For a number of years now I’ve taken an annual holiday with friends in England, the location of which meanders around the country. I’ve never covered those here, since the focus is much more on the company than the destination. However, this year saw the start of a similar project with Dutch friends, which given the necessarily international nature of our get-togethers offered up more interesting travel potential.
In fact, it created almost too much choice, and we struggled to settle on even which country to hold it in. Fortunately our chosen location – the small village of Schin op Geul – allowed us to sample three! Although in the Netherlands (making this a domestic trip for the Dutch attendees), the southernmost province of Limburg is bordered by both Germany and Belgium. All three meet at a triple point, which of course I had to check out; but we also took a day trip to Aachen in Germany, and our train route from the UK took us through much of Belgium.
However, to immediately focus on the region’s neighbours is to ignore its own charms. Limburg has seemingly no shortage of superlatives to offer: the Netherlands’ highest point; its oldest train station; its most exciting hill; its longest hedge maze; its biggest ski resort… and presumably the finest vlaai too!
In addition, a dip into the Atlas Obscura turned up a site that was already on my travel companions’ radar. Maastricht’s former Dominican church has been converted into an independent (although the atlas records it as part of the now-defunct Selexyz chain) book store that routinely features on lists of the world’s best. This repurposing of an already impressive piece of architecture easily found it a place amongst my favourites, even if there’s not much there for me to read beyond the children’s section… The conversion is all the more remarkable considering the couple of hundred years the building spent in a state of neglect – for a while it served merely as a bike shed.
Admittedly, these are – “the fairest bookstore in the world” aside – local curiosities rather than global attractions. Similar to my thoughts regarding Eugene vs Portland a few months ago, I can’t imagine someone’s first experience of the Netherlands being devoted to Schin op Geul, Valkenburg or even Maastricht. But although I visit three or four times a year, most of my time in the country is spent in just the two provinces that make up Holland. Limburg, then, made an enjoyable change – in particular, the rolling hills feel a world apart from the notoriously flat Dutch landscapes found elsewhere.
As with Eugene, this more local approach to travel offered experiences that we’d be hard-pressed to find in the more anonymous bigger cities. Having missed a train from Schin op Geul to Valkenburg by moments, we decided to get a quick drink during the half hour wait for the next one. The nearest establishment seemed remarkably busy for 11am on a weekday morning – which, having blundered straight in, we were mortified to be informed was due to it hosting a wake. Fortunately before we high-tailed it out the door one of our party realised this was a wind-up: our fellow patrons were actually a male choir who had spent the morning on a scavenger hunt / quiz. Given their spirited merry-making despite the early hour, I suspect this activity was also part pub-crawl too, although I may have been mislead by their natural tendency to burst into song. At any rate, the women in our group were rapidly drafted into the award ceremony – for which I’m unsure whether the top prize being a packet of dried pasta, or its recipient being the mayor of a local town, was the more unusual detail!
Photos from our three-country adventure can be found in this gallery.
As mentioned, Alaina and I travelled all the way from Bristol to Schin op Geul by train, an undertaking which covered the rails of four countries (although we never set foot in France). The bulk of the distance was perfectly pleasant – I’d paid a modest extra for first class on the GWR service between Bristol and London, and we had none of the troubles with Eurostar that marred our trip to Brussels earlier in the year. Unfortunately, our more remote than usual destination proved tricky to get to: despite being less than a hundred miles from the Belgian capital, on the way there we required three different services with changes at Liege and Maastricht, taking two and a half hours. This was at least painless to figure out – and book! – from the comfort of Eurostar, using the NS International app, which also proved convenient for our border-crossing trip to Aachen.
Sadly the return on the Sunday was even more convoluted thanks to engineering works. Not only could the app not figure out a route to Brussels, attempting to build one piece-by-piece revealed that it no longer really understood how to get to Liege either:
Schin op Geul station is not staffed (the lovely building is actually a restaurant) so we took our chances with Maastricht as a first point of call. There the booking office confirmed that we did indeed need to route via both Liege and Angleur (although obviously not to then backtrack). The latter turned out to be a windswept single platform with minimal shelter and even less information, most of it in French; after an anxious forty minutes or so we did thankfully join a train to Brussels in time to make our Eurostar connection. Ultimately our entire day was consumed by a journey requiring six trains plus a tube, a taxi and a hike, all dragging luggage, and with meals grabbed at stations.
In fairness, for somewhere like Schin op Geul a certain number of connections are inevitable – even if we’d skipped over France and Belgium by flying to Schiphol, that’s still a trio of trains away. So this experience was a far cry from our carefully designed honeymoon itineraries; as with those, for a future rail trip of this sort I’d prefer to break up the travel with a stay at an intermediate location.