MAASTRICHT, NETHERLANDS - This city is an endless series of unexpected thrills. From its ancient buildings and Roman remains to its outdoor cafes and high end fashion district located along narrow streets where once Napoleon and his army marched, Maastricht and its 120,000 citizens never cease to amaze tourists. And there have been many - 600,000 annually - since this city gained world prominence in 1992 when the Treaty of Maastricht was signed and the euro was adopted as the continent's common currency - at least by most countries.
This is a sophisticated little city nestled beside the Belgium border where a new sculpture seems to pop up on every corner and where the French, Dutch and German languages seem to blend together in one common local dialect.
Huge barges filled with freight from France ply the gentle waters of the Maas River that cuts the city in half and silently slip under a stone Roman bridges and a walking bridge that dates back to the 13th century.
The river’s edge is lined with quaint cafes and bars where tourists are tempted to pull up a chair, order a Pils beer, soak up the sun and engage in discussion with some of the locals.
Like a man named Johnny who enlightened me with the news that “all café chairs in Maastricht must be made of wicker.” That had something to do with an ancient law that protected the wicker industry here at one time.
“All the wicker chairs are made in Turkey or someplace like that so they might as well throw that law out,” Johnny snarled as he ordered another Pils at the Den Ouden Vogelstruys bar. Considering there’s over 300 café bars in this compact city that amounts to a lot of wicker chairs.
If you follow the walking bridge you will come to Therman Square, which was at one time the centre of town where the original Roman road cut through. The handsome buildings in this area, is home to Maastricht’s thriving arts community, which features some of the country’s best sculptors. The Derlon Museum, which contains much of the Roman remains unearthed in the city, is also located in the square.
A few blocks away we came across the Square of Notre Dame, home to an ancient church where a statue of Our Lady Star of the Sea is illuminated by some of the 1,000 candles lit there daily by the faithful. Within the church's walls, which also dates back to the Roman period, are relics from the past, including a fascinating 15th-century statue of St. Christopher that is carved out of one single piece of wood.
Above: Maastricht is a city of ancient buildings and lovely cafes.
There are 50 churches in this compact city and at one time there were two convents per church. Today, only three convents remain in the entire city, including the Bonnefanten monastery, on the street of the same name that was established in 1710 and is home to a teaching order. Next door is one of the city's best restaurants, Au Coin des Bons Enfants.
Our walk through the old city led us to Hell's Gate, the city's main entrance that dates back to 1229. Another gate that was added later and sits beside the main one is called Heaven's Gate, which has been turned into a discotheque and where they raise hell every night.
There was a noticeable presence of young people cycling and roaming the streets as we toured the old city. Maastricht, we discovered, is home to an international university that attracts 12,000 students from around the world.
One of the most interesting areas of this city is Market Square, where each Wednesday and Friday local farmers and merchants sell their wares - something they've been doing since the 15th century. In the shadow of the city's great 17th-century town hall, local farmers and merchants offer up everything from flowers and vegetables to roast chickens and that old Dutch favorite, raw herring dipped in onion. But the best treat in the market is the oliebollen, a sugar-coated donut that may have been the original Dutch treat.
This may be one of the friendliest cities in all of Europe. Don’t be surprised if someone just pulls up a chair beside you at a local watering hole and engages you in some conversation.
If you’re lucky, you’ll have the pleasure of talking to someone as lovely as Marjolijn, the pretty young blonde woman who asked where I was from when she introduced herself in the Den Ouden Vogelstruys (Old Ostrich), the city’s oldest bar where they pulled their first pint back around 1309.
"You don’t mind if people just talk to you, no?” wondered Marjolijn. “The people of Maastricht are known for our friendliness towards strangers. We are a city without borders and everyone is welcome here.”
With that attitude, and the fact that almost everyone here speaks English, it’s hard to get lost. In fact, if you ask directions, more likely than not the person you asked will escort you to the place you wanted to visit.
That’s what happened when we asked a lady named Anne Olivers where we could find historic St. Jan’s church, a 13th century Gothic church with wall paintings that dates back to the 1400s.
“Oh, please follow me,” said Anne who started to give us a history lesson on the ancient church and the hilly area in which it’s located.
“You see the tower,” said Anne, “it was painted with ox blood during ancient times to protect its delicate sandstone finish.”
The huge church that sits next to St. Jan’s is called St. Servaas and Anne informed us that within the church’s honeycomb walls is a piece of Christ’s cross and some other golden treasures from the past.
It was Anne who suggested we visit the city’s National History Museum in the university district. The museum is noted for one of its senior citizens, a 66-million-year-old prehistoric reptile that has been nicknamed the Bear. It was unearthed in a local quarry some years back and has now become a centerpiece at the fascinating museum. If you’re lucky, one of the museum staff might even let you hold a piece of the Bear’s rib cage.
The city is full of amazing parks and fountains and the Roman wall that surrounds it is one of Europe’s greatest treasures – just like Maastricht.