Travellers’ tips for Maastricht

BEWARE OF THE TRAFFIC: Although there are few cars in Maastricht, bikes and scooters are very popular. There is little difference between road, bike path and pavement as cyclists and scooter riders careen across all cobble stoned areas (which is pretty much everywhere), even the centre of the Markt, without even glancing to see if they’re about to collide with someone on foot.

I’M NOT DISAPPOINTED TO HAVE MISSED TRAFALGAR SQUARE: Maastricht is full of pigeons. Heaps of them. I even saw a couple of male pigeons chasing the tail of a female pigeon, clearly trying to talk her into having a ‘good time’ with them. This was in plain view of young children as their mothers pushed them along in their strollers. Pigeons have no shame, I tell you! As to how I know the difference between male and female pigeons? The kids at school assure me that the female pigeons are the first to enter the junior school building in an attempt to escape the advances of their amorous male counterparts. If you don’t like pigeons, or have an aversion to the Hitchcock film ‘The Birds’, don’t go to Maastricht.

TAKE A MAP: If you like to know where you’re heading or simply have a really crap sense of direction, you need to take a map with you. Don’t think you can buy one when you arrive in Maastricht. I traipsed around the entire city and didn’t see a single information centre or newsagent. That being said, I did spot a couple of public maps of the city (like the shop directories at Chaddy or Southland, minus the touch screens). They simply confirmed that Google Maps is accurate.

KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR UNUSUAL PEOPLE: A dude in a long black overcoat, holding a bracelet behind his back and sporting a neat little moustache quietly followed me around the Helpoort area (which is incredible by the way – it’s the old fortress and defensive walls of the city, complete with five original cannons alongside the Meuse river). Anyway, I was fully aware this guy was following me as I changed direction several times and still, he wasn’t far away, so I made sure to stay near other people. He then approached me as I took a photo and asked me if I’d like to see the Bambis. Despite my intensive research, I didn’t know Maastricht had cute storybook animals. I politely refused, saying I was going the opposite way as I had a train to catch. I quickly walked away and check to see he was no longer following me. Perhaps he was harmless and just wanted to compare accessories, but I wasn’t taking any chances. Never trust a guy with a moustache (no offence intended dad. Love ya!).

MAASTRICHT IS GOING TO THE DOGS: I saw only a few dogs being walked by their dutiful servants (some would call them owners) and one gorgeous beagle who seemed to have misplaced his personal assistant. The lack of dogs however, does not mean a lack of their droppings. Clearly Maastrichtians don’t care too much to clean up after their canine pals as it was all over the place – grass, footpaths, in doorways, everywhere! Just as I made this important observation, I managed to step in some. Yuck! It took a good half hour to find a clean patch of grass where I could ground it out of my shoe tread. Eww!

CHARGE ‘ER UP!: Make sure your camera battery is fully charged. Although Maastricht is a small town, there are lots of beautiful Markts (squares), buildings, streetscapes and bridges to take happy snaps of. The list includes the modern architecture of the Bonnefanten and the John F. Kennedybrug (JFK bridge), Markt Stadhuis (where you’ll find the eatery I ‘dined’ at), Vrijthof (and its plethora of pigeons as well as some cool sculptures), and the churches of Sint Maarten, Sint Jan and Sint Servaas. The Basilica of Our Lady is also beautiful and you can see the locals drop in for a quick prayer on their way through town. Helpoort is a must-see and there are some lovely green zones such as Stadspark and Charles Eyck Park. For those who enjoy good quality food, there are a few delicatessens selling an enticing selection of… CHEESE!

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Maastricht Part 2

Lunch in the Markt… What to eat? Tough choice between McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, Subway and several overpriced cafes. A-ha! Spotted a local fast food joint. Although there is a counter behind which a young woman looks enthralled to be serving chips and soft drinks, there is this odd looking wall of glass-faced ovens and a screen above each, indicating the culinary delights in the heated spaces below. Just pop your coins in the slot, press a button and a little oven door opens to reveal the snack. The contents look horribly overfried, but I’m game. I select a ‘Bami’ for €1.50, which looks like some sort of curried vegetable and rice croquette. Yup, this is good! And my detective skills were spot in. Insert giggles from a family with two gorgeous little girls as I photograph my lunch. I need something else. I wonder what a ‘Frikadel’ is? In goes my €2 coin and I wait for my 50 cents change. Right then. I guess ‘Gepast betalen’ means ‘Use exact coins’. Nevermind. The first bite of my frikadel reveals it is a sausage of sorts. It’s not that impressive. Ooh, hang on, yes it is. Wow, those spices are coming through quickly. Lucky somebody just bought the last one. I could eat lots of these! More giggles from the table next to me. I look up and give them a grin.

