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An underground cave adventure in Maastricht

Stiphout river cruise
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start stop bwd fwd
 

 

By Jackie Chow

 

If you’re looking for a bit of adventure while in Maastricht, consider a combination of a pleasant boat tour on the river Meuse (Maas) and making an exciting and adventurous trip through history while exploring the extensive network of underground caves of St. Pietersberg.

 

Besides the boat /cave exploration tour, Rederij Stiphout offers a variety of boat tours on the Meuse, including a Saturday night dinner- or a brunch cruise, a boat trip through the historical harbor, a day trip to the Belgian city of Liège and others. The company also offers city tours through historic and modern Maastricht with their American school busses.


After a pleasant 20-minute ride on the outside deck of the boat, we were greeted by our guide Ton at the dock. A short gentle climb brought us to the unassuming entrance to the Zonneberg caves. Ton explained that the absence of artificial lights and things like flashy signs is intentional, since the aim is to make the experience more adventurous than touristic. Our only source of light was Ton’s gas lamp. He assured us that he did bring a flash light as well with several spare batteries. The temperature in the caves is about 10 degrees Celcius year-round, so it’s a good idea to bring a warm sweater or jacket and wear some proper walking shoes when visiting the caves.


The caves are man-made, and were formed through the mining for limestone, which was used for building houses, churches and castles. Since Roman times block breakers did the back-breaking work of manually cutting the huge blocks of limestone with saw and chisel. The extraction of limestone continued for centuries. Until the start of more recent open quarry mining, the length of the caves was over 200 km. Now the remaining caves have a length of about 80 km. The tour covers a length of less than a km, but it feels much longer because there’s so much to see. Throughout the centuries, inscriptions and paintings were added on the walls of the caves, leaving us with an amazing history in time. As more limestone was carved out, the floor of the caves was lowered, and many of the oldest inscriptions and paintings are now higher up, unreachable to curious human hands and therefore fortunately better preserved.


The network has also been used for other purposes than just for the extraction of limestone. Due to its strategic position, Maastricht found itself being attacked at various times throughout history, and the caves served as shelter for the inhabitants of Maastricht. During the Second World War, the caves provided protection for over 40,000 people. There was a bakery, a chapel, and even a hospital was set up inside the caves.


Instead of taking the boat back, we decided to go for a stroll around St. Pietersberg Hill before walking back to Maastricht. We passed by the historic Estate Lavante, now in use as “Grand Café” , a romantic place where you can enjoy the grand view as well as a nice lunch or piece of vlaai (the traditional pie from the province of Limburg) with coffee. Here you’ll also find the oldest and likely the smallest vineyard in the Netherlands.


We were hoping to visit Fort St. Pieter on our way back to Maastricht, but unfortunately we found it was closed due to construction. The fort was built in 1701/1702 to defend Maastricht from attacks by the French from the south. English tours are available for either just the Fort, or in combination with the North Caves.


It’s possible as well to arrange just an underground tour of the caves, the casemates (underground passageways that were dug between 1575 and 1825 for the purpose of providing shelter during times of siege), or Fort St. Pieter directly with Maastricht Underground at the Tourism Office (VVV).