Crossing Borders in Limburg
Andrew Threlfall spends a weekend Euro-boarder hopping to Maastricht – once a Treaty now just a treat
My trip starts in London, hopping on a Eurostar and changing at Brussels for Cologne. It is of course possible to fly but for this journey to be a ‘journey’ it feels far more fitting to keep a tangible link with the countries that I am traveling through. I’m aiming for Limburg, a region of The Netherlands that extends out to split the corners of Belgium and Germany. Limburg has five international airports, although because of its narrow geography, almost as soon as you reach altitude you are in another international airspace and the most convenient entry point is Düsseldorf or Cologne with regular, direct and quick flights from the UK.
Far better then to do the entire trip by train, and especially as nothing prepares you for the Gothic magnificence of Cologne Cathedral literally as you emerge from the train station. Constructed over six centuries ago it is surely one of the world’s most remarkable structures and when completed in the 19th century could actually claim to be the world’s tallest building.
Within a stones throw of the cathedral is the remarkable Ludwig Museum, and like the cathedral worthy of (minimum) a half day visit as it contains the largest Warhol, Lichtenstein, Picasso, Matisse, Dali, Rothko, Chagall collections outside of the USA. Nothing prepared me for the sheer scope of the artworks, which unlike Royal collections owe their existence to remarkable donations of private citizens, such as Cologne lawyer Josef Haubrich who gave his entire collection of Modernist paintings to the city in 1946. The museum truly goes from strength to strength and in the autumn will focus on Heinrich Boll’s photography and his friendships with other celebrated lensmen such as Chargesheimer and Heinz Held on the occasion of what would be Boll’s hundredth birthday. I hope to be invited back to cover this unmissable occasion.
The next morning I moved on seamlessly to The Netherlands, indeed it was not uncommon to be in three different countries within an hour on this trip. First stop was a quick visit to the home of Fortuna Sittard to tick it off my football stadium geeks list. Wrapped around the stands is a state of the art sports centre and hotel. This is a region that takes sport to its heart. Cycling leads the popularity race with equestrian pursuits a close second.
Preferring to keep my sporting endeavors a little less energetic on this trip I opt for the incredible exhibition about cycling and bikes in nearby Kerkrade at The Cube Design museum. I’ve never come across such a buzzard array of two wheeled contraptions. And as if that is not enough to warrant a visit to this shrine of design you must see their exhibition on the history of lavatories.
The next day the Tour de France took a cross-boarder detour of its own. Winding its way to the city of the Liege, I hitched a lift over to Belgium and waited patiently for the finishing line drama to ensue. If you prefer your cycling experience to be less commercialized – and I must confess the Tour de France is about as commercial as sport can get – I really could not recommend enough the homely warmth of the Eroica experience. Back over the border in Valkenburg, this very Dutch production of the classic cycle festival weekend, Eroica Limburg was in full flow in the town square. It feels like a mini Glastonbury – yes there was mud, it’s July remember? – with DJs and amazing local food, but we are here to celebrate the modest bicycle in all of it’s glory and the chance to purchase cycling attire which in this part of the world is worn with as much passion as the Manchester United or Chelsea shirt in other parts of the world. The 1968 winner of the tour, local hero, Jen Jensen takes part in the Eroica every year wearing his original Tour winning yellow jersey and is very happy to pose for photographs whilst refueling with a local beer. If you miss the Eroica weekend and the chance to take part in one of their organized vintage bike rides, the county side is covered with a spiders web of over 4,000km of clearly mapped and signed cycle routes and bicycles, including electric bikes which can easily be hired to explore this luscious and unusually (for The Netherlands) hilly landscape at your leisure.
As I mentioned earlier there is an option to fly back from Maastricht and it is worth noting that the local tourist boards are hoping to expand the number of airlines servicing direct UK destinations. Because yes, Brexit might be coming but that is no reason for us to turn our backs on this astonishing city, birthplace of the EU. You simply have to spend a couple of days in this mediaeval historic city, synonymous now with our original entry and soon to be exit from European Union but still an incredible city full of remarkable architecture, none more so than the converted cinema which is now the Hotel Mabi run with great chutzpah by a fantastic team headed by the manager Mounir who oversaw the three month redesign right down to the cinema and the eating area called, naturally, ‘Little Cannes’. My room even had a Marilyn Monroe theme (and if truth be told I did have a very good night’s sleep). Dutch blondes have more fun? Well, yes…
Maastricht might be a small historic city with a surprisingly young and very international university (everyone speaks perfect English here) with the largest international student population of the Netherlands and it is refreshingly dynamic. But in this picturesque town, the heart of the so-called Euro region where boundaries are crossed in all kind of ways, a large Arts faculty exists and flourishes. The experimental arts-programme in this part of the faculty is called iArts. Both international and interdisciplinary, here they train and coach a small and selected group of largely foreign talented youngsters to become critically engaged artists. So what does that actually mean? Well practically it means that in 2017 this can lead to new art forms and even new professions. The challenge for iArts is basically how to add value by connecting arts, science and society in a world so rapidly changing, and facing the consequences of globalisation. A great example of what this can lead I found is Studio Enklaar, incorporating new media and technology. Indact as an artistic studio, Studio Enklaar merges the disciplines of design, theatre and engineering. Think of a duet between a computer and a live performer, or a sculpture, which highjacks your phone to display your most recent location data. The art Space reminded me that Europe always has to keep moving to remain at the cutting edge in spite of all the remarkable history in this often (touristically) neglected part of central northern Europe where just because there is no beach we might not always think about heading for a vacation.
Andrew Threlfall has an extensive experience as a journalist, working for Reuters, BBC and the Daily Mirror. He has been a regular at the Cannes Film Festival and interviewed the vast majority of prominent music, film, tv, sport & fashion stars of the last 20 years on both sides of the Atlantic.