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Destination: Netherlands

Beyond Tulips

In Dutch south, favoring French flavors, plus hills, mazes and moats

June 08, 1997|JEAN WOESTENDIEK LETAI

LIMBURG, Netherlands — When I first decided to visit the Netherlands, I looked forward to tiptoeing through tulips at the famed Keukenhof Gardens, touring museums in Amsterdam, bicycling past windmills and bringing home the trademark blue and white pottery. Instead, at the suggestion of Dutch friends, I was swept into an ancient world of castles, mazes and a walled city. This "other" Netherlands lies in the country's southernmost region, an overlooked province called Limburg.

In a country known for flat terrain, Limburg features rolling green hills and has been nicknamed "Little Switzerland." In a country famous for its cultural center in Amsterdam, Limburg features the ancient walled city of Maastricht, the oldest city in the Netherlands and a center for European politics. In a country noted for poffertjes and pannekoeken (pancakes served with various toppings or fillings), Limburg offers French-style cuisine reminiscent of the rich feasts my husband and I enjoyed on our honeymoon in Provence.

The Dutch choose Limburg for their own vacations to explore the largest hedge maze in all Europe; a modern spa featuring Roman, Turkish and Scandinavian-style baths; and centuries-old castles scattered throughout the countryside. Many castles offer overnight accommodations, while local inns offer more economical alternatives. My husband, Tony, and I (along with our infant daughter, Kate) enjoyed a unique and truly romantic stay at Castle Wittem, renowned for its cuisine and wine cellar.

We arrived at Castle Wittem after dark and ascended the red-carpeted staircase to a comfortable and spacious room. Fresh fruit and freshly baked pound cake welcomed us, as well as a thick down comforter on our bed and a crib for Kate. When we awoke the next morning under the room's high-beamed ceiling, we anxiously peered out of our windows. We were thrilled to see the moat below, protecting us from any lingering stresses of the present-day world we had left behind.

Since rainy weather did not permit dining on the terrace overlooking the moat, we enjoyed a classic Dutch breakfast indoors. Breakfast came complete with fresh-squeezed orange juice and a sugar bowl containing shavings of white chocolate. Classical music accompanied our meal, and framed portraits on the wall suggested the spirits of past nobility that might be milling about.

The castle dates back to AD 1100 and hosted Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1520, playing a pivotal role in the Netherlands' battle for freedom from Spain. It served as a base during the Eighty Years' War after the first Prince of Orange, William the Silent, conquered Wittem, taking it from the Spaniards in 1568. After passing from lords to knights to counts, the castle was converted to a hotel and restaurant in the 1950s. Every bedroom has a modern, private bathroom.

Wittem stands midway between Drielandenpunt Maze and Maastricht, about 20 minutes by car from each, and just down the road from the American Cemetery. Here, rows of white crosses rise from green grass to pay silent tribute to Americans who died in World War II.

Ten minutes north is the Thermae 2000 spa. The spa offers indoor and outdoor thermal baths, whirlpools, herbal and mud baths, a sauna and massage and yoga programs, as well as a restaurant and the adjoining Thermaetel Hotel. Spa admission rates (which include everything except special services such as massages and herbal baths) range from about $15 for two hours to $27 for a whole day with free admission for Hotel Thermaetel guests.

At Drielandenpunt (translated: point of three countries), tall green hedges dared us to wend our way through Europe's largest maze. The name derives from its location at the junction of the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. This site also marks the highest point in the Netherlands, and on a sunny day an observation tower affords a magnificent international view of all three countries.

In keeping with maze tradition, the hedges form a design when viewed from overhead. The design attests to the friendliness of the three countries, depicting an eagle for Germany and lions for Belgium and the Netherlands--their respective national motifs.

Like Theseus pursuing the Minotaur of Greek mythology, we entered the maze brave and confident. (How hard could it be, anyway?) We were quickly humbled as we wandered the intricate network of paths, all of which soon looked alike. Two other couples did not speak English but it was clear that they had pitted men against women in conquering this Minotaur. From the depths of the hedges we could hear the women whoop victoriously, reassuring us that escape was possible. We continued muddling our way through and ultimately emerged from the maze--a full hour after entering.

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