IR INTERRAIL 2003 > Day 28 > Maastricht (Zonneberg Caves)

Maastricht (Zonneberg Caves)

The first thing I heard when I woke this morning was the rain hammering at the window behind me. The dormitory was quiet, cosy and the radiator spread waves of warmth, drying the remains of my footwear in the process. The room even had a carpet, quite a novelty amongst the hostels I'd visited. The doom-laden skies outside provided a moodiness for my morning which I relished. It seemed to ease any pressure or requirement to do anything interesting. If the most I could achieve today was a mooch around Maastricht and several shelters from the rain inside snug cafés and coffee shops, I would be excused. I usually welcomed endless bright sunny skies, but sometimes they made me feel obliged to get outside and have a fantastic time, to which my only response would often be to sit on a train all day, having already made my arrangements to do so the day before.

Another unusual treat awaited me when I made my way downstairs for breakfast. The hostel may have been the most expensive yet, but it provided a breakfast three times larger than anywhere else. There was everything - several types of bread, fruit loaf, hard boiled eggs, cereals, honey cake, good coffee and more - all the things I'd expect to find in a hotel, and then I remembered that this was a hotel, sort of. My last job had seen me travelling around and staying in many lodgings, including several in Belgium where I sampled various continental breakfasts, but even some of the more expensive hotels I visited couldn't match the food on offer here. It was enough to persuade me that I should stop another night, and I relaxed in the knowledge that there would be no frantic scanning of timetables today, just a leisurely exploration of the town.

The twenty minute bus ride into Maastricht again reminded me how lucky I had been to gain a free lift the previous evening, sparing me an unbearably long walk in soggy shoes. There was another huge downpour as I alighted and headed across the square, taking refuge in a combined Dutch souvenir and wig shop. A cunning marketing maneouvre this was; catch all those tourists about to leave the country trying to conceal some cannabis, and lure them with some hairpieces which they could use to try and falsify their identity at customs. They even had the joke spectacle, nose and moustache combinations. What these had to do with the national identity I didn't know, but presumably if I wore them upon my return to Britain, customs officers would think 'Ah, the matching toupee and comedy face, he's been to Holland,' at which point I'd face a full cavity search for illicit substances.

The rain died down and I explored the streets, many of which were a mess due to major roadworks and re-paving schemes. It didn't help to improve the image of what seemed a slightly unremarkable town. There was nothing unpleasant about it, and maybe under better weather conditions it would have shone a little more and lightened the dour faces of many residents. The problem was that Maastricht had been hyped up to me by a few travellers I had met in previous weeks, and I couldn't quite see what the fuss was about. Without their recommendations, I might have found it an agreeable little place and not given it much more thought than that, but instead I found myself hunting around in search of some special features which must have eluded me. All I discovered was a funeral service spilling out of a church in one of the squares, which seemed to sum the morning up. The bells rang out a particularly morbid peal which diffused through the town, injecting a grim reminder into all citizens that their turn might be next. No wonder they looked miserable.

There were a couple of churches elsewhere, one in fact being not much more than a tower but fenced off and inaccessible. Neighbouring Sint Servaasbasiliek, noted in my guide as 'huge', seemed something of a let-down in this regard when I arrived outside. It may have been a fair size, but I had already this year visited the Basilique in Brussels, two more towering Belgian cathedrals in Mechelen and Antwerp, and the Sacré-Coeur in Paris, so in comparison it stood little chance of impressing me with its size alone. It wasn't really the church's fault - I couldn't expect increasingly majestic marvels to crop up wherever I went to satisfy my shallow cravings for more more more... Indeed, I had perhaps just caught Maastricht at a bad time. The church probably was a grand enough monument looming above a Dutch landscape renowned for its flatness.

A second, more investigative visit to the town's tourist office unveiled a few more promising attractions. An intriguing museum lay across the river, but entrance fees were a little pricey for my pocket. Offering the most hope were two sets of caves close to Mount St. Pieter, a short distance south of the town. Rather than diminish any further enthusiasm, yesterday's experience of the Luxembourg Casemates had given me a thirst for more cave adventures. The southern section of the caves had only one English tour per day, beginning in an hour's time. To reach them required taking a boat trip, and I'd have to hurry to the jetty around the corner. It seemed like a good enough opportunity to while away the afternoon, so I walked briskly to the riverside and purchased my ticket in the nick of time.

