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Cataloging the Charms of Maastricht

Beyond a huge art and antiques fair lie the pleasures of the country's oldest and, many say, loveliest city.

April 29, 2001|DALE M. BROWN | Dale M. Brown is a freelance writer who lives in Virginia

MAASTRICHT, Netherlands — Come to this medieval Dutch city where the modern European currency, the euro, was born in 1992, and you can have breakfast in Holland, eat lunch in Germany and sit down to dinner in Belgium. Maastricht's location in the southern Dutch province of Limburg, only a few short miles from the now easily crossed borders of these three nations, makes it a convenient jumping-off spot for day trips.

But before you jump, take a closer look at Maastricht. For a city of only 120,000 inhabitants, it is surprisingly cosmopolitan, with good restaurants, shops and galleries. What's more, it has a charming medieval core, still partly enclosed by centuries-old defensive walls.

My wife, Liet, and I came to Maastricht in March to attend the annual European Fine Arts Fair, a weeklong exhibition and sale that attracts connoisseurs, curators and collectors from around the world.

Almost 200 art and antiques dealers were set up in faux shops on the vast convention center floor. Within a few hours of the opening, we began spotting red dots next to items signifying "sold." We wondered at the number of people ready, willing and able to pay tens of thousands of dollars, in some cases millions, for ancient Sumerian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman treasures, 17th century Dutch masterworks, 18th century French furniture and 20th century art by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Edvard Munch and Egon Schiele.

The show's star was a 1632 Rembrandt, an oval portrait of a 62-year-old woman in a fur-trimmed black dress with a broad white collar that illuminated her features. The price? $35.6 million.

Liet and I were not the least bit put off by the fact that we could afford only the price of admission ($35 for two), which included the exquisitely produced 534-page catalog. We spent almost three days at the fair, gawking, enthralled to be in the equivalent of a grand museum, but one in which everything is for sale. When we began to feel sated on the riches of the exhibitions, we gave ourselves over to Maastricht.

The city was founded 2,000 years ago by the Romans. Because of its advantageous position at a ford in the Maas River, it grew rich on trade; but as a strategic crossing point for armies, it also became a prize fought over for centuries. As a souvenir of those trying years, it still has underground fortifications carved from the soft limestone, as well as the remnants of the several thick walls that once encircled it.

Its travails continued right up into the 20th century when the Germans occupied Holland during World War II, but remarkably, the city was spared the destruction visited on urban centers elsewhere in Holland and in nearby Belgium. In 1944 Maastricht became the first Dutch city to be freed by American troops.

We began our explorations of the town at the official tourist office (VVV), in a converted courthouse dating to the 15th century. The exterior is worth a close look, with its beautiful stone facade, double staircase leading up to the second-story entrance and tall saddle roof surmounted by a delicate tower. Such a roof, so characteristic of the Maastricht skyline, was deliberately pitched at a sharp angle to allow more storage space in the attic, a precaution against enemy sieges. The building's interior has many original features, including timbered ceilings and enormous fireplaces.

At the VVV we hired a cheerful, English-speaking guide who took us on a walking tour of the old city. We ambled down cozy narrow lanes to the Stokstraat, a newly restored-to-chic neighborhood of 17th and 18th century houses and smart specialty shops.

Part of the pleasure of walking in Maastricht is a lack of automobile traffic; many squares and streets have been given over to pedestrians, and this enhances their old-fashioned feel.

Soon we came to a terrace overlooking the Maas that once formed part of a city wall. Among the many foreigners who died trying to breach it was the famed musketeer D'Artagnan.

Walking the rampart's length, we arrived at the twin-towered Helpoort, one of the gates in the original city wall, put up in 1299. Ahead of us stood another defensive tower, the Father Vinck, rising from a small but delightful park beside the narrow, noisily rushing Jeker River, which cuts right through town. Further enhancing the almost bucolic atmosphere was a 350-year-old nunnery, a long, low, red-brick building with red and white shutters, today the home of a couple of lucky artists.

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