At this point of the year, you may be under some pressure to impress: all your colleagues are either planning or reminiscing their trips to places with names that don’t even sound like real nouns, like Bali, Bora-Bora or Phuket.
There you sit, wondering whether you will get to go anywhere at all, thinking that maybe you shouldn’t have scoffed at your significant other when he was trying to make plans with all those weeks ago. That’s OK, you can knock them all out by scoring a triple whammy, with a three-day, three-city trip that will make it sound like you went in for major culture and history, but we all know it was about the food and shopping instead.
The cities of Maastricht, Brussels and Cologne are each almost exactly one hour from each other. All you have to do is get to one, and the other two will be there, within easy reach of such a small amount of driving that we shouldn’t even be calling this a road trip, but we will because that makes everything sound more exciting.
Each of our three cities sports a perfectly functional airport, with Maastricht’s being the smallest, only for regional flights. You can land in either Brussels or Cologne from anywhere in the world. If you choose to start your trip from Maastricht, I recommend landing in Eindhoven airport, which is small but takes in regular low-cost flights from Ryan Air and Transavia – Maastricht is only a 45 minutes train ride away.
Maastricht itself is possibly the quaintest, most charming city in the Netherlands, and that’s saying much since so many places in the Netherlands make a trade of looking charming and quaint. Hugging the Meuse river, this quiet, clean town has a rich religious history and vibrant social life, which reflects in the staggeringly beautiful churches scattered around its center, and a bustling main square.
That’s right, after all that flight planning and train riding, it’s time to enjoy a cool beer in one of the many fine establishments that ring the Vrijthof, Maastricht’s largest, most scenic square. Chances are you’ll have to fight off a throng of locals to get your place, and there’s likely going to be some kind of event that takes up the otherwise massive square, but once you’re sipping a lovely tall glass of white beer, you won’t have a care in the world. Maastricht is a walking city ladies, so pick your most comfortable shoes when you visit, because it’s going to greatly reward you for your inquisitiveness. Right on the main square, you can enjoy the Basilica of Saint Servatius, which looks stunning, and a couple of other churches whose names I won’t pretend I know.
The medieval theme continues with the lovely city wall, which comes with its own lovely little square. It translates to “Our Beloved Lady”, another religious reference to the city’s rich history, and you can ask for “Onse Lieve Vrouw”, both the wall and the square have the peaceful air of weighty centuries to them, and are a perfect stopping place to have another tall glass of the lovely white beer that they only know how to get right in the South of the Netherlands.
The list of amenities and curios continues, but make sure you don’t leave the city without finding the Market square, which features the picturesque town hall, right next to a modern obscenity that will offend you until you realise it’s a shopping center. Maastricht is a city to explore, and not be guided through.
There are museums, cities, vibrant street life and events all year round. It’s a city you enjoy street by steet on your own, or with a loved one. It will revitalize you for the rest of the trip.
Next up has to be Brussels. The seat of so many of the EU’s buildings and committees also happens to be a behemoth of a metropolis, except it studiously refuses to look like one. If Maastricht carries its centuries with joy, Brussels quietly shows off its millennia with grace. As well as being pretty awesome as I just wrote, Brussels is one of the most accessible cities I’ve visited in Europe. No trip to the centre of the European Union could be complete without visiting the Grand Place, and you can quite literally drive right up to it, in the very heart of the city, and park your car nearby.
Grand Place literally means “Great Square” and for once, it’s a well-deserved name that perfectly reflects the truth. Upon arriving by car or public transport, you’ll be presented with spectacular, precious paved roads lined with shops and crafts markets, and you’ll forget the name of the place, until you turn into the square proper, and are greeted with what is, essentially a space large enough to host any Olympic event you care to mention, without bothering the gentry taking their suppers at the restaurants that line the confines of this great space.
This is one of places that will properly define Stendhal Syndrome for you – everywhere you turn, there’s a piece of history, impressive, in dark stone, looming over you. There are wonders here, and each stone of each corner holds more history what we’ve all ever known and forgotten. It’s a good thing we’re here for the waffles, then! Sure, there’s history, and that disproportionately famous statue of that weeing boy, which by the way is only about 15 minutes away from the main square itself, but we only get one day in each down, and what you’re going to not leave Brussels without, is a fresh waffle with strawberries and whipped cream.
Finding a suitable eatery won’t be a challenge. In the crafts market section of the Grand Place, there are at least half a dozen establishments that sell freshly made, decorated-to-order Belgian waffles. You can have one at a table, or straight from the window as it’s delivered, and either way, you’re going to wish you had a month here just to sample every combination. You know how they say you never had pasta until you’ve had the homemade kind? Well, you can now walk around saying that you’ve never had a Belgian waffle until you’ve had it handed to you, fresh, in the heart of Brussels itself. You are welcome.
There is more than just dessert, here. Belgians have a near-fetishistic obsession with mussels. Turning away from the Grand Place, and taking any one of the small alleyways that branch out from one of the many shopping galleries that Brussels is dotted with, you’ll find a small network of interconnecting roads lined with typical mussel restaurants. Sure, all kinds of fish and meat are for sale here, but the common theme is the mussel plates, platters, combos, crates and buckets (for real) that they all offer to outbid each other.
Finally, you’re not allowed to leave Brussels unless you buy a bottle or two of proper abbey beer from one of the many specialty shops around the Grand Place. You may be able to get some of this stuff at home too, but there’s nothing like a cold bottle of Le Chouffe or Grimbergen to put some hair on your chest, and then make it fall off as well. A day is not enough for Brussels, just as it’s not enough for Maastricht, or any great European city, really. Each location can easily play host to a month-long holiday, and you’ll still leave not having seen everything. It’s time to move on, however, and hit Cologne.
This one may not be on the average tourist guide. It’s “that city in Germany with the cathedral, where all those conventions are”. That is true. Cologne may not hold its own against the majestic beauty of Brussels or the quaint joy of Maastricht, but it’s the one city you’ll be happy to only have one day in, because it’s one of Europe’s shopping cathedrals.
We had our walk, we had our food, it’s time to engage in some serious, high-end shopping, and Cologne is where you go for that kind of thing. So, right, there’s that famous cathedral that you can drive by, and then there’s a colossal amount of trade and business being done, but the place where you want to be is the Shildregasse and the Hohe Strasse – which means high street, and no street has ever been so appropriately named.
The amount of boutiques, shops, retailers and windows here is staggering. It will make you regret not being married to a billionaire oil baron, because this is exactly the place where you could bring such a man to tears. From Swatch to whatever your favorite brand is this year, you’ll find something that will make you wish you had a spare purse filled with credit cards for this place.
Of course, that’s just the beginning – these are the entry-level shopping streets, because once you hit the Mittlestrasse, we’re going to be dealing with the big names such as Dolce & Gabbana, Valentino and Missoni. Sorry ladies, I had to mention the place.