Monday, January 9, 2012

Valkenburg Castle and Velvet Cave

We didn't have any big plans for this past weekend so we decided to take in some sights close to home. Valkenburg originally came to my attention because of its Christmas markets. Apparently one of them is underground in the caves! We didn't get a chance to go this year but I'm looking forward to it next year. In the meantime, there is still a lot to see in this picturesque city. We decided to tour the Valkenburg Castle ruins and the Fluweelengrot (Velvet Cave).

The drive from our house took only 35 minutes. It was a typical rainy, dreary day but green rolling hills dotted with lovely houses and church steeples brightened our moods.

Valkenburg is small and very easy to navigate on foot. We arrived almost an hour ahead of the next tour of the Velvet Cave so we amused ourselves with our new favorite hobby. It's a little game we like to call How Can We Afford to Live Here Permanently One Day. We wandered around aimlessly down main roads and quiet side streets marveling at homes and making guesses about the families who live there.
"I bet the dad is an architect and the mom is a professor."
"No... the house is probably hundreds of years old and they've inherited it. They probably have two children, a boy and girl of course, and they are perfect and cherubic."
"Wait! I bet they're both doctors. And they have a nanny and a chef. And a vegetable garden in the back."
"Of course! What an idyllic life the Dutch do lead."

2pm quickly arrived and it was time for the tour. When we bought our tickets, we were told the tour was in Dutch. We were given a sheet of paper with an English description of what the tour guide would say, and then we ignored a bit of crucial advice. The woman in the ticket booth told us to be sure to read the descriptions before the tour. Instead of reading, we spent the next 45 minutes walking around town imagining what Dutch people do for a living.

There were probably forty people in our group. We were taken to the entrance of the Velvet Cave and when the doors opened, we were greeted by darkness. "Oh," I thought. "This is why we were supposed to read the description beforehand. It's obviously dark in a cave."

Before I continue with the tour, here's a brief description of the Velvet Cave: It dates back to the 11th or 12th century and is the oldest cave in southern Limburg. Marl was mined there for use in the construction of the castle. The tunnel system is the result of the marl extraction. 

Our bubbly Dutch tour guide took his place at the front of the crowd and began leading us down into the labyrinth. We blindly (literally) followed everyone. Our guide stopped at various points along the way and animatedly told stories. I can only imagine how entertaining he was. I assume this was a delightful tour because everyone was laughing and participating heartily. We took our cues from the crowd. If everyone laughed, we laughed. When the crowd gasped with delight, so did we. This worked well for the duration of the tour.

I took lots of photos for us to reference later and even though we couldn't understand what the guide was saying, it was still incredible to be in the cave and to learn (later) about its extensive history.

In 1853, Valkenburg made the caves more attractive to a new influx of tourists. Some walls were smoothed  and then blackened with charcoal. Drawings illustrating Valkenburg's history were etched into the wall.
America also has its place in the history of the Velvet Cave. In September of 1944, the American army entered South Limburg. Heavy fighting in Valkenburg only took place during the last six days before the liberation on September 17th. Luckily Valkenburg itself didn't suffer much, but the people of the city did seek shelter in the local caves. About 600 locals stayed inside the Velvet Cave.

After the liberation, some of the soldiers received a few days of leave and stayed in Valkenburg to visit the Velvet Cave. The guide in those days, Willy van Akker, made several silhouettes of these soldiers.  

Etchings by American soldiers
In 1794, South Limburg became part of the French Republic. A new law required subjects to swear opposition to the French Royal House. Catholic priests who refused to take this oath could no longer serve as priests and many were captured and imprisoned. Those who wished to continue working were forced into hiding. Some sought refuge in the caves. The following photos are of the chapel.

After our underground journey and accidental immersion in the Dutch language, we made our way up to the castle ruins. Interestingly, Valkenburg Castle is the only elevated castle in the Netherlands. The first fortifications were probably built around 1115. Its story is like any you would imagine of a European castle. There were sieges that destroyed the castle, reconstructions, and takeovers. 

What's left today are beautiful ruins that transport you back in time to days of draw bridges and dungeons.

We ended the day with dinner in Maastricht, one of our favorite cities. There are several other places for us to visit in Valkenburg and I can't wait to return. I can imagine what it will look like when the weather is nicer and the sidewalk cafes are crowded. Perhaps by then I will also be able to understand Dutch. 

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