Maastricht: Maas transit in the deep south of Holland

The man who pays his way

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The Independent Online

For a different December destination, I commend Maastricht. While most of northern Europe shivers, this southern Dutch outpost claims to be the sunniest spot in the Netherlands. It has a formidable number of places to eat and drink, many of them al fresco. A month of festivities starts this weekend, with artistic light installations embellishing the Christmas market in the city centre.

Why the funny name? The Romans called the first settlement here Mosae Trajectum – "ford over the river Mosa" (now Maas). Evidence of Rome's rule is readily apparent: just follow the staircase down from the reception desk of the Derlon Hotel to see part of a Roman forum. They started extracting limestone from that rare phenomenon, a Dutch hill, and, 2,000 years on, you can explore the mines they began.

During the Second World War, nearly 800 Old Masters, including Rembrandt's Night Watch, were stored in the tunnels for safe-keeping. Had the city become a battleground, it was planned for 50,000 citizens of Maastricht to take shelter in these shafts. Three chapels, a hospital and a bakery were installed just in case, but the option was never invoked.

The south of Limburg, the province which Maastricht commands, dangles from the rest of the Netherlands by a thread barely wider than the A2 motorway and parallel railway line. It is an island of Dutchness sandwiched between Belgium and Germany. On the second and fourth Sundays of the month, a "Pancake Cruise" runs up the Maas and down again at 2.30pm. For €21.25 you get a two-hour boat trip and all the bacon, apple and pancakes you can scoff on board. How Dutch is that?

Aviation revolution

Maastricht is closer to Cologne, Luxembourg and Brussels than it is to the Dutch capital, Amsterdam. A symbolic place, then, to seal a deal binding Europe closer, which is why the Maastricht Treaty was signed here by not-yet-Sir John Major in 1992, Yet eight years earlier, not-yet-Sir Richard Branson had begun to bring the people of Europe together by offering affordable air fares, with the very first venture into low-cost scheduled flying in Europe.

The British and Dutch had just signed a treaty on the novel idea of "open skies," allowing independent airlines to compete against state-owned carriers such as BA and KLM. At the time, the Virgin founder was getting his transatlantic venture off the ground. He saw that a Maastricht connection could feed his new Jumbo jet to New York. German and Belgian travellers, denied cheap international travel by their governments, could nip across to the Dutch city, fly to Gatwick and transfer to the Virgin Atlantic 747 to the US. After a few years, Branson decided to concentrate on long-haul flying, and the Maastricht link was lost. Today, you can fly to the city from anywhere you like as long as it's Southend – spiritual home of another aviation pioneer, Sir Freddie Laker.

With a doff of my travel hat to both of them, I boarded the Flybe plane to Maastricht.

When Virgin Atlantic started flying to the Netherlands 30 autumns ago, the London-Maastricht fare was £20. Since then, consumer prices (and the cost of aviation fuel) have trebled, and Air Passenger Duty has been introduced. So I was delighted to pay only £39, of which one-third went straight to that nice George Osborne in tax. I didn't feel ripped off by the Chancellor, because the trip was still absurdly cheap. But I was fleeced on the journey in and out of the city of Maastricht itself.

Double Dutch fares

The Flybe plane touched down early in Maastricht, at 10am, but not quite early enough. The airport bus schedule appears designed to ensure that passengers from Southend emerge from the terminal just in time to see the 10.04am bus from the airport disappear. So, I teamed up with a Bulgarian chap who had been on the same flight to get a taxi. The airport is only five miles north of the city. What would a reasonable fare be? I guessed €15-€20.

Five minutes after we started we were back at the airport but on a different side of the road, The meter was already €10 and climbing. By the time we reached the outskirts of Maastricht, where my new Balkan buddy was bound, the fare was €35. I hopped out, too, rather than risk paying more for a five-mile hop into town than for a 250-mile international flight.

To leave Maastricht, I chose the train. I already had a ticket home from "Any Belgian station", so I just needed a ticket to the nearest station in Belgium: Vise, seven miles away. Travelling from Vise to Maastricht, Belgian Railways charges a fare of €3.40. Going south, Dutch Railways applies an "international surcharge" of €3.50 – more than doubling the fare and making it, mile-for-mile, one of the most expensive rail trips in Europe. Next time, I shall depart upstream by boat to Liège. It costs twice the train fare (€14.50), but provides a two- or three-hour voyage through some of the highest landscapes in the Low Countries.

Weird transport seems a feature of Maastricht, because it is the only place I know of that offers city tours on a 30-year-old American school bus. You may know that these uncomfortable yellow vehicles re-define "no-frills travel," especially in Central America where they comprise the over-stuffed backbone of the travel industry. The standard transportational joke is:

Q: How many passengers can you get on a Nicaraguan bus?

A: Two more