Just for a minute, imagine yourself basking in the invigorating waters of a luxurious outdoor whirlpool. As you peek through the steam rising around you, you gaze outwards across the wooded valley beyond and watch the sun set, feeling any tension you had built up over the last few weeks melt away under the warm jets massaging your shoulders. This was my experience on the first day of our holiday at Valkenburg aan de Geul last October, and I couldn’t stop grinning!
In my opinion, Valkenburg is a much better bet than following the annual crowds who head to more obvious Dutch destinations such as Amsterdam or the bulb fields of Bollenstreek. In the last few years, mass tourism has forced tourist officials in the Netherlands to look at ways of reducing the number of visitors heading to these famous tourist hotspots. Of course, 2020 has seen a reduction in tourists across Europe due to Covid-19 and now might not be quite the right time to take a trip to Europe. But if you are thinking further ahead and fancy somewhere a little different, might Valkenburg fit the bill?
Valkenburg aan de Geul is a town located in the teardrop shaped south of the Netherlands and lies in the province of Limburg. Although it is not a stranger to tourists, it’s less well known to British holidaymakers which is a shame, considering it is only a three and a half hour’s drive from Calais and just over two hours from Rotterdam. This makes it a perfect place to visit for anyone who is nervous of long-distance driving across Europe. Perfectly nestled between Belgium and Germany and commutable to France and Luxembourg, it’s a brilliant base if you are the type of tourist who prefers to seek out lots of new places when holidaying. What’s more, Valkenburg is well connected by rail and is only eleven minutes away by train to Maastricht, a vibrant university city with exciting shopping opportunities and beautiful architecture.
We stayed at Camping Den Driesch, located on a small hill only five minutes’ walk from the centre of Valkenburg. Despite being close to the shops, bars and restaurants of the town, the site itself was very peaceful, surrounded by hedging and offering fine views of the nearby castle which was lit up every evening. We went for a pitch with a hammock as I’m a sucker for anything gimmicky but there were many different pitches to choose from across the terraced campsite. There was a slightly sharp approach to the site which we noticed towing our caravan, which is fine as long as you approach from the south, along Daalhemerweg, after circumnavigating the roundabout, (if you travel from the north like we did). The site itself was welcoming and brilliantly located next to an adventure park which, for big kids like my husband and I, was fantastic! Agogo Park, ran adjacent to the site and was so close that we decided at several points during the week, to squeeze in a quick toboggan run and cable car ride along the hillside before we went out for dinner.
To many people, this location might not appear as tranquil as other holiday destinations. However, visiting during Autumn meant that we were able to enjoy relatively warm T shirt weather and still do everything we wanted, without having to worry about too many tourists. Every evening was restful. Yet, our proximity to the town’s amenities meant that we did not need to use the car for the entire week that we were there. The train station was a thirty-minute pleasant walk through the town from our site and we were happy to distract ourselves, with a little bit of shopping along the way.
For those who prefer not to camp, there are plenty of hotels located in the town centre which are easily accessible for all visitors. Hotel Janssen is a popular choice and can be found on the edge of the town a few paces from the shops and bars. It is also close to the caves and castle and currently has excellent reviews on Booking.com.
So, what else does Valkenburg offer? Here are 8 reasons why Valkenburg is perfectly suited for a mini or bigger adventure
The Cherry Vlaai
I’m so pleased that Valkenburg was the type of destination which encouraged you to walk everywhere. Had it not been, I’m sure I would have returned to the UK several kilograms heavier after our regular stops to the bakers for another piece of delicious Vlaai on the way to the train station, or for a walk in the nearby woods. This Cherry tart is a local speciality and to say it is moreish, is an understatement.
Home to one of the largest wellness centres in The Netherlands , it would be rude not to sample the delights of the thermal indoor and outdoor pools, sauna, steam baths, whirlpools and treatments on offer at Thermae 2000. The centre offers many different packages, but if you fancy something simple like we did, just pay for a 4 hour session where you can explore, relax and swim through the inside pools to the outside baths and soak up those views. Thermae 2000 also has a hotel if you want to indulge in a spa break and information about it can be found here. Just watch out for the costume free, (nude) bathing days by keeping an eye on the timetable found on the website- unless that’s your type of thing of course!
