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Beyond Tulips

When I first decided to visit the Netherlands, I looked forward to tiptoeing through tulips at the famed Keukenhof Gardens, touring museums in Amsterdam, bicycling past windmills and bringing home the trademark blue and white pottery. Instead, at the suggestion of Dutch friends, I was swept into an ancient world of castles, mazes and a walled city. This “other” Netherlands lies in the country’s southernmost region, an overlooked province called Limburg.

In a country known for flat terrain, Limburg features rolling green hills and has been nicknamed “Little Switzerland.” In a country famous for its cultural center in Amsterdam, Limburg features the ancient walled city of Maastricht, the oldest city in the Netherlands and a center for European politics. In a country noted for poffertjes and pannekoeken (pancakes served with various toppings or fillings), Limburg offers French-style cuisine reminiscent of the rich feasts my husband and I enjoyed on our honeymoon in Provence.

The Dutch choose Limburg for their own vacations to explore the largest hedge maze in all Europe; a modern spa featuring Roman, Turkish and Scandinavian-style baths; and centuries-old castles scattered throughout the countryside. Many castles offer overnight accommodations, while local inns offer more economical alternatives. My husband, Tony, and I (along with our infant daughter, Kate) enjoyed a unique and truly romantic stay at Castle Wittem, renowned for its cuisine and wine cellar.

We arrived at Castle Wittem after dark and ascended the red-carpeted staircase to a comfortable and spacious room. Fresh fruit and freshly baked pound cake welcomed us, as well as a thick down comforter on our bed and a crib for Kate. When we awoke the next morning under the room’s high-beamed ceiling, we anxiously peered out of our windows. We were thrilled to see the moat below, protecting us from any lingering stresses of the present-day world we had left behind.

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Since rainy weather did not permit dining on the terrace overlooking the moat, we enjoyed a classic Dutch breakfast indoors. Breakfast came complete with fresh-squeezed orange juice and a sugar bowl containing shavings of white chocolate. Classical music accompanied our meal, and framed portraits on the wall suggested the spirits of past nobility that might be milling about.

The castle dates back to AD 1100 and hosted Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1520, playing a pivotal role in the Netherlands’ battle for freedom from Spain. It served as a base during the Eighty Years’ War after the first Prince of Orange, William the Silent, conquered Wittem, taking it from the Spaniards in 1568. After passing from lords to knights to counts, the castle was converted to a hotel and restaurant in the 1950s. Every bedroom has a modern, private bathroom.

Wittem stands midway between Drielandenpunt Maze and Maastricht, about 20 minutes by car from each, and just down the road from the American Cemetery. Here, rows of white crosses rise from green grass to pay silent tribute to Americans who died in World War II.

Ten minutes north is the Thermae 2000 spa. The spa offers indoor and outdoor thermal baths, whirlpools, herbal and mud baths, a sauna and massage and yoga programs, as well as a restaurant and the adjoining Thermaetel Hotel. Spa admission rates (which include everything except special services such as massages and herbal baths) range from about $15 for two hours to $27 for a whole day with free admission for Hotel Thermaetel guests.

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At Drielandenpunt (translated: point of three countries), tall green hedges dared us to wend our way through Europe’s largest maze. The name derives from its location at the junction of the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. This site also marks the highest point in the Netherlands, and on a sunny day an observation tower affords a magnificent international view of all three countries.

In keeping with maze tradition, the hedges form a design when viewed from overhead. The design attests to the friendliness of the three countries, depicting an eagle for Germany and lions for Belgium and the Netherlands--their respective national motifs.

Like Theseus pursuing the Minotaur of Greek mythology, we entered the maze brave and confident. (How hard could it be, anyway?) We were quickly humbled as we wandered the intricate network of paths, all of which soon looked alike. Two other couples did not speak English but it was clear that they had pitted men against women in conquering this Minotaur. From the depths of the hedges we could hear the women whoop victoriously, reassuring us that escape was possible. We continued muddling our way through and ultimately emerged from the maze--a full hour after entering.

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Having built up an appetite, we anxiously anticipated Castle Wittem’s “gastronomic arrangement,” a package deal that includes four- and six-course dinners with overnight accommodations. Once Kate was asleep, we connected a baby monitor, provided by the castle, to her crib in our room. We were free to savor the culinary delights of the formidable dining room, while the front desk listened for any sounds and notified us whenever Kate stirred.

At the foot of the carved wood stairs we and other guests were met by the maitre d’ Marc Ritzen, whose family owns the castle. He showed us past the grandfather clock, made in 1830 for the then-mayor of Maastricht, and into the sitting room, where flowered curtains match the upholstery on sofas and chairs.

The door to the adjacent Tower Room was ajar, so we peeked in at the small round room that holds a table for two to eight. The room’s thick walls, Marc explained, remain conducive to private conversations, and many meetings of European leaders have occurred there.

While we were there, Marc’s brother, Peter Ritzen, was meeting with a wine and truffle merchant from Italy. The merchant was eager to do business with Ritzen, who is a member of the Alliance Gastronomique Neerlandaise. This selective alliance includes Dutch restaurants that undergo anonymous inspections annually to ensure that they maintain high-quality food and service. Wittem’s dining room has belonged to the Alliance since 1976, when Marc and Peter Ritzen’s father was running the castle.

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The senior Ritzens live next door to the castle. Marc’s mother still makes the jams served with breakfast and takes care of the apple trees, herbs and currants growing on the grounds.

Marc showed us into the dining room with its five tall windows and two crystal chandeliers. He seated us at one of the 12 round tables adorned with fresh flowers and candles in silver candlesticks.

