Earlier this year we visited Luxembourg, and it’s very interesting to us that the histories of Luxembourg and of Maastricht are somewhat similar and followed similar paths. Both are small areas on rivers, on important crossroads, and both are situated between much larger countries. Both were first settled by the Romans, both suffered multiple foreign invasions and built defensive walls and casemates, and both played an important role in the modern EU.
Today, Maastricht, the capital of Limburg Province in the south of the Netherlands, is in the heart of Euregio. The Euregio-Meuse-Rhine is the three-country area where the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium meet, home to 4 million people and 4 different languages (the fourth being a Maastricht dialect of Dutch).
We found Maastricht a lovely city, and history is literally around every corner. Being in the Old Town is like living in history in a way. We arrived at the train station and walked over the River Maas (Meuse) on the famous St Servaas Bridge; from there we stepped into a different world, of old city walls, narrow, winding streets, old churches, and small squares. And then a surprise—you walk down a narrow alley and enter a huge, open square, the Vrijthof, dominated by the enormous Cathedral of St Servaas.
We wanted to find out more, so here’s a brief history summary, by way of a bit of background for being a tourist in the city (and for upcoming stories about Maastricht).
Maastricht is the oldest city in the Netherlands and has been open to foreign influences from the time of Roman traders and continuously populated since then. For the Romans it was an important garrison and trading post commanding a strategic river crossing, with roads leading to Cologne and London. They called it “Mosae Trajectum” (crossing point over the Meuse), now called Maastricht.
In the 4th century (380 AD) St Servatius (St Servaas), Bishop of Tongeren, moved the bishop’s see to Maastricht, bringing the town prestige and wealth, and relative peace. During that time, the Sint Servaasbasiliek (St Servatius Basilica), and the towering Onze Lieve Vrouwebasiliek (Basilica of Our Lady) were built.
However, it became a town of joint sovereignty in 1204 when the Duke of Brabant shared power with the prince-bishops of Liege. The first medieval city walls around the city were built soon after that, in 1229. For more than 200 years, this dual authority was reflected in the city: upstream from St Servaasbrug (Bridge) the Bishop of Liege held sway, while Brabant governed the area downstream from the bridge.
In the 15th century the city was absorbed by the Burgundian empire and became a great trading post. But there were repeated Spanish, French and Dutch claims and take-overs, so the city’s fortunes fluctuated.
Briefly, in1579 was the successful Spanish siege under the Duke of Parma. In 1632 Stadholder Frederik Hendrik brought Maastricht into the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, but in 1673 French Louis XIV captured Maastricht. During the attack on the city walls, the famous French musketeer d’Artagnan was killed (don’t miss the d’Artagnan statue just outside the city walls). The Dutch took control again in 1678 and then in 1794 the city became part of the French Republic. In 1814, it finally came under Dutch rule again.
Just beyond the city walls and the d’Artagnan statue are the casemates, another part of the city’s history. The casemates are a 14-kilometer-long system of defensive tunnels under the western side of the city, built mainly in the 18th century, but started in 1575. During times of siege, these tunnels were used to approach and surprise the enemy from under the ground. During WW2 and the Cold War, people of Maastricht also used them as air-raid shelters, and a place of refuge and safely. Since then the air-raid shelters have been dismantled, but the passageways still exist and visitors can tour them.
All these foreign influences brought great architectural and artistic diversity to the city, giving it “a certain-something” that other Dutch cities don’t have. Also, its geography is more varied than the rest of the Netherlands, with hills and forests around, so it feels like the “least Dutch” of Dutch cities. Apparently, even Dutch people from northern Netherlands like to come here for that reason. German and Belgian visitors come for the great shopping opportunities and thriving arts scene.
We asked a local waitress from Maastricht what the local people consider themselves as. She said they are “Limburgers”, and are a little bit different to the Dutch. In fact they call the people from the north “Hollanders”, she laughed.
In recent times, a co-operative platform signed in 1976 by the Dutch, German and Belgian provinces became law in 1991 as the Euregio-Meuse-Rhine—a special co-operation between universities and the business community.
In 1992, representatives of 12 European countries signed the Treaty of Maastricht, paving the way for the introduction of the Euro as common currency.
Maastricht is still a thriving crossroads city, with wonderful diversity in cuisine and arts, all encompassed in the old city, built up over the centuries.
We experienced a lot in our almost-week stay there, but can’t wait to get back!