Months pass. When you are a solitary big-city escapee riding the city’s streets on a rattling Gazelle, you find yourself becoming more patient, more observant. In return, Maastricht starts revealing its mysteries. Their existence, anyway, if not their secrets, like a hand of cards in a complicated old Limburg game.
The hidden-in-plain-sight mysteries: George van Heukelom’s 1913 train station, trapgevels as sharp as if they’d been cut from the sky with the steadiest of hands. Inside, unnecessarily beautiful stained glass and tile reliefs grace both the extravagantly high main hall and a mysterious secret spot at the top of HEMA’s back wall, rarely spotted by the daily parade of visiting Hollanders buying just-like-home broodje rookworst, and pleased to be getting the maximum kilometres out of their goedkope treinkaartje day out.
The culinary mysteries: is Souren’s smallest vlaai, oozing with cherries and crunchy with sugar, more irresistible than Patisserie Royale’s gooseberry or Bisschopsmolen’s apricot? (More research needed). Who else, exactly, buys the packets of onze-lieve-vrouwtjes, sweets in the blurry shape of the Virgin Mary, from Blanche Dael? Does the sickly-sweet aftertaste of the horsemeat in Café Sjiek’s zoervleis come from the vinegar and appelstroop…or the guilt?
The mysteries in every street: why, in a country famous for front windows without curtains, lights blazing on spotless rooms, are Maastricht curtains shut? Why, in every front window, do the domestic treasures (always in pairs: busts, prancing stallions, Far East curios, pottery-class triumphs) face the street? Is it burgerlijk pride or sociable sharing? Or a bit of both?
The best mysteries: the things you find only when you become patient and observant. What year did the dust settle on the front-window merchandise – tortoiseshell combs, styptic pencils, Myrurgia Maja soap, nothing a pre-war customer would not recognise – of the Wycker Brugstraat chemist? It’s that funny old shop the tourists sail past, unaware that standing behind the till is Maastricht’s august philosopher-king, Servé – yes, Servatius, like the bridge, and the saint. And what year was that 1960s Spanish-holiday song a hit, the one playing in the Café Metropole? You hum along, and ponder, as the railway workers and Carnaval bandleaders finish their beer and pick up their carambole cues, and a tiny 90-year-old woman – she was the all-Netherlands ladies’ carambole champion, says Victor the barman – sips something strong, and watches them like a hawk.
Karen Shook, communications adviser/editor at the School of Business and Economics