The meal itself was an array of sensory delights. From warm bread with butter protected by a silver dome, I proceeded to poached goose liver with stewed peaches while Tony enjoyed salad with stewed duck and guinea fowl. Next came pigeon in wine sauce for me; veal fillet with fennel puree and chervil sauce for Tony.

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Also included in Wittem’s gastronomic arrangement was lunch at the elegant ‘t Plenkske restaurant in Maastricht, where we spent the next day. Like Wittem’s Tower Room, ‘t Plenkske is often the locale for international meetings.

Stomachs full, we embarked on a walking tour of Maastricht. Our map guided us down Stokstraat, a narrow stone street lined with exclusive shops, artsy boutiques and flower-filled window boxes (as well as an 18th century guardhouse formerly used to protect one of the city gates). We strolled along the Maas River, for which Maastricht is named, and through the city’s main square, which is dominated by the two medieval churches, St. Janskerk and St. Servatius, the oldest church in the Netherlands. Colorful outdoor cafes invite people-watching along the square, and French chocolateries, patisseries and boulangeries line the bumpy cobblestone streets.

We sampled vlaai, a delicious Dutch fruit tart--similar to a French tart--while we wandered and gazed in windows at myriad chocolate truffles. We couldn’t resist a turn down the tiny street Hilariusstraat and a look at the small square Op de Thermen, where colorful contours on the pavement mark the excavation site of Gallo-Roman baths and turrets.

The Romans originated Maastricht when they built a settlement on the Maas River named Mosae Trajectum, or Maas Crossing, in about 50 BC (predating the origins of Amsterdam by more than 1,000 years). Its strategic location on one of the river’s few easy crossing points drove Dutch, Spanish and French armies to lay frequent siege to the town. We were pleased to see that the culinary traditions established during its French period remain today in its food and its many inviting terraces.

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Maastricht’s history as a coveted prize also manifests itself in the many monuments and variety of building styles throughout the city, the variety of languages heard and the three currencies welcomed: the Dutch guilder, the German mark and the Belgian franc. There also remains a network of tunnels running underneath the old city center dug between 1575 and 1825 to provide secret exits from the city in times of siege. Visitors may tour this underground network, called the Casemates, and view vaults, shellproof refuges and gunpowder rooms.

Our above-ground walking tour included narrow residential streets, where old stone houses have been built right into the wall surrounding Maastricht.

Our walk finally led up an ancient flight of stone stairs to the top of the wall itself. From there we could see the Maas River stretching through the green countryside, as well as the city’s east quarter and industrial section on the other side of the Maas. The walk ended in front of a cafe serving fresh beer brewed in the nearby town of Valkenburg.

Though we had worried there might not be enough to do in Limburg, we now regretted not having more time. We had yet to experience the baths, to bicycle along the picturesque back roads or to sample our fill of the Dutch pancakes the local country inns boasted. Within easy driving distance were the old-fashioned Dutch village of Thorn; the Rhine, about 50 miles east; and Belgium’s ArdennesQ region, noted for its rivers, wooded canyons, dramatic hills, hot springs and natural caves in Han-sur-Lesse.

These attractions will have to wait for our next visit. Perhaps then Kate will be old enough to not only enjoy the natural beauty of Limburg but also appreciate its abundant lessons in history, geography and international relations.

Letai is a Boston-based freelance writer.

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GUIDEBOOK: Learning Limburg

Getting there: KLM flies nonstop between LAX and Amsterdam. United flies direct, with one stop but no change of planes. American, British Air, Lufthansa, Delta and Northwest fly with one change of planes. Advance purchase, round-trip fares start at $1,178.

From Amsterdam, drive south on A2 for approximately three hours to Maastricht, then turn east toward Vaals on N278 to reach Castle Wittem. You also can take the train from Amsterdam to Maastricht, but I recommend renting a car or bicycle to tour Limburg’s quaint villages and country roads.

Where to stay: Castle Wittem, Wittemer Allee 3, 6286 AA Wittem, Zuid-Limburg; telephone 011-31-43-450-1208. Rates: about $120 to $155 for a double room, not including breakfast, or $120 to $175 per person for overnight accommodations, including the “gastronomic arrangement.”

Hotel Gerardushoeve, Fam. Vaessen-Bloemen, Julianastraat 23, 6285 AH Epen; tel. 011-31-43-455-1793. Rates: $40 per person, per night, including breakfast. Delicious Dutch pancakes with a variety of fillings (I liked banana-chocolate the best). Beautiful view of Limburg’s rolling green hills.

Thermaetel Hotel, Cauberg 27, 6301 BT Valkenburg aan de Geul; tel. 011-31-43-601-6050. Rates: $200 for a double room, including breakfast and admission to Thermae 2000 spa. The hotel has 60 rooms and suites and a garden terrace.

Hotel Vaalsbroek, Vaalsbroek 1, 6291 NH Vaals; tel. 011-31-43-306-4955. Rates: $115 to $170 per night for a double, excluding breakfast. With 50 modern rooms and suites connected to a castle dating back to 1420, near Drielandenpunt Maze. The cafe-restaurant is in a restored water mill.

Where to eat: t’Plenkske, Plankstraat 6, 6211 GA Maastricht. Three-course lunch for $23, three-course dinner, $31; regional dishes and French specialties in a refined atmosphere near Strokstraat; tel. locally 43-321-8456.

For more information: Netherlands Board of Tourism, 225 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1854, Chicago, IL 60601; tel. (312) 819-0300, fax (312) 819-1740.


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