South Limburg is a somewhat atypical region for the Netherlands. Its rolling hills are scattered with vineyards and castles, there are plenty of cycling and hiking routes to explore and ex-mining cities such as Heerlen provide an enjoyable cultural touch. Trot Op! went exploring and came back with 6 things you should not miss on your weekend in South Limburg.
Looking for a region in the Netherlands as little Dutch as possible? Then get your ass to South Limburg. It actually has – don’t get spooked – slightly rolling hills. As a result, unlike in the rest of the country, you can’t look all the way to Amsterdam by simply standing on a medium-high chair here. Another atypical feature of South Limburg is that it’s full of vineyards. Yes indeed: there is such a thing as Dutch wine, and quite miraculously it’s even tasty as well. And not even a whole army of mouth-foaming, ‘Quel sacrilège!’ screaming Frenchmen will be able to remedy that. Tough luck, mes amis!
“Looking for a region in the Netherlands as little Dutch as possible? Then get your ass to South Limburg.”
In short: not an ugly part of The Netherlands, South Limburg. In many places it’s more reminiscent of a mix of the Belgian Ardennes and the French Provence (see also: Gaume) than of the tulip fields, windmills and tiny little smurf houses you’ve seen in rest of the country. Anyone who drives through Dutch Limburg quickly realizes it’s very similar to its Belgian counterpart. You don’t have to go to college to figure this out: they’re right next to each other. Both are green ex-mining regions that have reinvented themselves in recent decades. The inhabitants are diverse and modest, and express themselves in an endearing dialect that goes up and down as cheerfully as the hills surrounding them. Indicating South Limburg on a map doesn’t require any genius either. It’s the lower appendage of the country dangling carelessly between Germany and Belgium, with Maastricht and Heerlen as the main cities. You could pretty much call it the ball sack of the Netherlands, but I don’t think they’d appreciate that there so I won’t. #balsackofthenetherlands
A weekend in South Limburg: mines, wines and castles
When I was invited to visit South Limburg with a number of other travel bloggers, I did so with a certain anticipation. This was mainly because they wouldn’t just dump us in some crappy bungalow, but in an imposing castle instead – one that can be booked by groups with Beaujean Vacances. On top of that, I was the only man in the company, so I would be spending the weekend with four lovely ladies in a castle in the forest. This made me think of Beauty and the Beast, but with four Belles and no sentient cutlery. There wasn’t much time to cosplay our favorite fairy tales though. We hadn’t driven all this way to sit on our asses. In a day or two we explored just about the entire region. We learned about the local mining history, dived headfirst into the beautiful nature and discovered all kinds of street and other arts. And sipping a glass of wine under a picturesquely setting sun never killed anyone either. Here are six things you should definitely see and do on your weekend in South Limburg.
1. Castles in South Limburg: sleep like a king in Strijthagen Castle
The beautiful Castle Strijthagen near Landgraaf served as our South Limburg home base, and this turned out to be quite spectacular. This complex, which in its current form dates from the 16th to 18th century, stood abandoned for a long time, but is now managed by the Taratynov family. They rent it out to guests, but also use it to display their art. It features a large terrace overlooking a fishing pond, nine bedrooms for two to four people, two dining rooms and a fully equipped kitchen. Each room was painted by the daughters of the house in the style of a well-known artist and feels completely unique. On the first floor is the Chinese room, in which a four-hundred-year-old canopy bed carved from talking magic trees was placed. Since each of us had seen enough horror movies to realize which room usually houses the first victim, we all decided to bunk up somewhere else. Apart from the wandering Ming Dynasty spirits, this is a lovely place to spend a weekend in. Especially with a large group of friends or family. If everyone pays their part and all rooms are occupied, it’s cheaper than your average hotel.