Entrance to the Zonneberg Caves themselves was quite cheap, but the boat trip set me back several Euros more. For this price, I felt it had better be worthwhile. As I followed several large touring groups, holidaying families and smoochy couples down the gangplank, I was asked like all the others to stand and pose for a photograph. I felt silly standing on my own, having witnessed all these other happy gangs cheering together. Again, just like my day at Futuroscope, I seemed to be the only lone visitor in town, and I would not be allowed to forget it.

We chugged down river, past the Bonnefantenmuseum which I had deemed too expensive, but which now seemed like a fair deal in comparison. For a brief moment the sun poked its head through the clouds to check that the ground was behaving itself. It was obviously satisfied, because it left the clouds in charge to babysit for the rest of the day. The cessation of rain did afford an opportunity for all on board to sit on the open air upper deck and admire the views.

Sadly there wasn't an awful lot to look at. One mile on, we left the town behind and surveyed a few flat fields. A multi-lingual audio commentary echoed through the tinny speakers and pointed out anything more exciting than a tree. The biggest attraction en route was a huge joyless cement works, a relic from an age when planners tried to make industrial buildings look as sinister as possible. The pre-recorded commentary couldn't stop singing its praises, before it then went on to announce something implausible which made my ears strain for confirmation.

Apparently we were approaching a mountain, Holland's second largest peak, and it would be dramatic. I glanced to the right and acknowledged the gentle rolling hill which dominated the landscape in the same way that a Leonard Cohen album might dominate a kiddies' hit parade. There appeared to be little chance that the overcast skies were hiding a spectacular glacier which topped the visible portion of mound I could see. Underneath here though, the voice assured us, lay the southern section of the Grotten Sint Pietersberg - the caves which I was about to visit. The boat trip had taken a quarter of an hour, we had come a couple of miles, and charging several Euros to go this slow in a car past such drabness would be an outrage. I hoped that the longer return journey would offer better value for money and some sights to behold.

Half of the sailing public disembarked and we wound our way up some lanes ascending the Netherlands' answer to Everest. A pub marked the gathering point for guided tours, and a small group of about ten stood waiting for the English guide. I munched through some second helpings I had daringly pilfered from the hostel's superb breakfast array, against the advice plastered on the walls demanding guests refrain from that exact activity. The guide led us through some fields and eventually down a slope to a concealed entrance amongst the trees. We had been advised to wear an extra layer of clothing due to the low temperatures inside the caves, and once through the entrance the cool, still atmosphere was immediately evident.

There was no lighting installed inside, and a couple of visitors were supplied with large lanterns to carry around, whilst the guide pointed out anything of interest with his torch. Initially I found myself at the back of the group, straining to glimpse along each corridor he lit up several feet ahead of me, before directing the beam elsewhere. Worryingly, it was so dark that if I lost the rest of the pack just a few feet away around a corner, it would become pitch black and I hadn't a clue where I was going. After navigating a few passages, it was already clear that this was a very special place unlike anywhere I'd ever been, and I made my way to the front so that I wouldn't miss anything.

One of the large murals covering the walls inside the Zonneberg cave system All over the walls were thousands of murals and inscriptions, ranging from simple notes and signatures, to colour paintings and giant pictures (left). It was like a huge subterranean museum and art gallery.

The cave networks had been excavated over centuries, with much of the system dating 2000 years. It was the Romans who began digging on a mass scale, and the marlstone that was removed was transported and used in buildings all over the country and surrounding regions. Originally, most of the caves were just a few feet deep as one layer of stone slabs was taken away, but then a further layer was removed from underneath, and this process continued four or five times until a thick layer of flint was found. This tough, rugged rock caused great problems for the huge numbers of labourers and was initially the deepest anybody would penetrate, until further marlstone was discovered underneath. As a result, most of the network of tunnels, which were over forty feet tall, showed visible breakdowns of the different sections which were excavated, including the cursed flint layer which rested at around eye level. When a torch was shone up towards the ceilings, it was often possible to see other tunnels shooting off at only the top level.

