Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Maastricht: a penny for your flames

Maastricht, the Netherlands
Close to the border of both Belgium and Germany, multi-cultural Maastricht was where the EU was born in February 1992. With history dating back thousands of years, we couldn't pass up taking a look. 
The oldest surviving town gate in the Netherlands, Helpoort was built in 1229 and unlike some more decimated ruins, its walls retain their impressive stature by towering over nearby trees and Necias. While trying to find the gate, we asked a passerby who said that he had been staying in the town for a while, but couldn't think of what we were looking for. Once we thanked him and walked on a few paces, we heard "Yes, yes! I know it!" from behind us, and he cheerfully gave us directions, satisfied he had remembered the old gate. 
 
The Bisschopsmollen is a functioning seventh century mill and water wheel that still powers a flour grinder. That flour is used by the attached bakery, where we bought our breakfast and daily bread. Like a much loved cast iron pan builds flavour from layers of fat, I wonder if some fragments of ancient grains remained in the crevaces of the stone slabs. 
A walk through the main square drew our attention to Sint Janskerk (my autocorrect wanted to change it to 'Ain't Janskerk', but I assure you it is Janskerk). Starkly red against the blue sky, there was no indication as to why it was such a shade. I've never seen natural stone that colour, but it seems odd to think it may be painted. Whatever the reason, the bold tower was one of the most memorable sights in the town. 
The golden glow of dozens of candles drew us inside the shrine of the church of Onze Lieve Vrouwebasiliek. A magnificent figure of the virgin mother held the baby Jesus, both draped in swathes of richly embroidered fabric. If you weren't familiar with their humble biblical origins, you could have mistaken them for members of a royal family. I don't know if I'll ever be able to wrap my head around the hypocrisy of Christianity's history: worshippers were instructed to hold modesty in the highest regard, yet the Church would adorn their places of prayer with gold and marble. While it doesn't make any sense to me, I do enjoy taking in the beautiful architecture and art that the world's religions have spawned (and I try not to think of the massacres and oppression that they have caused).
A tribute to Johannes Petrus Minckelers, inventor of the gaslight, promised to spout flame if you fed it enough coins. I was happy with my imagination, and while I felt the coin operated show seemed a bit cheap, it was nice to see a statue of an inventor as often politicians and artists are placed on a higher pedestal (if you'll forgive my pun). 
In a considerably newer part of Maastricht, a contented cat dozed by the foot of a voluptuous statue in a contemporary art gallery. The cat alone incited in me the want for a photo, but the small figure of a man on his collar piqued my curiosity. Often collars are plain or hold a bell to warn imperilled birds, so I was not expecting to see a little silver man. 
The café and bar scene was vibrant and varied. We spent several hours in a pub called Café Charlemagne sipping freshly squeezed orange juices and teas. Eventually we were driven out by a sulphurous smell wafting over from a man's table who had ordered a complex meal involving all sorts of eggy, sausagey mounds. 
At night, the town was much quieter and all of its grand buildings were lit up. Even if Utrecht was a less touristy Amsterdam, Maastricht was one of my favourite places in the Netherlands (only coming second to Delft). 
A great insight into the history of the area involved checking out the tunnel systems that run under Maastricht and span so far as to cross the border to Belgium. Apologies for the poor quality photos - it was very dark down there as our tour group was only lit by three old fashioned lanterns. The tunnels themselves were carved out by workers gathering large quantities of limestone for building purposes. The work was strenuous, and they could only remove one block of stone per day. Some areas were three storeys deep, but they could not dig deeper for the layers of flint that blockaded precious limestone. While digging, workers often found fossils and would throw them away until a scientist named Hoffmann offered to pay them to bring him the discoveries. In 1770 the bones of a previously unknown dinosaur were found, which he called the Mosasaurus after the river that bisects Maastricht. 
When Napoleon besieged the town, some civilians took refuge in the tunnels, but many died of exposure. As the temperature is around ten degrees Celsius, yet the air is humid from the moisture the limestone exudes, clothes become wet and can never dry. A few built ovens in which to cook, where they could also dry their clothes and warm themselves. The dangers of becoming lost in the tunnels is very real, which is why visitors must be accompanied by a guide. Thirty years ago, two boys went to explore the tunnels without telling anyone where they would be. Their torch died and in the impenetrable darkness they perished in two days. A rescue party found them only 30 metres from the exit, their fingertips worn off from running their hands along the walls in a desperate attempt to escape. The tour promised spooky, and they delivered grisly.