2. ArtLand: a sculpture park around the water
The Taratynovs are a family of artists, and because Strijthagen Castle was not big enough to showcase their entire collection, they also filled the park around with all kinds of sculptures and installations. They named it ArtLand and you can visit it today. The most impressive work of art stands right in front of the castle’s entrance and is a representation of Rembrandt’s Night Watch in life-size bronze statues. The rest of the art is spread over the courtyards and the trail around the pond. Whoever goes for a stroll here is sure to walk past a lot of beautiful and strange sculptures. My personal favourite was a giant bronze bulldog named Winston (after Churchill). The castle cellar is also full of peculiar works of art, and in one of the attic spaces the lady of the house exhibits her collection of paintings. There are a number of portraits of the family members themselves, some of which fairly undressed. Always nice to suddenly realize while on a tour led by the actual person. www.artland.top
3. Heerlen: former mining city with a new face
Just like its Belgian equivalent, South Limburg was a real mining region until well into the last century. In Heerlen – a city dating back to Roman times – almost everyone had a link with the mines. This turned out to be pretty shit in hindsight, because when those same mines suddenly closed in the seventies, half the city was out of work. As a result, Heerlen degenerated into the Charleroi of the Netherlands: a rundown robber’s den full of junkies and toothless prostitutes. Around the turn of the century, Heerlen was known as the most dangerous city in the country, so the government decided to do something about it. The dirt was cleaned off the streets, the addicts were kicked out, interned or processed into soap bars (one of these three is a lie: can you guess which one?) and cameras were installed all over the city centre to significantly reduce the number of break-ins. This turned out to work wonders, and after a while the city started to focus more on art and culture. Today you can visit the Dutch Mining Museum here, and in the imposing SCHUNCK Glass Palace (it had to have a name I guess) there are beautiful exhibitions to marvel at – during our visit, it was Keith Haring – and all over the centre daring modern architecture was built. Heerlen might still not be the most beautiful city in the Netherlands, but at least it’s interesting. www.schunck.nl
4. Enjoy an abundance of street art in Heerlen
Heerlen was not only cleaned up in the past two decades, a lot of walls have also literally been given a fresh layer of color. The city now boasts a truly huge amount of graffiti, so much so that today Heerlen is called the street art capital of the Netherlands. From 2013 onwards, this was a deliberate focus, and the popularity of the first few murals ensured that more and more residents made their own walls available. The offer is now quite varied, and ranges from small hidden drawings to impressive works that cover whole buildings. On some murals the history of the city is showcased: from images of the Roman legion to literal canaries in the coal mines. You can go on a tour led by a local artist, or just download the Street Art Cities app and discover the more than 300 works on your own time. The choice is yours.
5. The Three Country Point: go and cross some borders
South Limburg is a great hiking region full of hollow roads, forests and wide panoramas. Did you know however, it also allows you to – like Homer Simpson in Australia – hop from the Netherlands to Belgium or Germany and back? You can do this at the Three-country point near Vaals (The Netherlands) and Gemmenich (Belgium). Here a number of watchtowers were built, so you can look out over all three countries for miles. At the actual border point, the national flags are displayed and a mixed bag of tourist stuff was developed. Across the German border you can go mountain biking, in the Netherlands you can explore a labyrinth and in Belgium (who could have guessed) you can do nothing at all as far as I know. Vaalserberg, near the maze, is the highest point in the Netherlands – less than 100m from the Belgian border. Visiting the Three-country Point is not the most exciting adventure you can experience in South Limburg, but the surrounding area is beautiful and it’s a fun place to have seen. If only to realize how easy the EU makes it for us to travel from country to country. In the not so distant past, we would all be waiting in line with our passports.
6. Domein Holset: drink some Dutch wine
As mentioned above, there is quite a bit of wine to taste in South Limburg. It’s the most important wine region in the country and it now has more than twenty different wine growers. It’s not warm enough for red wines, but everything else is produced here. We decided to end our weekend with a few glasses in Domain Holset near the German border. Here they make sparkling wine, and you can taste it in all its variants. The best place to do so is from the little bench looking out over the vineyards. Those of you who don’t want to drive back home piss drunk can spend the night here as well. Seven beautifully decorated rooms and one holiday home for eight people are waiting for you. Everybody happy! www.domeinholset.nl
Restaurants and Hotels in South Limburg
A stay at Castle Strijthagen is highly recommended. The castle is just one of many beautiful options you can book through Beaujean Vacances. Those who surf to their website can choose from a whole collection of holiday homes in South Limburg and the rest of the province, but also in Belgian Limburg, the Ardennes, the Eifel in Germany and the Voer region. www.beaujean-vacances.com
We visited a number of top restaurants during our trip. A small selection:
On our first evening we had to prepare our own food in the castle kitchen. This was done under the expert guidance of chef Frank Van Wissen, who can be booked for workshops and events. www.kokkiediekookt.nl
We had lunch in Mijn Streek in Heerlen: a beautiful brasserie on the top floor of SCHUNK Glass Palace. The roof terrace looks out over half the city. www.mijn-streek.nl
Also very good was Winselerhof in Landgraaf (near the castle) where we were served a multicourse tasting menu. www.oostwegelcollection.nl/winselerhof/
The next day we had lunch in Gerardushoeve, on a terrace offering a great view on the surrounding landscape. The place also serves as a starting point for a number of nature walks. We took a five kilometer walk, from Epen to Erperheide.
For more information about South Limburg as a destination, surf to www.visitzuidlimburg.nl
Do you have any questions about South Limburg? Have you been there yourself? What were your favorite places or activities? Did I overlook something? Please let me know in the comments below.