Category Archives: Books

Eternal flames — farewell to a great city

Maastricht is the first European city I feel sad to leave. It is a truly stunning, romantic and unforgettable place. It feels collectively owned and yet strangely at various moments you can feel it is solely yours, especially early in the morning and the hours after dinner, when the streets are deserted by day tourists.

In retrospect, Middelburg had been the middle of our trip both figuratively and temporally. I say this because Maastricht did not feel like the other Dutch cities we had visited, so in some sense it felt like we left the Netherlands when we left Middelburg.

Our second day in Maastricht was very eventful. We left the hotel to search for breakfast at around ten. It was raining a little, few shops were open. On the cobbled and wet streets, we walked and walked, only interrupted by the occasional tourists. They too must have been searching for a place to have a coffee and breakfast. The city seemed to have turned into a beautiful museum overnight and had not yet opened.

Finally, we found a cafe near a local church. We sat under the umbrella as it caught the rain. At around eleven o’clock, we witnessed people attending mass streaming out of the church – a collection of mainly elderly citizens. And for fifteen minutes, the bell continued to toll. Basking and freezing in the ambience, we had coffees, ham & cheese sandwiches. The rain was not letting up, but we hoped for the best.

At one o’clock, we joined a boat excursion on the River Maas which brought us to St. Pietersberg, the marlstone caverns underneath the hill. The similarity between the name of the river and town is no coincidence, as the name of the city means “the crossing of the Maas”. To get to the caves, we had to climb a hill to a nineteenth-century restaurant, which was still running today. We met the tour at the restaurant. There were two tours and fortunately being non-Dutch speakers proved to be an advantage as the English tour was much smaller in size. The guide handed the entire group (twelve people) three lanterns and gave us directions to the mouth of the caves.

The guide then met us at the entrance. From this point, we entered a wonderful and surreal world. It was pitch black down there except the lights of our lanterns:

It was also chilly enough for us to see our breath. At one point, the guide calculated the humidity by shining his flashlight into the air and checking the density of the mist. I had to put on not only a thick jacket but also my mittens.

The caves turned out not to be caves at all, but mines which had been dug around four hundred years ago. We learnt that people had been mining limestone in the area since the Roman Empire. Although lost in the Middle Ages, the technology for cutting into the hills eventually returned. The caves we entered had been used for cutting giant limestone blocks to be used in household construction. The guide explained that most of the blocks were used to build lower-class housing, the higher classes preferring to use more expensive stones from elsewhere to build the fronts of their houses. However, they were still willing to use the limestone to build the sides and backs of their mansions. In this way, they could use the lower-class (and cheaper) limestone while still saving face at the front.

The guide explained that if people knew that they were mines they would not be interested in visiting so the tourist information described the area as caves. This was actually quite an old ruse as tour guides had been describing the place in romantic terms for hundreds of years. Our guide actually saw himself as part of this long tradition and told us how in the nineteenth century, guides had attracted people to the caves using the same romantic terminology. They carried long poles with lanterns on top and met wealthy strangers on the streets. Here, their poles would inevitably draw attention and they would start up conversations with their potential customers. The image of a man holding a pole with a lantern has become the symbol of the modern-day tour guides. Our guide proudly showed us this image on the lapel of his jacket.

Our tour started much as they had a hundred and fifty years ago. The guide showed us a “welcome painting” which had been painted in the nineteenth century to welcome tourists to the mines. The image featured Dutch, French and German flags but the Dutch, French and English word for “Welcome”. The guide explained that the discrepancy between the flags and the languages was the result of the Second World War. After WWII, the guides had changed the sign from the German for “Welcome” to the English version. However, they had not changed the flag. Our guide explained that the Welcome sign had been a preface for an elaborate series of paintings used by earlier guides throughout the caves. Nineteenth-century guides had taken their customers to interesting parts of the mines; their routes inevitably passed by paintings which were advertisements for the commercial products of the time. They were paid to walk more slowly or to draw their customers’ attention to the paintings on the wall. Below is an advertisement for a chocolate manufacturer:

It must be because of the coolness down there and the fact that the area has not been weathered that these paintings and other artworks were very well-preserved. The above advertisement seemed like it had been painted only recently, but in fact it was quite old.