Prior to lunch I’ve managed to walk the breadth of the city as it’s actually quite small. I followed a local’s instructions to the tourist information centre but couldn’t find it. Seems my homemade map courtesy of Google will suffice after all 🙂

Unlike London and Ghent, I’ve managed to see everything I’d planned, and more. Even with my late arrival and now my departure one hour earlier than expected, I feel I’ve walked the streets of Maastricht for long enough. I even had plenty of time to browse in the shop at Bonnefanten Museum and to purchase some clog-inspired slippers. Thanks Imran for the heads-up on those. Can’t wait to wear them!

As I returned to the train station, I realised I hadn’t really eaten very much and was now both hungry and thirsty. Not having a carton of Oak nearby (I hate that ad!), I entered one of the city’s three McDonalds and figured it may be good to try my hand at speaking Dutch. Before you laugh, I’d thought this through, looked at the menu board and taken a very deep breath. OK. Here goes… “Een klein milkshake caramel.” Not hard, is it?! My request was met with a surprised “Very good!” and the prompt arrival of said milkshake. I’m not about to claim that I’m multi-lingual or even a quick learner, but I’ll be honest – I’m pretty proud of myself 😛

I’ve had a really nice day. Maastricht is a beautiful place and definitely worth a one-day visit if you happen to be in the neighbourhood.

Maastricht Tue 18/1/2012

There is a silver sheen on the grass banks alongside the rail line as the train whizzes toward Luik/Liege and the ever-present jet fuel lines can be seen overhead. I nibble on Worcester sauce flavoured crisps that taste not dissimilar to Light & Tangy. They’re made by a company with the interesting brand name of Crusti Croc. Mmm… Sounds delicious eh?! The fields look, to this never-seen-snow Aussie, as if there has been an overnight shower of evenly fallen snow. But I know better. It’s just ice but it’s still beautiful, although it does indicate how chilly it is here. I wonder if it will snow at all during these two weeks.

I’m beginning to work out the train system. As long as I know what time the train leaves, I can determine which platform it departs from as the information boards at Leuven station are quite easy to read. The trains seem to run very efficiently and – so far – have been on time, but if there is a delay it is communicated well to passengers via the on-platform displays, complete with the estimated duration of the delay. There are also constant announcements to communicate important information to passengers, which is great for those who are unable to see/read the displays but not so great for those who don’t understand the language. However, many words sound similar to English so I’m able to decipher a sliver or two of information among the rapid-fire Dutch I’m hearing.

I’m amazed by just how much open land there is here. In warmer months I imagine these fields are full of crops but, for the moment, they are neatly tilled or grass-covered, slightly undulating paddocks with churches and houses scattered along the landscape in the distance.

Liege. Change of trains.

Finally I’m on the right track so to speak – Bestemming: Maastricht. There was some ‘trouble’ in Brussels this morning, thereby delaying trains heading away from the Belgian capital and travelling to or through Leuven. Consequently, I missed the connecting train at Liege and had a half hour wait for the next. I took this unexpected opportunity to practise my French – acquired twenty years ago – to purchase maps and puzzle books at the newsagency, paracetamol at the pharmacy and a warm latte and croissant at a café. I also successfully used the public ‘facilities’ – a pleasing result following yesterday’s debacle. But that’s another story. Even if I have a less-than-fabulous day in Maastricht (which is highly unlikely!), I already have a sense of achievement today: at each of the shops, my purchase requests were met with a smile and an impressed nod in response to my modest attempts to speak en francais. Leaving each establishment with a ‘Bonne journee’ from me and ‘A vous egalement’ returned, gave me satisfaction that Mick Jagger and his Stones could only dream of.

I made my way to platform 2, as indicated on the ‘depart’ screen, to find no train. Another delay perhaps? After about ten minutes of waiting, I realised I was the only person on the platform. “Something’s NQR” I thought and immediately recalled the unscheduled changes of platform that frequently occur at Flinders Street and Southern Cross stations. A quick dash down the escalators, back to the displays and waddya know – delayed by 9 minutes and now at platform 4. That leaves… One minute! Running faster than Usain Bolt with a rocket up his derriere, I rushed to platform 4 and jumped aboard just as the doors began to close. Phew! It would have been a long wait for the next train. Now I sit back and relax. Here’s to a lovely day in Maastricht and my first visit to the Netherlands.