Pressed between Belgium and Germany, Limburg, the Netherlands’ southernmost province, is shaped like an hourglass and is only 13km across at its narrowest. By Dutch standards, this is a geographically varied province: the north is a familiarly flat landscape of farmland and woods until the town of Roermond, where the River Maas loops and curls its way across the map; in the south, and seemingly out of nowhere, rise rolling hills studded with vineyards and châteaux. The people of Limburg are as distinct from the rest of the Netherlands as their landscape – their dialects incomprehensible to “Hollanders”, their outlook more closely forged by Belgium and Germany than the distant Randstad. Nowhere is this international flavour more apparent than in the main city of Maastricht, while South Limburg’s distinctive, and notably un-Dutch, atmosphere makes it popular with tourists from the rest of the Netherlands, who head to its many caves and scenic cycle routes, and visit its resorts such as Valkenburg. North and central Limburg are less colourful, but still have some places that are well worth visiting. Venlo, with its stunning Stadhuis, is a good starting point for heading on to the National War and Resistance Museum, and Roermond makes a good base to explore the National Park de Meinweg.
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What started as a small gathering over forty years ago is now in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest unbroken festival in Europe. Limburg’s Pinkpop (w pinkpop.nl), a three-day event starting on Whitsun, has its roots in Geleen but soon moved to Landgraaf, close to the German border, where it grew into a festival attracting more than 90,000 alternative pop and rock fans. It’s hosted many big names, from Elvis Costello to Lenny Kravitz and from the Counting Crows to Bruce Springsteen, and has always been a trendsetter for other festivals in the country. Traditionally Monday is the busiest day. Die-hards who don’t want to miss a thing can stay on the purpose-built campsite on the premises; if that’s not your thing, be sure to book accommodation ahead. During the festival, frequent trains connect Maastricht and Heerlen to Landgraaf station, from where a shuttle service will take you to the festival site.
A scenic cycle in South Limburg
A scenic cycle in South Limburg
On a leisurely cycle route east from Maastricht to Vaals, right on the German border, scenic villages nestle among vineyards and orchards, linked by quiet lanes dotted with shrines. Cycling is a perfect way to appreciate this rolling landscape and its un-Dutch hills. Pick up a Limburg province map from Maastricht tourist office, and allow a day for this seventy-kilometre round trip.
From Maastricht train station, follow the river south to Gronsveld, picking up signs to the eleventh-century village of St Geertruid. The road snakes over hills draped with vineyards before swooping into the villages of Mheer, Noorbeek and Slenaken – all very pretty and popular. At Slenaken, the road develops some hairpin tendencies as it climbs the valley side above. Continue through Eperheide and Epen, with sweeping views across to the rolling valleys of Belgium on the right. Between Epen and Vaals, there’s a gradual eight-kilometre climb on narrow roads, winding between woods of red oaks. From Vaals, you can do an extra six-kilometre round trip to the highest point in the Netherlands (a lofty 321m): follow the signs to the Drielandenpunt, where three flags in a graffiti-covered concrete block mark the meeting of the borders of Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. Otherwise, follow the main road out of Vaals (there’s a dedicated cycle lane), turning left to Vijlen. Surrounding you is a panoramic view over Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, beautiful on a clear day. From Mechelen and Gulpen, you’re within striking distance of Valkenburg to the north, approached through the old town. Climb the steep but brief Cauberg hill to return to Maastricht, enjoying a speedy descent between orchards and farmland with the city locked in your sights. Once on the outskirts, follow the cycle route signs to bring you back to the station.
An alternative (and shorter) return route is to continue from Gulpen to Maastricht on a straight route via Margraten and Cadier-en-Keer.