Searching for Sunshine in the Benelux - Part 6

A visit to lovely Maastricht and go "home again" to Breukelen

In the afternoon we started to approach Maastricht, a city in the Netherlands very close to Belgium and Luxembourg. We had booked a hotel on the Internet, and now we wanted to find it. The email from the hotel gave driving directions that said, “On the river Maas, near the city center”. So we figured that merely by driving along the river we would see the hotel. Well, it took a long time driving all around Maastricht, looking for the hotel, getting lost, looking for the river, looking for the city center. We finally found it. The hotel was on the other side of the river, opposite the city center. After seeing it, a big building with a big sign, obvious to anyone looking in the right direction, we now merely had to figure out how to get to it. We finally got to the hotel, checked in and parked the car in their garage. Whew, what a relief. We keep forgetting how difficult it is to drive around in large European cities, which don't have rectangular grid-plan street layouts like New York.

We left the hotel and started walking around Maastricht. The river view, late in the afternoon, with the clouds finally parted and the low sun on the river and the houses along the river, was lovely. We took a few pictures and walked further into the old town. As we were walking across the pedestrian bridge over the river Maas, we were being passed by hordes of people and bicycles going in the opposite direction. After we got to the other side, we figured out why. It was 6:00 p.m., and all the shops were closed. All the people were workers going home. At first glance, Maastricht looks like another very nice, very attractive Dutch city.

Thursday, September 9

We went out a little late this morning, about 11, and walked around Maastricht. It was partly cloudy at times, with the sun peeking through and overcast at other times. We had two things to do before seeing some sights. Firstly we had to get some cash from an ATM. We did that. More importantly, since we were back in the Netherlands, I had to buy some Hopjes. Hopjes are little hard candies, native to the Netherlands. They are individually wrapped in a printed white paper. I love them. They are like toffee, but are coffee-flavored. We read somewhere that a merchant named Hop was told by his doctor that he couldn't drink coffee any more, and he loved coffee so much that he asked his baker to make him some coffee-flavored treat and that's where Hopjes came from. We found a candy store and bought a big bag of them.

We were walking the nice small twisty cobblestone streets when Donnie pointed out a small nicely decorated church on a little street. We decided to go in. It wasn't a church. We had read about it in a guidebook, but hadn't realized we had found it. It was a bookstore inside an old church. The guide had called it the prettiest bookstore in Europe. It might have been. We took several pictures in the bookstore.

We then went out walking again and found another door into another church. After walking in, we discovered that we had inadvertently found the entrance to the St. Servatius Basilica. Donnie had wanted to visit this church, since she had read that St. Servatius was supposed to be Armenian, but we had thought the entrance was on a completely different block. We paid the small entrance fee and went in, and after walking around an enclosed cloister came to the Treasury. Wow! There were many well-lit, beautifully designed glass cases containing reliquaries and other church treasures, many of the them in solid gold. I am not a big fan of religious art, but the workmanship and effort in these objects was quite impressive. There were a lot of them. Whoever maintains the Basilica did a marvelous job of preserving and displaying the objects, with nice lighting and a beautiful environment.

We then walked through a large wooden door into the church itself. It was a very attractive church, not too ornate, for a Catholic cathedral. The main thing that attracted my attention was the very attractive pipe organ at one end. There were three people sitting and talking in a roped-off area near the pipe organ. Two young college-age people, a young man and a young woman, and an older man. We walked around inside some more, and took pictures, and then I noticed that the young man had left, but the young woman was now seated at the organ keyboard. A very hopeful sign! Donnie had seen a sign and a set of steps leading down to St. Servatius' tomb, but I wanted to wait and see if the woman was going to play the organ. Donnie went to see the tomb, while I waited near the organ. The young woman took out some sheet music, and started discussing it with the older man, obviously her instructor. They talked a long time. Finally, I decided to give up and find Donnie. I ran into her coming out of the tomb, and she told me that it was interesting and I should come see it so I went back down with her. There was a small chapel, and a small room containing a sarcophagus, which was the tomb of St. Servatius, who died in 384 a.d. The church was built around 1000 a.d, on the site of a 6th century sanctuary that was built over his grave. Later, in the guide book, we found out that the crypt also contained the tombs of the Bishops Manolfus, Gondolfus, Candidus and Valentius, and perhaps most significantly “Charles the Simple”. I'll skip the “Charles the Simple” jokes. We walked up the steps back into the church and I said to Donnie that the girl was obviously not going to play the organ. The organ music started less than a second after I said that. We listened for a little while, but she was just practicing, playing short snippets of different parts of the music, so we left.

