It’s definitely the right place to get in the mood for Christmas. Valkenburg, a small town situated a few minutes away from Maastricht, hosts every year one of the most original Christmas markets in Europe: it takes place in several caves, situated right below the town’s center.
Sheltered in one of the few hilly regions in the country, with a network of underground caves, an impressive castle ruin and spa facilities, Valkenburg is a clear break from the typical Dutch dikes-and windmills landscape. In the 19th century the town became one of the first modern holiday destinations in the Netherlands. The first tourist office in the country opened here in the 1880’s, and the center was soon packed with restaurants, shops and hotels.
The caves below the town are actually former stone quarries, used since the Roman times. The network of tunnels and underground halls in the area has a total length of about 250 km, and has provided shelter to the city’s inhabitants for hundreds of years. They served as escape tunnels in case of attacks, but also hosted underground churches and storage facilities. Most recently, during the Second World War, they were used as a hiding place for Jews, resistance fighters or escaping Allied prisoners of war. Apparently, around 150 people managed to evade this way Nazi efforts to capture them. In 1944, when the front line got near the city, the whole local population hid there for several weeks.
Above ground, on the top of the hill dominating the city, Valkenburg has its second main attraction: a castle ruin from the Middle Ages. Since the town was close to the heart of the Holy Roman Empire, the hill was fortified already 900 years ago. The castle withstood several sieges in the following centuries. Eventually, it was blown up by the Dutch troops during the French invasion of 1672, to make sure it wouldn’t fall into enemy hands. The ruins are still quite impressive, and provide a beautiful view of the town.
The locals try hard to welcome their guests, especially during the Christmas season, and the number of visitors proves that their efforts are successful . Since the caves are sheltered from weather variations, the Christmas markets are the perfect choice during a long rainy week-end or if it is too cold cold outside. But even without the markets, the town would be worth a visit. Additional events take place every winter. Some of the caves contain interesting charcoal graffiti drawings, sometimes hundreds of years old. The hills in the region provide a welcome landscape change, and dozens of cafes or restaurants wait to welcome visitors. The Christmas capital of the Netherlands is always happy to receive your visit : )
I posted below a few photos from one of the Christmas markets and the town’s center, as well as a link to the local site dedicated to winter events: