We’re passing the green hills of Limburg, the most southern province of the Netherlands. Belgium and Germany are nearby. The train stops at the town of Valkenburg, situated in a valley cut out by the small river Geul.

On entering the railway station, built in the shape of a small castle, I find a pleasant café. It’s the oldest existing station building in the country, the waiter tells me, built from marlstone marl is something I will hear lots more about during my visit here.

At the Tourist Information Office in the town centre, another beautiful, light yellow-brown marlstone building, I meet Karin. This cheerful, smiling lady dressed in white and blue and with a wealth of knowledge about Valkenburg has been guiding people around the town for 36 years.

“Valkenburg was the first town in the Netherlands to have tourist visitors,” she says proudly, and then explains that a railway network was opened in 1853 between the cities of Maastricht in the Netherlands and Aachen in Germany, connecting Valkenburg. “From then on, everyone could visit not just the happy few who had their own cart and carriage.”

Middle Ages

On the terraces, people drink coffee and tea and enjoy Limburgse vlaai, the local fruit pie. “People know how to enjoy life here,” Karin says, smiling. The town name likely refers to valken, Dutch for ‘falcons’ which were popular among the nobility for hunting with in the Middle Ages – and to burcht, a ‘fortress’.

We approach the Geulpoort, one of the city towers, and glimpse a ruin in the distance the only castle situated on a hill in the Netherlands. The city towers and the castle were destroyed by the Dutch troops in 1672 to chase away the French occupiers, Karin explains. They have recently been restored and, in some cases, completely rebuilt.

We cross a little footbridge over the small, fast-flowing river. My guide points at the stairs leading to the water. “In the past, cattle came to drink here, and women did the laundry, and of course caught up on local news.” Next, we pass the Roman Catholic Saint Nicholas and Saint Barbara Church, which Karin tells me dates back to the 13th century.

I’m having difficulty keeping up with Karin, who despite being almost twice my age, walks a lot faster than me. She suggests a break and a coffee at Aan de Linde opposite Den Halder Castle.

Underground art

My guide has told me some interesting stories about the caves and the 250km of underground corridors beneath the town. In the afternoon I head to the Gemeentegrot, the Municipal Caves. Like the other caves here and in the rest of the country, this is not a natural cave, but has been carved out by people.

You can choose between a 45-minute walking tour or a 30-minute train ride. As in the other caves, it remains a constant 12°C here all year round. “Marlstone has been mined here ever since the Roman times more than 2,000 years ago,” train driver Ruud explains to the group. He point at the scratches on the walls caused by carts being pulled by horses carrying the stone.

Dim lights reveal a large number of charcoal drawings and sculptures of animals, castles, members of the royal family and prominent citizens. “Local artists started creating them at the end of the 19th century.” The rooms we’re passing now were used as shelters during the Second World War.

A special night

It’s now time for dinner, and following the Tourist Board’s advice, I rent a bicycle and head to Château St Gerlach. The 15-minute ride takes me through a beautiful green hilly nature area along the river. The castle, originally a cloister, built in the 12th century, is surrounded by attractive gardens dotted with sculptures. Inside there are stunning, traditional rooms with antique furniture and books.

At the end of the evening, I have tasted seven small, delicious, French-inspired dishes, all prepared creatively and with the best-quality ingredients. “All vegetables and fruits come from “The honey too; our chef is also a beekeeper.”

I spend the night in De Oude Molen, located in a central, white-painted watermill building, dating back to 1700. There is just one guest room, which is enormous and includes a modern kitchen and a living room with designer furniture. Parts of the old mill are still visible within, which creates a special atmosphere.

Climbing and relaxation

The next morning, I climb the hill to the 11th-century castle ruin. On the top is a photogenic wrought-iron wind vane depicting Archangel Michael and the dragon. Next, I walk further up the Cauberg, a steep 133.7m hill high by Dutch standards, and the scene of a yearly cycling race. It’s time for some relaxation, and I enter the Thermae 2000 spa to enjoy a soak in the 32°C mineral water.

A festive fairy tale

If you’re in Valkenburg between November 16 and January 6, you can experience the town’s lively and enchanting Christmasfestivities. At Santa’s Village at the central Theodoor Dorrenplein, you can sample sweet snacks and admire the giant Christmas tree decorated with more than 5,000 twinkling lights. Next, visit the atmospheric Christmas markets in the Municipal Caves and the Velvet Cave. In the Museum Roman Catacombs, a replica of the one in Rome, and in MergelRijk you can also experience the festive atmosphere with Christmas miniatures and statues. Fairytale Forest, loved by children year-round, is also decorated for the season.

When I leave by train again the next day, I look back on a few enjoyable days. I’ve visited exciting caves and castles, hiked and cycled in lovely, hilly surroundings and tried some delicious local dishes. I’m glad I got to know Valkenburg and its people a little.

From Colours December 2018