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“We’re essentially standing in a giant fish cemetery”

“We’re essentially standing in a giant fish cemetery”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

North Caves tour guide

Hannah Vleugels/ 23/ third-year student of Arts and Culture/ gives three tours per week on average/ earning a little over 11 euros per hour

At St. Pietersberg hill, a bell rings to signal that the tours are about to begin. “If you have a ticket to the caves, please report to those ladies over there”, shouts the ticket seller. One of those ladies is Hannah Vleugels, who has been giving tours of the North Caves since May. “This is where you start out as a tour guide working for Maastricht Marketing”, she explains. “The information is quite manageable. Later, you can also give tours of Fort St. Pieter and the city.”

All tour guides follow an internal training programme to learn about the history of the caves and, quite importantly, to learn the way through the labyrinth. “You also join experienced colleagues on many of their tours to see how they tell stories, for example, or how they react to people who don’t listen to them.”

Although the high season is almost over, it’s a busy Sunday. With 35 participants, the group is full. Vleugels hands out torches and provides safety information. “If anything happens to me – first of all, please help me, I’d greatly appreciate it. And then take this yellow card from my coat pocket; it’ll tell you what to do.” After warning people taller than 165 cm to mind their heads, she leads the group into the caves.

Or, well – the caves? “Technically, these aren’t caves. Does anyone know why?” A woman in front knows the answer: caves form naturally, and these tunnels are man-made. “Ten points to you.”

The tunnels are composed of marl, a type of stone that was extracted here for years and was used to build many of the buildings in the old city centre of Maastricht. Marl is a very soft and wet stone that only hardens outside, drying in the sun. “Although it’s easy to extract a block down here, it was hard work. One block weighed a few hundred kilos and the stonecutters were only paid 11 cents per block. Nowadays there’s only one marl extraction company left, and much smaller blocks cost 100 euros each.”

The softness of the stone has also tempted many people to carve their names into the walls over the years. Vleugels points out one name: Roger. “But he did this in 1698, so we’re a little more appreciative of his efforts.” Someone in the group remarks that today’s graffiti will automatically become historical as well. “That’s true, and they’ll probably be happy with it 400 years from now”, Vleugels replies cheerfully. “But if I see you doing it, just remember I have a very heavy torch on me.”

The walls of the tunnels have various murals drawn in charcoal, the only material that will stick to the wet marl. Vleugels stops at a drawing of dinosaurs to tell us how the marl formed. “70 million years ago, Maastricht was a tropical sea. It was very shallow, only 40 meters deep, so there was a lot of life in it. When the fish died, their skeletons sank to the bottom of the sea. The pressure of the water compressed those bones, creating marl. So we’re essentially standing in a giant fish cemetery.”

Then it’s time for the most exciting part of the tour. The daredevils in the group are invited to walk down a corridor without side tunnels, in pitch-black darkness. Vleugels instructs all participants to keep one hand on the wall, confiscates their torches, and walks to the end of the corridor to wait around the corner. “You can’t see anything at all. Your eyes don’t get used to the dark either; there’s no light whatsoever for them to work with. Spend an hour in this darkness and you no longer know what’s ahead or behind, up or down.”

After a few more suspenseful stories about people getting lost in caves (“With groups of secondary school students, I tell these stories before starting the tour. They’re always very well behaved!”) and French soldiers with explosives, the tour is over. Doesn’t it ever get boring, telling the same stories over and over? “It’s different every time because of the interaction with people. You never know how they’re going to react.”



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