Sunday, August 15, 2010

Naar Valkenburg

Saturday was the last sunny day forecast for the next week, so it was delightful when friends asked about a bike trip out to Valkenburg.  The city, formally Valkenburg aan de Geul, is a 16th century fortress town about a half-hour cycle ride east of Maastricht in the rolling farmland of South Limburg.  It’s a bit of a tourist trap these days, narrow streets crowded with busses and bistros, but there’s good bike trails out through lesser villages and the only elevated castle in the Netherlands in Valkenburg itself.

One good stopping point is Houthem Sint-Gerlach, marked by a colorful bit of architecture at the edge of the village, the Ronald McDonald Kindervallei.  Yes, Ronald McDonald.  But it is, nonetheless, a unique bit of architecture, colorful and pleasantly skewed, a bit in Miro’s style..


Beyond, on the other side of town, is the Sint-Gerlachus church, built on the site of a legendary oak tree.  It was created to remember a rich local merchant, who realized too late that he had spent his life neglecting his family in his pursuit of money, and so dedicated his life to penance and good works.  When he died a church was built around his tree, today it is the only church in the Netherlands with fresco painted on the marl stone (sandstone) walls.  The overall effect is like a New England church, light and airy in shades of blue and white.  An attached Chateau holds a hotel and sculpture gardens.

Valkenburg is topped with the ruins of an ancient castle (bonus points for knowing the difference between a Kasteel and a Slot).  The structure was torn down and rebuilt several times before finally being destroyed forever in 1672.  From town only a few walls seem standing, but once on the hilltop there’s actually a surprising number of rooms and stairways preserved. The construction is entirely from local sandstone, quarried from the hillsides below, giving a warm glow to the walls.

The village is hosting summer art works, putting contemporary sculptures around the town’s roofs and above the castle.   Martijn Riksen’s works are a bit like the Gormley nudes that appeared above London a couple of years ago (and are now gracing alpine peaks), but more varied and whimsical.  I liked his conversion of the 16-sided tower basement into a pool with a diver far above waiting to take the plunge.  It’s not being publicized anywhere, but adds a nice grace note to a visit.

And don’t leave town without a long, slow drought of the local brew Lindeboom, ‘t bier van hier.

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