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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

Strolling by another arched section of the ubiquitous wall, we took a turn into a narrow street and were back in the heart of the old city, with more than one Gothic building to prove it. The eye-catcher is the 11th century Basilica of Our Dear Lady, whose tall stone facade and enormous round towers give it a look more akin to a fortress than a house of God. The church was built with few windows. We shivered in the dark, cold, damp interior, with the bit of wan light illuminating islands of sheen in the polished black stone floor. Stepping out into a large square set with cafe tables and wicker chairs in anticipation of spring, we felt our spirits lift as we shook off the clammy embrace of the Middle Ages.

Maastricht is a city of squares large and small, giving its citizens plenty of breathing room. Our tour ended up on the largest, the Vrijthof, a vast, dramatic space dominated by the dark red spire of the Gothic St. Jan's, the landmark Protestant church, and the Romanesque apse and twin towers of the massive St. Servatius Catholic basilica, the core of which dates to the year 1000.

We took a look inside St. Servatius--Servaas in Dutch--and its treasury, in which sits a large gold and jeweled casket, one of the great treasures of the Middle Ages. Outside, in the courtyard of the cloister, is Grandma, the big bronze bell that sounded the alarm in times of strife.

With time running out, we now had to choose between the 16th century Spanish Government House--a museum facing the square, with an outstanding collection of 17th and 18th century paintings, furniture, sculpture, glass and silver--and an art gallery opposite it.

We chose the gallery, our curiosity piqued by the knowledge that it is owned by Robert Noortman, the man who had the $35.6-million Rembrandt for sale at the fair. We were not disappointed. The gallery occupies an old patrician home and is hung throughout with glorious examples of 17th century Dutch painting, much as it might have been in an earlier time. Not the least of its attractions was another Rembrandt, an oval portrait of a man, a few million dollars cheaper than its female counterpart.

Maastricht's emergence as a popular city for international congresses ensures a gold standard for its restaurants and hotels. Haute cuisine can be readily found in many of the more elegant establishments, but so can some of the down-to-earth treats of the area, such as Limburgse flan (fruit pie with lattice topping), apple dumplings, gingerbread and Rommedoeke, the true Limburger cheese.

To be near the fair, we stayed first at the Hotel Bergere in the heart of town. Then, to spread our wings a little, we moved to the luxurious Chateau St. Gerlach in a suburb of Maastricht.

The Bergere calls itself a "design hotel," and we could see why: The rooms, lobby, bar and dining areas are decorated with classics of contemporary European furniture.

The St. Gerlach is the antithesis of the Bergere, a place redolent of history and antique charm. Not surprisingly, it draws an elegant but easygoing clientele.

Founded on an estate dating to 1201, the hotel complex long functioned as a monastery and preserves to this day a lovely, light-filled Baroque church, complete with ceiling and wall frescoes and the tomb of the 12th century monk who gave the complex its name. Just next door is the 18th century chateau where the four gracious rooms of Les Trois Corbeaux restaurant are located, and behind it we found an indoor spa and swimming pool.

The hotel proper, with 58 rooms and suites, is housed in another imposing 18th century edifice with double wings, around which run the St. Gerlach's formal gardens. Our comfortable room, under the roof of one wing, had all the old timbers exposed.

Staying at the St. Gerlach, we soon realized that the rolling countryside around Maastricht must also count as one of the reasons to visit this corner of the Netherlands. We enjoyed meandering through it in our rented car, much taken with its big, peaceful vistas, some of which seemed familiar from the early northern European paintings we had seen in Noortman's gallery and at the art and antiques fair. The Dutch wryly refer to this hilly landscape as Holland's Alps and flock here on summer vacation.

Of the Americans who do venture beyond Maastricht, many have a somber destination in mind. Just six miles east of the city, atop a broad hill, is the only U.S. World War II cemetery in the Netherlands. Here 8,302 young men and women lie buried, and we made a point of visiting it.

As we walked toward a tower of remembrance and the graves behind it, we could see carved into the long marble walls to either side the names of 1,723 soldiers whose remains never were found or properly identified. Ahead of us fanned out 8,302 graves.

We spent a half-hour alone in the cemetery roaming up and down the avenues of marble stones carved with crosses and stars of David, touching them, saying the names aloud.

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