A lot of places are touted as ‘paradise on earth’ but in Maastricht, Netherlands, we stumbled upon the gateway to hell. Henry I ordered for Helpoort (Dutch for ‘hell’s gate’) to be built in 1229. It was part of the initial city walls but over time, it was used for a variety of purposes, one of which was to house prisoners in its tower. No doubt, the isolation and despair that those unfortunate souls experienced, was comparable to hell. But we’d seen most of Maastricht’s city centre before we chanced upon this ancient landmark. So let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
We’d come to Aachen from Bonn (both in West Germany) by bus (1.5 hours) with the intention of crossing the border to Netherlands on day two. And Arriva’s bus no. 350 made that both easy and cheap (read about how we covered Aachen, Vaals & Maastricht in 20 euros per day). We started out early, and made a beeline for Dreilandenpunt, the meeting point of Belgium, Germany, and Netherlands, located at the top of Vaalserberg mountain in Vaals, which is in Netherlands. With our bodies and minds invigorated by the beautiful hike and vistas, we made our way back to the bus stop.
Maastricht is a university town, and we were looking forward to exploring its ancient churches and drinking in panoramic views of the River Meuse. It was late December, and the weather cold and windy. But we were blessed with cheery sunshine and blue skies, and that made all the difference.
St. Servatius Bridge in Maastricht is really famous, and we got a fantastic view of its stone arches from Wilhelminabrug. Some say that the former is the oldest bridge in Netherlands. It has been named after the patron saint of Maastricht. Walking across the bridge, we were struck by how clear and still the river was, almost like a mirror for the sky.
On the other side of the bridge lay the cobblestone square of Maastricht’s Old Town. The 17th century city hall, built in the Dutch classicist style, was an arresting sight. But we were most excited about making it to Boekhandel Dominicanen, a magnificent bookstore housed inside the Gothic 13th century Dominican Church. With thousands of contemporary books as well as rare tomes like Leonardo da Vinci’s original sketchbooks, the place is truly a shrine for book lovers.
Even if you don’t plan on buying a book, you should definitely come here to admire the architecture from the second and third storeys, and enjoy some coffee at the former priest’s choir. We lost ourselves in the rows and rows of volumes in various tongues, their pages filled with all the mysteries of the universe. The ceiling, stained glass windows, and lofty beams came alive in the suitably muted lighting. It was our favourite find in the charming city.
Next, we made our way to Vritjhof Square, famous for the Romanesque Basilica of Saint Servatius and many atmospheric cafes and restaurants. But it being December, the square was completely occupied by a lovely Christmas market. And who were we to complain? We wandered around, admiring the Ferris wheel, skating rink, and stores full of dreamy Santa Clauses and reindeer.
Presently, we reached Sint Janskerk, a church renowned for its brick red tower. At that time of the day, the sun shone directly on the tower, making its colour even more attractive.
Further ahead lay the Basilica of Our Lady, which turned out to be very crowded. But we managed to catch a glimpse of the miraculous statue of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, purported to have healing powers.
Evening was fast approaching, and we still had a few things we wanted to see before bidding goodbye to Maastricht. When we reached Helpoort, it was enveloped in the sinister dimness of imminent dusk. Apart from defense purposes, it was used to store gunpowder from the 17th century. As the oldest standing city gate in Netherlands, Helpoort is a national monument, and also contains a small museum. But on that day, we were content to look at its blood-red windows from the outside.
Our final stop in Maastricht was the City Park, where we enjoyed a breather, watching ducks swim across a dodger blue pond. But we couldn’t tarry too long for the sun was on its way down the horizon. We hurried to Hoge Brug to get another look at the mesmerizing River Meuse, and its banks lined with Maastricht’s architectural marvels. The famous shopping district of Wyck was close to the bus stop, but since all the shops were shut, there wasn’t much to see. This was actually our very first introduction to Netherlands, and we were happy that it had worked out so well.
Would you like to explore the city in the same way? Here’s a free walking tour map of Maastricht with the attractions listed in just the right order: https://goo.gl/maps/XCVyKGsCheu If you’d like to say thanks, please consider following us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Pinterest, and subscribing to our blog:
What we missed and you shouldn’t (if you can help it): The strikingly shaped Bonnefanten art museum, Mount Saint Peter, home to Fort Pieter and an underground network of caves, and more caverns in Zonneberg and Grotten Noord. We couldn’t do these because it was Christmas Eve (a holiday), and the caves can only be accessed through guided tours. And of course, the sun was setting!
Have you been to Maastricht or any other places with gateways to hell? Leave a comment and let us know!