free yummy chocolate tart for me.  What a charming shop it is too, so naturally I had to buy a little something as a memento of our time there.

We had lunch at Lure which is a well-known café/restaurant and walked among the lanes and walkways during the afternoon.   That evening, we dined with great enjoyment at No 55 Restaurant which was also interesting food well served.  But, the preparation and anticipation could be felt everywhere.  All was in preparation for the concert and we, after eating, made our way to the Vrijthof Square.

The Magic of André Rieu 

By this time, the security and the crowds was all about the Concert.

The Concert organisers welcome one efficiently and young staff dressed in uniform escort one to seats, which are prepared with a poncho in a sealed bag, and a small bottle of water, and a special little light/key ring.  All the world was represented and it was intriguing just people watching. 

The concert was most enjoyable and André Rieu works hard at pleasing his audience and the audience roars approval and joins in and dances and sways to the music and we loved it.

The piece de resistance was for us that suddenly a full Pipe Band in full ceremonial kit appeared on the stage with a backdrop of the wonderful Eilean Donan Castle on the confluence of three lochs in the west of Scotland – a place much loved and known to us and the music became Highland Cathedral that most stirring of pipe tunes that is a favourite with us and left us both speechless.

Gra was delighted with his favourite aria from La Traviata, I adored You are my Heart’s Delight, the Blue Danube etc.

andre-maastricht

There is an interval and André Rieu keeps urging everyone back to their seats, the second half threatens to finish, but doesn’t and instead has many lovely encores and finally at 00.15 hours we said a happy farewell after huge bursts of fireworks.

A happy vast crowd exited the Vrijthof, and the Pipes and Drums from Scotland gave us a burst of Scotland the Brave and we walked home happy and full of three magical hours of popular music.

The Vrijthof is beloved of André Rieu who must be Maastricht’s most famous son and that is essential – he communicates his great love and pride in his city.  He travels worldwide and some of his other venues must be very atmospheric but I did not fancy the venue here in Scotland so we are very glad we went to Maastricht and would certainly consider a return visit.

Maastricht celebrates the Midweekend from Sunday to Thursday inclusive. I’d recommend Maastrict Midweekend or Visit Maastricht for more details and logistics.

Booking a central hotel well in advance if attending the concert is essential.  However, Maastricht prides itself on its very special Christmas Market and that would be a lovely winter alternative or perhaps a Spring break when Holland is ablaze with stunning spring bulbs.

This is a welcoming little city and is also a good place from which to access other heritage cities like Cologne in Germany perhaps for a two-centre holiday with Aachen along the route.

All too soon, having fallen into bed at 0100 hours we were up for the gargantuan breakfast and said our farewells and took a taxi to the station.

We took a train to Amsterdam which is fast and pleasant and arrived in time for a welcome drink and lunch.  Amsterdam Central Train station has I amsterdam Visitor Centre at Stationplein (across from Amsterdam Central Station) where it is essential to buy a city card.  I really recommend this at the outset as it lets you experience Amsterdam to the fullest.

Enjoy free entrance to museums and major attractions, discounts and unlimited public transport in Amsterdam.  We had a light meal in Wagamama at the shopping arcade looking onto the waterfront at the station and then took a tram to our hotel.

The Hoxton Hotel in Amsterdam

We booked The Hoxton on Herengracht.   This modern hotel in a heritage building on a scenic canal was a success.  Trams are the only way to get about and so easy.   We trundled in by 1400 hours and were given our room.

The Hoxton is a fun hotel which appeals to young people in the way it is configured and what it offers.  I ticked off my boxes, in that the room though a touch small is well air conditioned, has a superb shower, a fridge with fresh milk in a jug, tea/coffee making facilities and in a lovely location.  The bed was comfortable, naturally there was TV and Wi-Fi.  I was happy!  A hot afternoon dictated watching Wimbledon until the late afternoon.

In the evening sunshine, we ventured out for a drink at the luxury Pulitzer Hotel which has a most lovely garden and terrace.  This was very close by and we also reserved ourselves a table at Nooch which is an Asian restaurant not far away.  The Pulitzer has joined other luxury hotels in Amsterdam, some of which I had experienced enjoyably two years ago when visiting on a press trip.

I liked The Waldorf Astoria – again with a fine garden, The Conservatorium with outstanding tulip displays and excellent food, and The Grand which was once the City Hall of Amsterdam but now a ‘grand hotel’ with an outside terrace and fine food.

People watching wherever one is becomes enthralling but then supper called and we went to Nooch which proved very nice with some lively fellow diners.  The Hox as it calls itself has a lively scene in the evening and was crowded with people enjoying food, drinks and genial company.  The Hox also gives you a sort of breakfast in your room of fruit and yoghurt and of course you can make your own hot drinks.  Naturally if a more substantial breakfast is required the restaurant provides that too.