We were hungry and so we had a very nice lunch in, of all places, the cafeteria inside the V&D department store. While we were having lunch it started to rain, but it stopped before we finished. We walked some more around Maastricht, but started to get a little tired, so we went back to the hotel for a rest. After resting for a while, we went back out to look around Maastricht some more, but again it started to rain, so we decided to duck in out of the rain somewhere and have a drink or something until the rain stopped. So where did we duck into in Maastricht, Netherlands? John Mullins Irish Pub, of course, where we had some Strongbow cider. We walked around after the rain subsided a bit, but we were tired and it was raining on and off, so we had dinner at a little restaurant and went back to the hotel.

Maastricht was a nice city. Very pleasant and with a very beautiful riverside. The small streets were nice but they were full of international chain stores and ritzy clothing stores, and thus not as quaint as some other towns we had been in. It was sort of like Delft meets Fifth avenue. It reminded Donnie of parts of Florence. I still like Maastricht though, and probably wouldn't mind living there. We passed some town houses right on the riverside that had beautiful views that would be nice places to live. You have to watch out for the gajillions of bicycles, though, or perhaps mega-gajillions. (Amsterdam, which we had visited the previous year, has umpteenillions of bicycles.)

Friday, September 10

We left Maastricht and drove the two hours or so to the hotel we had booked near Utrecht. On the way, we stopped for gas at a roadside rest stop, with a big modern gas station/convenience store. Inside they had the usual snacks and coffee, etc. but they also had a small Automat . It looks like little windows in a wall containing hot food that you purchased via a coin mechanism, just like my youth at the Horn and Hardart . There was even somebody behind the wall cooking the food and replacing it in the little windows. So we had a Kip Kroket - a sausage-shaped thing that turned out to be fried chicken. It was the best Kip Kroket from a gas station I ever had! (It was the only one I ever had, of course.)

We had wanted to stay either in Utrecht itself, or book for 3 nights in Delft nearby, and use it as a base to travel around from. Friday night was fully booked in both places, so we searched the Internet looking for some place to stay Friday night, and found the Van der Valk Hotel Breukelen. That's right, we're in BROOKLYN!!!! My birthplace!!! Well, not really. We're in the original Brooklyn, only they spell it funny. We read that Brooklyn, NY is named after this little town. Wow! This is incredible. First Flushing and now Brooklyn. It's old home week! I wonder if they have Breukelen Dodgers!

Even weirder, the Van der Valk Hotel Breukelen inside is like any modern well-appointed business hotel. The outside is a Chinese Palace from the Forbidden City! Really. Donnie has been there and said this looks similar. It even has some of the same details on the roof. There was a sign inside explaining something about the “Chinese Palace” but it was only in Dutch and we couldn't understand it.

After checking in, we looked in the Michelin guide book and found they had a brief driving tour around an area near Utrecht that included Breukelen, so we decided to take a drive. The guide said that there were windmills, (Did I mention that there is one less than 20 feet from our hotel!) and castles. We drove around and didn't see any windmills other than the one near our hotel, and only one very small castle, but the scenery and little towns were fantastic. The little towns like Breukelen and Loenen had some of the prettiest houses and gardens and farms, and little canals and little bridges. Also some very beautiful mansions. It was some of the nicest scenery we had seen on the trip. Unfortunately, it was raining hard, and so we couldn't take any pictures.

We then took the highway a few minutes to Utrecht, another largish Dutch city. We got lost, as usual, in any European city. We usually just try to follow the signs that say “Centrum”, which invariably lead you to the old center of town. Usually when we do this, we find the old, cobblestone, twisty, windey streets with the old buildings and then find a parking garage nearby and park the car and walk around the old town. This time, every time we followed the “Centrum” sign we would come to some turn where there was no more signs and get lost and find we were headed back out of town. We drove around for quite a while, finding the old part, and attempting to find a parking garage, make a wrong turn and find ourselves outside the old part again. Finally, in frustration, and because it was raining, we just gave up and went back to the hotel. Donnie said it wouldn't have been much fun to walk around Utrecht in the rain anyway. Sorry, Utrecht. Maybe next time.

Saturday, September 11

We woke up this morning and it was sunny! We checked out and decided to drive around Breukelen again, to see the pretty little villages, canals, etc. in the sunshine. Then we started to drive to Leiden, but the display on the dashboard of the rental car suddenly showed a big wrench symbol, and the car made a beep. Since we were only ½ hour away from Schiphol airport, where we had rented the car, we decided to take it back to Hertz to get it replaced. We drove to the airport, and showed the rental returns clerk what was on the dashboard display, and he called his “colleague”, who was the returns lot manager, who told us that the symbol merely meant that the car was due for an oil change. He checked the oil level, made a note on our rental agreement that nothing was wrong with the car, and sent us on our way. Whew!