Caves of wonder
Dating from the C12th, the caves of Valkenburg are connected by a network of passageways used when the castle above, was under siege. They allowed the knights and their footmen to escape the castle and attack the enemy from behind or secretly bring supplies in. During the Second World War, the Velvet Cave served as a shelter for 600 local residents and became a field hospital for American soldiers after Liberation. The cave tours are fully accessible by wheelchair and dogs are welcome too.
A castle round tour
As well as the castle ruins in Valkenburg itself, you can visit a number of other castles if you walk along the Oosterweg wooded walk through the Sint-Jansbos woods, heading east out of Valkenburg. We navigated this network of paths which led us past two charming castles, Kasteel Oost and Schaloen castle. At our second castle stop we enjoyed another slice of, (you guessed it!), Cherry Vlaai and a delightful meal at the Brasserie Kasteel Schaloen. You can actually stay at this picturesque national monument which is believed to have been built in the C12th. The castle’s elegant beauty surrounded by its moat is an alternative to a hotel in Valkenburg which is only twenty minutes’ walk away. Continue your walk eastwards to the village of Schin op Geul and you can catch a train back to Valkenburg, a few minutes ride away.
Valkenburg is one of our favourite European towns for many reasons, but it is the friendliness which we encountered from the locals which is the biggest reason why we would return. Many Dutch people seem to like us Brits and on our visit to Valkenburg we were made to feel extremely welcome. English was widely spoken too. Their brilliant sense of humour, as well as their directness was refreshing, and Cherry, our four pawed furball, was welcome anywhere we wanted to eat.
The buzz of Valkenburg town
The sheer variety of eateries which we could choose from was a delight. Most bars and restaurants offered outside seating where in the evening it was hard to imagine we were not in some Mediterranean resort further south. The holiday atmosphere spilled out onto the crisscrossing walkways and over the Geul river. Castle walls intermingled with individual shops and boutiques, selling more traditional as well as out of the ordinary souvenirs to take home. Valkenburg Museum on the other hand, housed art and history exhibitions showcasing the local culture of the region. Valkenburg attracts many visitors at Christmas too, when many of the town’s Christmas markets are held in the caves. I think this is why the locals were so friendly. There is plenty to like about this small town.
In addition to the two amusement parks on the outskirts of Valkenburg, (De Valkenier and the Sprookjesbos or ‘fairy tale wood’), was Agogo Park. Running alongside our campsite and hosting a crazy golf course, summer toboggan run, cable car, tubing rides and a laser quest experience, this park provided a huge amount of fun during our stay. The fact that it closed at 6pm at the latest, meant that our campsite was not disturbed through the night, ensuring that we could fully recharge our batteries.
As already mentioned, Valkenburg is easy to get to from Rotterdam’s ferry terminal and the Eurotunnel terminal at Calais. Its train station is located to the north of the town and is well connected to mainline services. Maastricht, a university town lying along the River Meuse, was a brilliant day out and we admired the beautiful basilicas and spacious squares surrounded by stunning architecture. Cherry enjoyed both the river boat and “bendy bus” tour of the city, skulking away from any over friendly tourist. She took the eleven-minute train ride from Valkenburg in her stride and received many smiles from other rail passengers. We just didn’t have the time to squeeze everything in and were sad that we missed out on visiting many other places nearby. In just over an hour’s drive away, we could have visited Aachen, (home to the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in Germany), and Cologne, (famous for its fragrance, one of Europe’s largest cathedrals and Rhine river cruises).
If you’re the type of tourist who likes the buzz of big cities, heading to well known destinations and ticking top tens off their lists, Valkenburg probably isn’t for you. It doesn’t have the oldest castle or the tallest hill in the Netherlands but what it does have is character, charm and a bucketload of things to do for a great holiday and break from the norm. And that spa? Mmmmmmm……
For more information on the latest Covid regulations for travel to the Netherlands now and in 2021 visit https://www.government.nl/topics/coronavirus-covid-19/tourism-in-the-netherlands