History & Culture in Amsterdam

The following morning saw us set out on foot and then take a tram almost to the door of The Rijksmuseum.   This great world-famous gallery has had a serious renovation since I visited in 1998 and is very beautiful.   We knew we did not have time nor the stamina to do much but we went to The Gallery of Honour which leads one to the famous The Night Watch by Rembrandt.

Photo credit: Amsterdam Tourism

There are so many wonderful works here that inevitably one becomes drawn into more and more galleries and the building itself is so beautiful.   We found the seascapes and huge battle scenes also of interest pertaining to the time when the Dutch bestrode the world of trade and maritime supremacy.  I also wanted to see the relatively new gallery of oriental sculpture, some of it Hindu and Buddhist.

The Dutch went to India and were very successful with their Dutch East India Company and the trade to the Far East three centuries ago.  To this day there are heritage places left by that time of conquest and empire.

Indeed, very recently Mr. Modi the Prime Minister of India paid a one day visit to The Netherlands and met with the King and Queen and the Prime Minister, who presented him with a bicycle.   This I found faintly amusing as of course we know the bike is iconic to Holland and the Dutch cycle everywhere from an early age to quite senior citizens, but in India the bike had been seen as the budget alternative and now Indians all strive to at least own a motor bike or preferably a prestige motor car.

The Netherlands wishes to promote trade with India and there is a vast potential in that great country about which I write so often.

Viewing great art is thirsty work and we thankfully sat down at terrace of the Rijks Restaurant which obviously offers fine dining and lunches but we ordered coffees, water and some light bites.  The Dutch are very good at light bites which invariably comprise smoked meats, sausage and cheeses.

We took the canal cruise from just near to the Rijksmuseum.  This was included in the I amsterdam card and was very welcome.  It is a great way to see this historic beautiful city.

Amsterdam is about 850,000 people in total so not too big but the cruise takes in the canals and the waterways and you can hop off where it suits you.  I was determined that Graham should see the lovely Museum Van Loon on Keizergracht and we left the cruise close to that place.

This lovely townhouse was built in 1672 and it has a huge significance. I first experienced it with a most lovely meal when there in April 2015.  For over 400 years, the history of the Van Loon family has been closely connected to that of the city of Amsterdam.

It was Willem van Loon, who in the beginning of the Golden Age, developed his talents in the business world as co-founder of the Dutch East India Company VOC in 1602.  His grandson Willem was the first Van Loon to be appointed as Mayor of Amsterdam, in 1686.  In the early 19th century the family was raised to nobility and became affluent bankers and in 1884 Hendrik and Louise Van Loon- Borski bought the house on the Keizergracht as a wedding gift for their son Willem Hendrik.

This is a private museum and charming and really shows how the well to do Dutch people lived in times past.

On this afternoon, the garden which is elegant was the venue for a wedding.  I treasure the memory of a most intriguing dinner there two years ago when a celebrity Chef gave us all manner of interesting items including tulip bulbs incorporated into the food.  Quite often when Dutch royalty wish to entertain a very distinguished guest they arrange for a small banquet here in this house.

When I was in Holland in a couple of years ago, I had the great good fortune to also be shown Keukenhof the world-famous spring bulb garden which I adored.

We visited Flora Holland to see the famous auction of flowers in a vast interior, we were taken to visit Bakkers the famous plantsmen, then to the city of Haarlem where we sampled beer and saw that lovely heritage city, and then the waterways of Aalsmeer with lilacgrowers.

Flowers in all their glory covered Holland and to this passionate lover of tulips and spring flowers I was in heaven.

I have visited Holland in December too, but honestly consider April/May for the spring flowers and July for André Rieu the most attractive choices; however, a winter break in heritage surroundings is always attractive.   We said our farewells to The Hox and took the tram to the Central Station from where we bought the ticket to take us to Schiphol.

Flying home in the setting sun, we looked out over the North Sea and then arrived in ‘the gloaming’ with a stunning sunset and the July Full Moon.  This is often called the Thunder Moon, and in India the Purnima Moon, but its huge silvery light beckoned us home.

Check here for even more great photos from this trip and here for the gallery to my last trip.

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Aline Dobbie
Aline Dobbie is an author of four books on India and a travel writer. She lives in Scotland but travels widely throughout the year with an annual visit to India where she was born & grew up. Aline’s earlier life was in the corporate world but now lives a rural life with emphasis on travel, gardening, cooking, and family. India, South Africa, England, Scotland, Greece and other lovely places are a constant delight to her.
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