The scale of the place was overwhelming. Each tunnel was several feet wide and very deep, and there were thousands which criss-crossed each other every few feet. Gradually over time, more and more stone was removed, until some cracks began to appear and a few sections collapsed. It was decided to remove approximately seventy per cent and leave the remaining thirty per cent as thick pillars to support the ceiling. Consequently, much of the network had a grid-like formation which was bewildering in its complexity.

Another of the more famous paintings on the cave walls

The inscription by Napoleon, who visited the caves in 1803

Some 20,000 passages formed the cave structure, and the guide informed us that it took one engineer thirty-one years to map out the entire system. Even in modern times, people became lost in the caves, and some years ago two boys had gone missing for a considerable time, only to be found completely lost deep within after extensive searching. It could take much of a lifetime to become familiar with the labyrinth of passages, and each guide had to be very experienced just to negotiate the relatively tiny section which was accessible to visitors on the hour-long tour.

Having turned only a dozen or so corners, I had absolutely no idea from which way I had come in, or how I would get back. The creepy silence and darkness was only broken every few minutes by the sight and sound of another tour group along a corridor in the distance. Our guide showed us a few of the more notable sights, which included some of the most famous murals (above and below) and the inscription made by Napoleon (left) during his visit in the early nineteenth century. He was one of many luminaries who had been inside at one time or another, although most of the remainder were not household names. The place had even seen battles waged inside the corridors during conflicts in previous centuries.

The complex included a hospital, a chapel, a bakery (below), and had provided shelter for tens of thousands during World War II. Some people even stayed inside once hostilities ceased, since entire communities had been built up within. Another large mural of Greek goddesses occupying a wall

Two baker's ovens installed inside the cave complex, which once fed thousands who lived inside during World War II

Everywhere I looked there were endless passages going off in every direction, being intercepted at regular intervals by others crossing over, although the grid structure wasn't completely uniform or straight. Many passages would bend around or go a bit wonky. The walls were covered with artistic creations and the words of thousands of people whose lives had been spent inside. The guide pointed to one spot marked by a plaque where a baby had been born, and decades later that baby was apparently now due to return to the caves and become one of the guides.

Also visible in the rock were fossils of all kinds of small land and sea creatures, lodged for eternity. The land had been formed some eighty million years earlier by the accumulation of shellfish remains, and those of other creatures which had inhabited the sea in prehistoric times. Even larger mammals had been discovered, including remains of sharks, giant turtles and reptiles, and a recent find had uncovered a Mosasaurus, which was a lizard believed to be twenty metres long.

It was impossible to be totally satisfied with this brief introduction to the caves, because it represented just a fragment of an astonishing secret world. One of the tunnels ran several kilometres underground to Belgium, and it was inconceivable to visualize the vast numbers of workers excavating so much stone, and the huge amount of people whose lives once revolved around this now empty city. Perhaps some of them were still trapped in there, undiscovered.

A good deal of all the buildings in Maastricht and elsewhere in Holland had been built with the marlstone quarried from these caves, and after emerging from the hillside and looking back at it, it was odd to think of the vast secret kingdom which lay underneath. It had been one of the most incredible places I had ever visited. Admittedly, much of the hour's trip had been spent traipsing around lookalike tunnels, but the realization of what had once existed there really gripped my imagination. It was a forgotten land; an enormous chunk of history hiding under the surface of the world. It couldn't have been the only such place, but it was surely one of the largest and most spectacular. I had visited many fascinating natural cave systems before, and the man-made Casemates the previous day had seemed exciting enough, but until lunchtime today I had no knowledge that this most phenomenal place existed. Whatever else might happen during my stay, it had been worthwhile coming to Maastricht to see the caves.

The return boat journey offered little more of interest than the first trip had. We sailed further down the River Maas past more featureless fields, and did an about-turn on approach to a lock. The river continued from here towards Liège, and more boat trips operated along the whole route. I was in no hurry to book my place. As we turned back towards Maastricht, the pre-recorded audio guide once again thought it necessary to extol the virtues of the cement works. Having paid a lesser price to witness one of the underground wonders of the world, I couldn't see much justification for the money forked out on this boat.

