Flat as a pancake?
The ‘Dutch Highlands’ are on the itinerary during this tour as I want to prove to Stuart that the Netherlands isn’t flat as a pancake. Well, Highlands may be a bit of an exaggeration but there certainly are hills in The Netherlands… They may be few and far between, but they sure are there. Most of them, and certainly the most impressive ones (in Dutch terms, it’s all relative!) are in Limburg province. Limburg is the strange little bit of land that is part of the Netherlands but that sticks out into Belgium, wedged against Germany. You might wonder if it was simply decided to let The Netherlands have it, so that they would have some hills…
All joking aside, at the very bottom of Limburg, you will find a number of hills including the iconic Cauberg where the Amstel Gold Race takes place, and which has also featured in the Tour de France. It’s all of 134 meters high (that’s approx 400 feet).
Nestled at the bottom of the Cauberg is the little town of Valkenburg aan de Geul. This town is a great destination almost all year round, from Spring all the way through to Christmas as it’s a lively place full of restaurants and bars and it has made itself into the ‘Christmas Capital’ of The Netherlands as it hosts popular Christmas Markets which are actually located in the caves which have been carved out of the hills in this area.
These hills are being exploited for all their worth by the enterprising Dutch. There are the caves which I mentioned. These were carved over centuries as stone was won from within these hills to build the castle which ruins still remain standing over the town. The caves go for miles and you can visit these on guided tours or experience the Christmas Markets inside from mid-November onwards. In the 19th century, over 150 years ago, these caves were first turned into a tourist attraction, with artwork being carved into the walls of the caves to tells the history of the place. These original drawings and carvings are now part of the the historic attraction. Going back even further, during the 80 year war with Spain in the 18th century, a secret church was even established inside the ‘Fluwelen Grot’ or Velvet Cave by a priest who hid inside the cave for 3 years before he was betrayed and arrested. In more recent history, during WWII, the people of the town spent 6 days hiding in side them from the battle raging above ground. Afterwards, American soldiers used the cave as a hospital and as storage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Castle had stairs going all the way down to the caves as well, and although not much is left of the castle today, you can walk up to its foundations from the caves.
This is just what goes on below ground… Above ground it’s a whole different story. A viewing tower was built on top of the hill in Valkenburg; the Wilhelmina toren, named after the Dutch Queen at the time. Today, just below this tower you will find a Brasserie and a play ground including a ‘Tubing’ slide for children. Next to that, a crazy golf course is wedged in, which actually borders onto the perfectly placed Camper Plaats and campsite. But all that isn’t enough… Even though it takes no more than 10 minutes to walk to the top of this hill, they have installed a chairlift to help you get to the top, as if you’re in the Alps. And underneath this chairlift, they have installed a Toboggan run, which is absolutely brilliant fun!! Finally, from the top of the Wilhelmina Tower, there is a zip wire to scoot back down! It’s all great fun, but what makes it funny to us is that this hill, and the area where all this has been installed is really rather small! But the Dutch had a slope and they used it!
As I mentioned, the campsite, and the camper plaats which is part of it, are ideally located for a visit to Valkenburg. You can’t get more central than this, and although it’s halfway up the hill, at least there is a gate from the campsite which takes you straight to all the fun at the top. It’s not very cheap for a Camper Plaats but that’s because this place is fun almost all year round and it’s in the best location.
A short walk down the hill from the campsite and you find yourself in front of the old city gate. Walk through and there are restaurants and terraces all around you. Valkenburg is a nice town to explore in itself, with supermarkets and plenty of shops around. It’s also got an easy train connection to Maastricht, the capital of the province and another fabulous city to visit!
We spent 4 days here, as it really is so much fun. It is our last stop in the Netherlands and my family come to stay for a last few days out together before we move south. We explore Valkenburg, the Caves, the Castle and everything the Hill has to offer. We also visit Maastricht in the pouring rain, and we visit the American War Cemetery in Margraten. We don’t quite get time to go to the ‘3 Country Point’ on the Vaalserberg where you can see Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands at once, so we’ll do that next time. We’ve had a real laugh here and we’ll definitely be back. We even quite fancy this local campsite for a season’s work! With a toboggan next door, it seems like the perfect place!
All joking aside, it’s been absolutely amazing to spend 4 weeks in The Netherlands. For me (the Dutch Flip-flop), it’s pretty much the first time in some 20 years that I’ve spent more than a few days at once in my home country, and I’ve visited many places I hadn’t seen before. It’s been a wonderful experience, and it’s been simply wonderful to have my family nearby for a change. Although I’m excited for our travels this winter, and even though it’s been 4 weeks of mostly rain in The Netherlands, it’s still a very sad farewell for me as we leave this wonderful country with all its delicious deep-fried snacks and chocolate for breakfast. Thank you Holland, we will be back again soon!