MAASTRICHT, Netherlands — Geography says this town is in the Netherlands, but forget the windmills and wooden shoes. It's really far more Burgundian-French in flavor and lifestyle, thanks to the frontier of French-speaking Belgium being a scant three miles away.
Interminable Franco-Dutch wars of the 17th and 18th centuries often turned Maastricht into a Gallic encampment, producing a cultural fallout of sorts.
There are more than 400 cafes, brasseries and bistros in town, and Guide Michelin has hung more stars on Maastricht's kitchens than in any other Dutch city.
Romans carving a high road from their stronghold in Cologne to the English Channel chose this site to ford the Maas River, hence the name ( stricht translates roughly to ford ).
It's the Netherlands' oldest fortified city, dating to the early 13th Century, and also gets our vote as being the country's most colorful, having more monuments and protected buildings within its fortifications than any other Dutch city save Amsterdam.
The twisting streets of Old Town on the river's west bank are little more than footpaths lined with 1,400 ancient buildings and tidy homes, creating a charming Hans Brinker woodcut of Dutch life in a bygone era.
Yet the beautiful town and its Lucullean life of fine food and drink are not all that Maastricht has to offer. The gentle hills of the surrounding countryside, reminiscent of Belgium's Ardennes Forest to the south, are blanketed with lovely old castles, chateaux and Tudor-style farmhouses.
A 13th-Century French writer proclaimed: "A better place on earth than Maastricht cannot be found." Quite an accolade, coming from a Gallic pen.
Getting here: Fly KLM nonstop from Los Angeles to Amsterdam; Delta, Northwest and other airlines with changes. Take a train direct from the airport to Maastricht in 2 1/2 hours for about $24. An advance-purchase, round-trip air ticket from LAX to Amsterdam should cost between $716 and $769.
How long/how much? Give the town and countryside two days, but it's also a great base for visiting parts of Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg, and train schedules are excellent. Lodging costs here are moderate, superb dining a bit higher.
A few fast facts: The Dutch guilder recently sold for 1.74 to the dollar, 57 cents each. Spring until late autumn is a good time to visit, with winter's pre-Lenten carnival particularly merry in Maastricht.
Getting settled in: Maison du Chene (Boschstraat 104; $85-$95 B&B double) has been an inn on Market Square for a century. Now owned by a former restaurateur, it has one of the finest hotel-kitchens in town. Bedrooms are bright and decorated in soothing pastels (a few with shared bath for $68), and the restaurant- brasserie has the cozy look of a small hotel in France.
Hotel Bergere (Stationsstraat 40; $82-$95 B&B double), formerly the Stijns, will reopen in December. It's a block from the railway station on the main street of the new town, and has been given a sparkling face lift. This has been one of our favorites for years.
Hotel Beaumont (Wyckerbrugstraat 2; $105-$116 B&B double), while not the top of the city's line, has been a grand dame of local hostelries for three generations of the same family.
With an excellent location near the train station on one of Maastricht's pretty squares, Beaumont combines 18th-Century frills in some of its salons with more contemporary bedrooms. The Alsatian Restaurant is warm paneling and hearty French food.
Regional food and drink: A menu in Maastricht opens to an inviting mixture of Dutch, Belgian and French food, with emphasis on the latter two. Locals share the Belgian-Dutch unbridled passion for fresh mussels, probably best when steamed simply with garlic and a bit of greenery.
Channel sole enjoys a worldwide reputation for delicacy, but the slip tong sole from the North Sea is every bit its equal, particularly when grilled properly and boned by an expert waiter.
While seafood (oysters, clams, fish soups) is an understandable staple, beef is surprisingly good in this part of the Netherlands, and game dishes are superb in season. Country sausage and pates appear at every turn, and the region's Limburger cheese goes well with Ardennes ham in a lunchtime sandwich.
Jenever (Dutch gin) is a popular spirits lifter, and the beers of the Netherlands need no introduction.
Good local dining: 't Plenkske (Boschstraat 27), named for the wooden street (Plankstraat) that covered soggy ground during Roman times, is an elegant enclave of plum-velvet banquettes and Pompeii-red walls, with lovely china and crystal and original wall plaques in Art Deco style done by a local artist.
The menu is in keeping with its surroundings: lobster bisque with Armagnac, smoked eel, fillet of hare stuffed with nuts, roast pigeon with bacon and broad beans from the marshes.
L'Escale (Havenstraat 19) is the town's port of call for lovers of fine seafood. If it swims, it's probably on the menu here and prepared with great finesse.