We based ourselves in the Jeker Quarter of Maastricht, the city’s latin quarter just south of the old town. Only a few hundred metres from the bustle of the city centre’s shopping district, the Jeker Quarter is Maastricht’s “slow lane”, where the locals can be found strolling the quaint streets lined with centuries-old houses, boutiques, cafes and galleries. The creative atmosphere here can be traced back to the community’s history of crafts and trades, and with the current strong student community, the area is contemporary and vibrant – even despite the dreary wet weather that greeted us on our arrival.
We did not let the rain deter us from exploring and enjoying the area, as well as the rest of the city. Although smaller than I had imagined, the city of Maastricht is made up of several areas that each have their own distinct character and atmosphere. Just north of the Jeker Quarter is the Stokstraat, a series of pretty laneways lined with high end designer stores. A tiny square at the end of one of these laneways is home to the statue of Mestreechter Geis (the spirit of Maastricht) symbolising the city’s playfulness and joie de vivre.
A little further on and we arrived at the City Centre, the picturesque shopping haven of Maastricht, which was bustling with crowds. There were a curiously high number of soap stores to be found, all manned by sales staff standing in the streets offering free soap stick samples on silver platters to passers-by. I was lured into one such store by a young salesman who asked me “Do you believe in magic?”. He wowed me with their “new product” – a nail buffer I just couldn’t live without. I fell for the spiel, and my naivety was rewarded with a free hand and nail cream.
Beyond the Markt and Vrijthof squares we arrived at the tree-lined Onze Lieve Vrouweplien just in time for a coffee stop at The Chocolate Company, a small but very busy chocolatier where we snagged the last remaining slice of the banana cream sponge cake with marzipan and raspberries – yum. Around the corner was the Sjinkerij de Bóbbel, voted best café in the Netherlands in 2012 and the venue for our pre-theatre drinks that evening. Packed with baby boomer locals, the old-worldy space was filled with the constant hum of patrons socialising in what was a relaxed yet lively atmosphere. I couldn’t believe my eyes when the lady sitting next to me started buffing her nails with a very familiar looking buffing block – we complimented each other’s shiny nails and over a glass of wine sang the praises of our latest purchase.
The showers that greeted us in Maastricht did their best to discourage us from exploring. With frequent windy bursts and rain that fell sideways, our umbrellas were soon rendered useless. But the showers could not hide the quaint charm of this small Dutch city close to the Belgian border.
With its small cobblestone streets, old buildings and numerous squares dotted all around, Maastricht is beautiful, even in gloomy weather. The streets of the old town are lined with shops and restaurants, providing endless shopping and dining options for visitors. As we ventured to the Markt square I was immediately struck by the high concentration of fast food outlets there, including the familiar global chains that I’ve been missing since moving to Brussels, such as Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King which are yet to be introduced to the Belgian market. It seemed a little strange to see so many fast food chains alongside centuries-old brasseries and cafes in the middle of this gorgeous historical city.
It all started to fit when I discovered Maastricht is home to a number of “coffee shops”. There are 14 scattered around the city, but in 2012 nationwide laws were introduced to prevent them from selling to foreigners. Much like Amsterdam, Maastricht embraced the crackdown to put a stop to tourists visiting for the sole purpose of getting their cannabis fix. This realisation made me see Maastricht in a completely new light. It would have been quite a sight to see this charming little town before these laws were passed, with the streets packed with tourists wearing cheeky smiles on their faces, making their way to the Markt square for some KFC to satisfy their munchies…