02.03.2013 -1 °C
I thought it was time to give a spiel about the historic city that I'm living in. The place is really old, disputably the oldest city in the Netherlands and this really adds to the character, something that Australia just doesn't quite have in the same way. Maastricht is situated in the southernmost tip of the Netherlands and the city is divided by the river Maas/Meuse down the middle and is surrounded by Belgium & Germany. It is basically as far away from the nations capital as possible, but only 2.5 hours away by train. This highlights how relatively small the country is...but also how good the trains are, they even have WiFi internet!
A brief history
Maastricht was originally part of the Roman empire and many cobblestone streets, battlements and towers still exist as testiment. Like everywhere in the Netherlands, there are lots of big Churches dominating the landscape, reflective of the original Roman occupation. Catholicism still represents the dominent organised religion, with around 1/4 of the population identifying. However around 1/2 the population doesn't identify with any organised religion; perhaps a reason for, or reflection of, the liberal views held on the soft drugs, gay marriage and sex etc. None the less, Maastricht is probably one of the more conservative cities of the Netherlands, possibly described as the 'Least Dutch city in the country'. Unlike the melting pot of Amsterdam, Maastricht follows a more relaxed pace and a more conservative view.
The citys history extends back to BC times, however Roman use began in 1 Century AD where a bridge was constructed. Prior to this in BC times, Celtics and even Neanderthals occupied the area, especially near shallow parts of the river to facilitate crossing. From 1st century AD the Roman bridge was vital as a means of trade and subsequently Maastricht became a small settlement.
During the Middle ages Maastricht grew as a city, still under Roman control, particularly expanding in 10th-12th centuries and was economically strong until the 15th century. This was due to the important location between Aachen (now in Germany) and Liege (Belgium) as well as locations further a field. Religious wars marred the cities growth until the 19th century. During this time the city was conquered by the spanish for 50 years, before being returned to Dutch control in 1632. Fortifications around the city were established as a way to protect the city, especially sought after due to its location on valuable trade & supply lines.
One of three musketeers!
The famous Three Musketeers have a special place in Maastricht history, as it is the location the 'd'Artagnan' suffered his fate as the French attempted to take the city in 1673, part of the Dutch-franco wars.
Coffee-Shops: Not a cafe
IN the netherlands the sale of soft drugs (Cannabis) is legal if it sold in a licensed, regulated & taxed store, referred to as a Coffeeshop. Coffeeshops are licensed to sell only Cannabis and cannot sell alcohol, however they sometimes sell coffee, drinks and snacks, as well as provide a place to smoke cannabis indoors. Maastricht and other cities close to the border implemented a plan to stop drug tourism, whereby sales could only be made to residents. This was to stop any antisocial behaviour by international customers who came solely for the purpose of consuming drugs. The initiative, as part of a national scheme, became unpopular and hence did not become implemented in Amsterdam. The employment provided by and economic benefits of the drug-tourism export is seen by many as outweighing the negative aspects. As a consequence, many Coffeeshops in Maastricht have closed, however people comment on a rise of illegal drug dealers, who are unregulated, and are likely to sell harder drugs, since the introduction of the new law.
The university that I'm studying at is separated into faculty schools across the city, with a central library in the city. The School of Business & Economics (SBE) that I study at is located in the inner city, and the various offices are spread across a mix of new and old buildings on the city block the SBE occupies. Maastricht is becoming an increasingly prestigious university as shown by its increase in the world universities rankings to #111. It ranks highly in other areas especially in the Business and Economics School. The work is naturally quite intense, and the 'semester' is divided into two blocks where students typically take only two courses concurrently but for a shorter period, unlike Australia where four courses are studied concurrently, less intensely, for a longer period. Regular students are also required to take a study skills course at the end of each semester. They also teach in english, which is essential for me unfortunately!
Geography & more
The river that gives the city it's name runs the length of the Netherlands, as well as through Belgium and then to its origins in France. On the river are various boats, some for shipping and others for tourism cruises to neighbouring areas. Most of the Netherlands is only just above sea level. The country is really flat which lends to the practicality of bicycles as a means of transport for everyone young and old. Parts of the Netherlands closer to the coast are actually below sea level due to huge land reclamation projects in the 19th century. Windmills were used to pump out water, and dykes are in place to keep the water out.
Bicycles & Roads
Bicycles are the best and cheapest way to get around. Every university student owns a bike! The whole country is really bicycle friendly with lots of paths and allocated bicycle lanes on roads make it easy. It did take me a while to get a hold of sticking to the right though, and I occasionally slip back into the keep left mentality. My bike is a really typical student bike; its really old, single speed and girls style. Its been resprayed and the brake is the 'back-pedal' style, and its not that efficient. But it gets me to uni and back quickly, and also to bars... So far I havent crashed, but its very flat and my single gear doesnt go fast. I dont think i've seen anyone wear a helmet, and by the same token I havent seen anyone fall or get injured. Most people ride at a relaxed pace and other road users are polite and cautious. I think pedestrians pose the biggest risk to stepping out in front of you!
The Dutch People
I really like the Dutch, they are really helpful and kind. I especially appreciate that they almost all speak some english, and they don't seem to mind that I dont speak Dutch. Nonetheless I want to be able to speak a bit more of the language just as a courtesy. Considering that many Australian would get easily frustrated if someone did not speak english, the Dutch are not reluctant to speak English to you. Almost 90% of Dutch people know English, and 70% speak German. Most Dutch speak multiple languages to some extent, and there is a strong focus on languages in schools. The Dutch are a very honest and frank people who don't beat around the bush. They have a good sense of humour, I think more akin to our humour than other European countries.
Finally, I though I should comment on the weather! It's not so great unfortunately, its cold and wet a lot of the time, or just overcast. Theres a real contrast between the colours of Australian summer; its so green at home in the photos whereas its dominated by much subtle-er colours of grays & browns. However its a tough comparison; the end of a European winter and a drenched warm climate in Australia.