Perhaps in my mental weariness of travelling consumption, I had become not only church-weary, museum-weary and mountain-weary, but boat-weary too. After all, I had taken ferries from Newhaven to Dieppe, across the Tagus in Lisbon, and from Algeciras to Tangiers and back. Without those experiences, perhaps this minor league ride would have seemed more exciting. It wasn't Maastricht's fault, I'd been a little unkind about its perfectly adequate tourist offerings. And maybe there was another point here. After a month of touring it might be good to return home, giving me a chance to shake off the familiar routines of life on the line, and to be able to reset my churchometers, boat thrill levels and museum pleasure centres. The next time I journeyed, these attractions would provide fresh, invigorating experiences once more.

A view from the boat on the River Maas, looking towards the Bonnefantenmuseum and regional government buildings

We floated past the provincial government buildings of Limburg, which the easily-pleased audio commentator described as having a splendid modern architectural design, but which to me looked like a monstrous overuse of dreary brown bricks. The egg-shaped extension of the Bonnefantenmuseum again provided the only moment of riverside inspiration, aside from a span of a new bridge being hoisted into place by a crane (above).

When the passengers put their feet back ashore, it was no surprise to see a clever money-making opportunity in operation as they reached the end of the gangplank. Spread out over a row of boards were all the photographs taken some hours earlier, and which most people had probably forgotten all about. The idea was obviously to make us coo 'the photo, the photo!' (in Dutch), but it failed to have an effect on me when I saw the extortionate price being demanded of 5 Euros. For that, I would have the treasured memory of leaning with an awkward posture in front of a river on a cloudy day, at the precise moment that I blinked.

As I approached the boards I sharply scanned from a distance the array of cheerful groups who occupied the other prints, and there on the end was me, the shut-eyed weirdo, all on my own. I marched briskly past before somebody tried to accost me and thrust it in front of my face. Once I had passed, the lady in charge of the boards saw me and quickly whipped the photo down in her own embarrassment, eager to save the other tourists from witnessing this dreadful picture. Fancy that; a single man going on a boat trip with no adoring partner or smiling child in tow - it would surely be enough to put them off buying their own photos.

Further trails around the town of Maastricht inevitably landed me in a supermarket, still my favourite food sanctuary after almost a month abroad. This one held a wealth of delicious and unique offerings, and it was unfair to have to select just a couple of items from so many treats. Holland certainly had some intriguing food though, especially when it came to salads.

What anybody else in the world might define as a salad was not evident here. Instead, like so many other products on the shelves, the salads were just composite mixtures of multicoloured pulp. I stood staring at one perishable item in a see-through carton, which comprised a layer of green mushy stuff at the base, a layer of whitish mush sandwiched above that, and was topped with a layer of pink pulp which, with the aid of a microscope, could be seen to contain some strands of fish derivatives. I studied the ingredients on the back, and I could ascertain from my best guesses at Dutch, that this was indeed a salmon salad. There was no obvious vegetation included, everything had been liquidized by national dictate. The Dutch were unable to present any foods for dinner unless all trace of their original form had been shredded for security purposes.

An alternative theory I pondered was that standards of dentistry in the Netherlands were so low, half the population had no teeth and were subsequently left with no choice but to pour munch-free mush down their gullets. In extreme cases, toothless persons with irritable throats would have to consume gas-foods, and supermarket shelves would be stocked with tuna and cucumber aerosols. It was no use to me, I wanted solid matter, and I eventually found my reward in the form of yet another taboulé - a pot of pre-cooked, flavoured couscous that had been a staple part of my diet over recent weeks. Even the legendary Pierre Martinet, traiteur of the famed Celeriac Remoulade which had me choking on the steps of the Sacré-Coeur, provided his own twist on this product, but I was steering clear of anything bearing his name.

I couldn't steer clear of the souvenir and wig shop though, I just had to pay another visit. It was an unavoidable requirement for me to take some small, lightweight gifts home, and to date this had been an impossibility with my chock-a-block backpack. With only a couple of days' travelling to go, I had shed a couple of bits I no longer needed, and I crammed assorted Dutch tourist tat in its place, invariably featuring windmills and tulips. Already it was early evening, and the rain was once again attempting to break the world bucketing record. There was no point lingering around the sodden streets and I took a bus back to the hostel.

