I flew out of Dublin on Sunday, just hours before a set of airplanes were due to do a flyover of the River Liffey. Initially I was worried I was missing out on something rather grand, but two things shifted my disappointment to joy. Firstly I found out that the flight line-up included a jet owned by budget airline Ryanair, which guaranteed there would be delays and timing issues. Secondly, as we touched down in Maastricht a pair of biplanes with acrobats on their top wings flew over us, performing slow barrel rolls. They were bewitching in their lack of caution, and immediately I felt I was somewhere just a little bit special. Intimate daredevil acts rather than overblown theatrics, that’s the way to this boy’s heart.
Maastricht rests at the base of the Netherlands, nestled between Belgium to the West, and Germany to the East. Soon after our arrival Francoise and I are led to the city centre by her friends (and our enthusiastic and engaging hosts), Ilja and Ivo. As we walk towards the spires that lance the skies above the city centre, the streets shrink and the buildings grow. While strolling we’re constantly passed by cyclists on gearless grandma bikes. The age of the bikes and their poorly mounted bells ensure they never approach silently as they judder and clatter down the bricked lanes. My mood shifts between delighted and charmed as I hear and smell the cafes and bars, and glance down the narrow alleys that run between the aged building frontages.
Churches and cathedrals are often the most impressive structures in European cities and towns, and this place is no exception. But as the spiritual requirements of nations and their populace change, these buildings frequently languish in ghostly silence. Here though, the religious monoliths abandoned by those whose faith has evolved are being resurrected in some very interesting ways. Their gothic and baroque shells are providing beautiful usable spaces, and the result of these renovations are locations thick with atmosphere, and enlivened by their renewed purpose.
We start with a visit to one of these updated properties, which the Guardian newspaper called “the most beautiful bookshop in the world”. As we enter between thick steel doors I’m spellbound. In 2008 the centre of this ancient Dominican church was filled with a three-story skeleton of black steel bookshelves and walkways. Cleverly the hollow structure ensures your views of the thirteenth century stonework are barely impeded, no matter which way you look. The more functional appeal of the towering steel work, is that it enables me to get closer to the ceilings as I ascend the stairways. Up here the carefully lit stone ceilings offer up their artful decorations far more effectively than from the floor a hundred feet below. I shudder a little as I can almost feel the haunts peering over my shoulder as I flick through novels and magazines.
Our next stop is another post-religious renovation, the Kruisherenhotel. This sixty room conversion is a brilliant example of converting the intimidating to the intimate. The lighting must take the most significant credit for the transformation, diffused spotlights are used to accentuate the past as much as they are to illuminate the present. The placement of modern sculptures between ancient detailing doesn’t push the boundaries of taste, and the use of the padded doors from the old confessional booths inserts a softer texture between the hard stone and steel.
These sympathetic installations help to highlight the pride of the citizens of this old city. They have ensured that the past hasn’t just been preserved, but that it is functional, that it is integrated into people’s lives.
Yesterday was a day of less metropolitan pleasures. We boarded a boat tour on the Maas River, bound for four locks, and a nosey at what canal living was like. It was a journey of the simplest comforts, my belly was warmed with Nescafe coffee, and filled with home-made cheese and pickle sandwiches. The Dutch commentary was intermittent, and fortunately translated by Francoise. Entertainingly the gaps between the captains explanations were filled by an eighties mega-mix. The sounds of Roxette and Tears for Fears tunes built a nostalgic backdrop and put me in a contented mood as we drifted along the waterways. We passed rowing teams, long barge houses and occasional upset geese, and the even the grey skies and patches of rain couldn’t mute my pleasure.
Somehow this city has quickly drawn me in. I’m enjoying picking out what I can from the written and spoken Dutch language, it seems to draw enough from German and English to make translation an entertainment rather than a chore. I love that the people are frequently on bikes or foot, and perhaps as a result there are few signs of the obesity issues of other places I’ve been travelling lately. And this despite every delicacy I’ve tried so far being either very sweet, or being cheese.
It’s interesting to compare the way I feel here, to the way I feel in Ireland. If cities might be people then I’m pretty sure Dublin is a dishevelled old bloke with a taint of beer and loss, who covers his concerns with cheeky bravado. He’ll never quite earn my trust, though I’ll not forget him in a hurry. I always feel a little more at ease when I leave him behind. Maastricht on the other hand is a tall, sensibly dressed woman in her thirties. I noticed a small curious tattoo on her wrist every time I chat to her, but her banter would be so engaging that I would always forget to ask about it. Like the presence of the tattoo, her tales about her life always leave me with at least one more question at the back of my mind.
I’m very thankful for the circumstances which drew me here, I only wish I had more time to take on what this region seems to offer. I’m sad to be leaving Lady Maastricht in a couple of days, but I guess there’s always another tomorrow.