“Do you dare go underground? Not afraid of the dark? No light, no sound, no smell, no radiation, no pollution, no mobile phone signal, no idea of time… Go exploring in the caves below the St Pietersberg Hill.”
That was how the Maastricht Underground website lured me in to buying tickets to an underground tour of the North Caves, one of Maastricht’s top tourist attractions. Located a mere 15 minute walk from the city centre, the North Caves are just one of the underground networks of caves that lie beneath the St Pietersberg Hill, which is topped by a fort that dates back from 1701.
The tour seemed like a great idea, until the morning greeted us with heavy rain and winds that made the slight incline of the uphill walk a real challenge, and rendered my small umbrella not so effective. This was especially traumatic since I’d donned my cashmere winter coat, designer jeans and brand new leather high-tops for the occasion – having read that Maastricht was the fashion capital of the Netherlands, I’d packed only my finest threads for this weekend trip.
After what seemed like an eternity, we reached the meeting point for the tour at the top of the hill, with our bodies and spirits dampened. We found solace in the fact that we were surrounded by dozens of other soaked tour-goers who’d also made the rainy trek to see what were essentially some underground rocks, and cheered ourselves up by telling ourselves it could only get better from here. When our guide arrived and led us to the cave entrance, my spirits sank again – with nothing but a marshland of puddle-ridden grass between the meeting place and the cave entrance, my soaked designer outfit was now completely covered in mud.
I was glad to finally enter the caves where the dim lighting could hide my sorry state. But an hour after walking through a labyrinth of corridors and seeing drawings and other remnants left by those who’d worked there as miners or had sheltered there for refuge in times of war, I had to admit that it was an extremely interesting and worthwhile sight to have seen. As we approached the stream of natural light that signaled the exit was near, I held out hope that the earlier rain had now been replaced by sunshine. But we were again greeted by heavy rain and a good dose of mud. We made our way back to the centre of Maastricht, but not before hailing a cab…
I’m not a big fan of the dark. When I was a child I would always sleep with a light on, and even now I am uncomfortable in complete darkness. So it seemed a little silly to go out of my way to visit one of the darkest places known to man: the North Caves of St Pietersberg in Maastricht.
Soaked from head to toe, we passed through a muddy paddock and reached the entrance to the caves with mud on everything but my camera. At least we were underground now! I was surprised to see our guide turn on two gas lanterns before we proceeded further into the caves. For some reason I had expected the caves to be well lit with a clear, designated path to follow. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The two lanterns were our only source of light for the next hour. We were shown a map of the cave system that had been carved into one of the cave walls and I was blown away by the size and intricacy of the cave network. The labyrinth currently has 8,000 passageways, measuring a total of 80 kilometres in length. We were warned not to wander off and get separated from the group because it is very easy to get lost, and very difficult to be found again.
It was explained to us that the caves weren’t actually caves but instead a giant man-made labyrinth created hundreds of years ago by cutting out blocks of limestone to build houses, churches and castles. The walls created by carving out these blocks are now covered with names and drawings dating as far back as the 1700s. The caves were used for shelter by the people of Masstricht during times of war, and some parts of the caves really feel like an underground city – ovens, wishing wells and even a mushroom farm can still be found in parts of the caves.
The North Caves are fascinating and I could have happily walked around for hours. At the end of our hour-long tour our guide took us to a dead-end corridor where we could experience the complete darkness and silence of the caves. He walked away taking the lanterns with him while we stayed behind and waited. The cave slowly started to get darker until I couldn’t see my own hand in front of my face anymore. It was pitch black and completely silent. My eyes did not adjust at all and it was hard to keep balanced. It was frightening to imagine being lost in the dark caves without knowing when or if you’d ever see light again. As we approached the exit to the caves, I’d never been so happy to see light – even the cloudy, rainy kind!
Luikerweg 71, 6212 NH Maastricht