I discovered that one disaffected American traveller in my dormitory had been replaced by another. He was more vocal than the previous guy in slamming his own country and stating his desperate, urgent need to relocate to Europe. He said he felt like a European who had been accidentally born into the USA, and he spoke almost apologetically to me about his nation's sins. After the many overbearing tourists from the States who I had encountered in my first few days around Paris, it seemed that I was now being offered some repentance in the final thrusts of my journey, by a series of far more pleasant American citizens. All the bad apples had been and gone, and a string of more enlightening Americans who I had met in Biarritz, Lyon and now Maastricht were making up for the others' shortcomings.

Like the guy he had replaced overnight - perhaps in a cunning metamorphosis whilst I slept - this traveller was also particularly fond of Holland and the relaxed, easy life he discovered inside its many coffee shops. He was well stocked up on 'interesting substances', which he acquired with as much glee as the goods I recovered from supermarkets. With so little to do of an evening in the vicinity, unless spending a fortune on taxis was an acceptable sport, the best entertainment suggestion he could muster up was to take a stroll under the damp, darkening skies to Belgium.

This was not as crazy an idea as it sounded. The border was less than a mile away, and I could understand his determination to stand astride a spot where one leg would fall foul of an entirely different set of laws to the other. He might have to be careful which side his windpipe occupied when he inhaled, although the laws in Belgium had also supposedly been relaxed somewhat. It would, nonetheless, be an interesting philosophical and legal argument. If a man smoked a legal substance whilst standing with one lung on the other side of a national boundary, where such things were outlawed, would his inhalation into this lung violate any laws? Certainly, a judge could not afford to be half-hearted in his verdict! I left him to explore such matters himself whilst I tucked into my feast.

When he returned we had a couple of drinks in the bar, which again was sadly lacking atmosphere. I was worried that my travels were ending with a bit of a whimper, although to be fair, they had never been a box of fireworks in terms of hardcore raving action. I never had any intention for them to be a string of drunken nightclub episodes or high-octane thrills and spills, and being on a tight budget prevented me from indulging in anything more than a set of train rides, cheap attractions, hostel stays and relatively low-key social events. This was, after all, my first major adventure away from home, and I was dipping my feet and testing the European water. Perhaps in future journeys I would be more readied for initiating some explosive activities.

We retired to our bunks, and for not the first time amongst those I had met, I was referred to as being much younger than I actually was. I couldn't conceal the fact that I was flattered; I hated turning thirty and felt such an old man for it. But my adventures had injected a youthfulness back into me, which renewed my confidence that the good times were not over yet. I could still afford another decade of faffing about before being condemned to a cul-de-sac in suburbia playing Ray Conniff records.

The manner in which my age was established was not so gratifying to my room-mate, however. During our discussions about world affairs, the Netherlands, travelling single and other matters, he had begun a short rant declaring that anybody aged thirty or more should be banned from youth hostels. He was fed up with seeing old gubbers sharing his dormitories. I explained that any such decree would have me out the door too, and he nervously asked how old I was. Upon confirming to him that thirty years had indeed passed me by, he sharply decided to up the figure to fifty, clearly feeling that stating forty - and thereby offering me just another ten years to wrinkle and make my statement of age more apparent - would still cause me some offence. He didn't know where to hide his face, but his dramatic, bumbling U-turn on the subject was a moment to savour.

Like his compatriot from the previous night, he faced a dreaded flight back across the Atlantic in a few days to the land he despised with such passion. I could sympathize with his feelings. Although from Britain, I too felt determined to spend more time in mainland Europe for whatever reason. There were many things I felt sure to miss if I moved abroad, and there was much that I loved about my own country, but I would not be the first member of the family to have once thought the same, only to settle happily elsewhere and never look back. I had a burning desire to spend at least a few months living on the continent, and to see life from another angle. Perhaps my time would come. This trip had offered a taster, but only forty-eight hours of it remained before my return to reality. Lights were extinguished in the dormitory, and I bedded down and began dreaming about a new experience.

HOSTEL REPORT: Maastricht - NJHC Hostel de Dousberg - see day 27

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