Throughout the caves, we also saw evidence of earlier tourists who had inscribed their names on the walls. Some of these graffiti dated from the nineteenth century. Much of this historical graffiti was done in a kind of red chalk. We wondered if this chalk had been for sale to tourists at the time. There were also a lot of modern hieroglyphs as well. Seeing these different types of graffiti made one feel like one was walking through history.

Apart from advertisements and graffiti, we also saw a lot of other types of artwork. For example, there was a painting of the Dutch royal family tree and a series of people with hollowed-out eyes. Apparently, hollowing out the eyes allows the artists to give the effect of eyes which follow the viewers wherever they go. We also saw a piece of modern art done by an acquaintance of the guide. The artist had told our guide about the story of creating the artwork shown below. The artist had called on favours from a bunch of other people to gather the materials necessary: a map of the caves, a store of beer and some lights. The work features both carvings into the cave wall and paintings. The story goes that ten days after he had finished the work, someone called him to say that the piece was covered in fungus. The mushrooms were eating the organic components of the child-friendly paint he had used. Even years later when the artist recounted the story, our guide claimed that he was almost in tears. The paintings were in the end saved by the artist’s girlfriend, who told him to simply remove the fungus with a pencil. The fungus has not returned to this date, perhaps because all the organic components were consumed a long time ago.

Speaking of mushrooms, our guide explained that the caves had also been used to grow high-end mushrooms in the 1970s. The caves were perfect growing environment for the mushrooms which were much tastier but less attractive-looking than mushrooms grown in modern farms. Our guide described modern mushrooms as tasting like ‘plastic foam’. However, I was a little sceptical as he then went on to promote cave mushrooms grown elsewhere in the country. Was he in the pocket of the cave fungus industry?

Or maybe it was the flint industry. Our guide seemed to be constantly trying to create sparks with his iron against the flint stone found throughout the cave. The miners had had to use different tools to cut the lime and the flint. The lime could be cut with metal saws. However, when they hit the flint, the saws became instantly blunt. We could see the different styles of cut in the rock. Our guide explained that below the floor the variation between layers of limestone and flint became too close together for mining to be economical.

Undoubtedly, the most interesting story of the mines was their planned use during the Second World War. Local officials had intended to use the area as a safe haven for people during bombing raids. There were numbers painted on the walls which were designed to direct people from different regions to their allotted sections. The officials even had a system of pumps built which took water from beneath the caves and stored it in large cisterns throughout the cave system. There were also plans to build bakeries and churches. Although the mines never protected the 20, 000 people they were designed to shelter, around 2000 people did take refuge there during the allied liberation. While they waited for the arrival of the Canadian and the American forces, they managed to build some chapels, below is one of them:

On the boat back to the city, I opened my book The Underground Man by Mick Jackson. I was immediately aware of the similarity between the novel, which features the story of an eccentric Victorian aristocrat who built tunnels under his property, and what we had just seen.

After the tunnels, we returned to our hotel for a brief rest before heading out to have dinner at Mestizo, a Spanish-Mexican restaurant. We were offered two shot glasses of mushroom soup as an Amuse Bouche. The soup was very rich and delicious and it had the intended effect of stimulating our appetites. I had lamb stewed with paprika, sausage, tomatoes, and herbs. Jeff had chicken stuffed with Serano ham and cheese. My dish came with a side order of Mexican rice, which even I found spicy. I think it must be too hot for many of the people who come into the restaurant. The food was served surprisingly quickly for such a nice restaurant. Perhaps the chef wanted to go home early on a Sunday night.

After dinner, we took one last walk through the city.  And it was with sadness and admiration that we saw its lovely streets one last time:

Right before our hotel, we saw the scientist Johannes Petrus Minckelers (the man who invented the gas light) holding his eternal flame at dusk. It was a fitting echo of the lanterns of the nineteenth-century tour guides. It was also a fitting farewell:

 

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