There is no better way to get in the mood for Christmas than a visit to Christmas market, where you can marvel at its wooden huts and twinkling lights, warm your hands and liver with a cup of mulled wine and maybe see some action on the iceskating rink.
This is how I imagine a typical Christmas market. And in the past I've been looking for this setting in cities like Brussels, Cologne and Paris. But never in The Netherlands. To be honest, that is not even a country I spontaneously think of when I consider visiting a Christmas market. Yet, last weekend I've discovered the charms of Maastricht and Valkenburg in Christmas time and realised how mistaken I was.
Actually I didn't know I where I would be spending the weekend. For my birthday, my boyfriend had given me a voucher for a weekend getaway, but he wouldn't reveal any further details. His planning was flawless. It was the perfect Christmas getaway that might inspire those looking for short trips out of Brussels, so in this article, I'll tell you more about our excursion to Maastricht and Valkenburg.
At 125km from Brussels, Maastricht is not that far away and easily reachable by car. We arrived in the early afternoon and checked in in our hotel Townhouse Designhotel Maastricht, next to the Maastricht train station. As a budget backpacker usually looking for the cheapest accomodation, I felt really pampered when we were welcomed in style with fresh soup and cakes. The Townhouse Hotel is a boutique hotel with a vintage interior. Trying to recreate the different rooms of a normal house, they strive for a homely setting. Especially in the sofa corner with the high piles of books, this worked out well.
I could've grabbed a book from the shelves and settled comfortably on the couch with my book, but the remaining hours of daylight were dwindling, so we hurried out to see the city at day. The center of Maastricht is really small, so in a few minutes we had walked from the train station, over the Servaes bridge and into the center with its many shopping streets. I understand now why Maastricht is so often referred to for shopping. We walked past the Basilica of Our Lady, on a square that had been so excessively decorated that I thought we had already reached the Christmas market. A bit further was the Helpoort, a former city gate. As its construction dates back to the 13th century, it's the oldest still existing city gate of the Netherlands. Today this gate was occupied by a group of volunteers who were bringing attention to the Israeli-Palestinian question by enacting a version of Joseph and Maria who tried to enter Bethlehem, but were not allowed in.
Allowed to pass the gate, we hurried back into the center, because there was one place we really wanted to see before it closed. Boekhandel Dominicanen is a spectacular bookshop hidden in a 13th century deconsecrated church. We climbed to the third floor where we had a great view of the church above and below. The ceilings still bear remains of medieval paintings. In the choir area there is now a café where we had a drink while enjoying the surroundings. It is truly a beautiful combination of great architecture and an impressive book collection.
When the church closed, we went straight to the Christmas market on the Vrijthof square. The one thing that caught the eye immediately was the big, brightly lit Ferris wheel around which the market was centered. It didn't take long for the food stalls to seduce us with their enticing scents and stuff us with Reibekuchen and applesauce. Only the mulled wine was missing, but we took care of that too.
We continued our stroll around the market, did some market windowshopping, witnessed the collateral damage caused by amateurs on the iceskating rink and watched how a toddler anxiously angled plastic ducks.
When it started raining, we hurried inside a cosy bar in a sidestreet of Vrijthof. Naovenant did not only shelter us against cold and rain, but also had a large selection of beer on offer. We had been lucky to get hold of a table in this small and cosy bar on a busy evening like this.
But there was no time to linger much, Bart pointed out. He announced he had made a reservation for dinner in a restaurant where we had to be heading soon. The menu was set already, but what we'd be eating remained a mystery. The only thing he would let out is that the place had scored well in the Gault&Millau ranking. My curiosity was more than piqued... Where was he taking me??
The answer lay in the fancy quarter Wyck, a few streets from the center. Brasserie Flo is a nice and large restaurant, elected in 2016 as the best French restaurant in the Netherlands. The style was simple but elegant, complete with white linen tablecloths and napkins. At the time of our visit, the interior was nicely decorated with Christmas ornaments and a Christmas tree. As we were having the set menu, I had courses I would normally not order, like meat and sprouts, but I enjoyed all the food that I was given, which to me is proof of excellent cooking and spicing skills. I had no excuse to be picky.
Our six courses-dinner came in the following order:
It goes without saying we were not hungry anymore when we left the restaurant.
Although we were full, we couldn't refuse the homebrewed nightcap (a mix of port wine and gin) offered by the hotel to every guest returning 'home' in the evening. I was glad to have an reason now to sit in my favourite sofa corner while sipping a drink.
I had almost forgotten there was actually still another drink to empty: we still had a small bottle of champagne that awaited us in our room as a welcome present. I cannot say we didn't properly celebrate my birthday today. And the weekend had just begun...
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