A Hidden World of Elves in Valkenburg

In Valkenburg aan de Geul, the Netherlands

I love Holland.  I love the unexpected little gifts it gives you.  I mean, here you are, headed to a little random town in the south of the country, specifically because you’ve read on some tourist site that they have a quirky Christmas market in a cave.  You think maybe you’ll be in the town two/three hours max.  And then you walk around the town, which you guess is not that exciting because you can’t find much information about it.  And then you wonder why no one has written more about it.  Then you go to the cave and it’s not quite what you’d expected, but much, much better.

True, the queues were pretty horrendous – but it’s because people are entering caves and they’ve obviously got to be careful about the numbers going in/out.  The queueing was worth it in the end, though, because the experience inside was really magical.

The Velvet cave (Kerstmarkt Fluweelengrot) is held in the marl caves below the Castle Ruins – it is, indeed, linked to the castle, and provided useful tunnels for quick get-aways and general protection.  The castle belonged to the counts of Valkenburg/Falkenburg and was regularly subjected to sieges – the last one being in 1672, when the Dutch destroyed it themselves to prevent its capture by the French army.  They didn’t bother rebuilding the castle, and the ruins took on a romantic air which, along with the beauties of the local landscape, proved a draw for tourists in the 19th century.

During the Second World War, Valkenburg was occupied by the Germans for four years.  It was liberated on 17th September 1944 by the American 30th Infantry Division.  There had been a strong resistance movement in the Limburg, and people were hidden in the numerous marl mines below the town, along with weapons (if the conditions allowed).  There is an article online which gives a very interesting overview of the kind of work these brave members of the resistance got up to, and reminds you of how plucky the Dutch were during the war: www.aachen-webdesign.de

The history of the caves does enhance the general experience of visiting the Christmas market.  The market stalls are varied and have a range of generic and more Dutch-centric items, which certainly make them interesting to explore in themselves.

I was suckered into wanting to create a Dutch village and may have acquired my first (and to date, only) little shop.

The Paintings

Seeing the paintings on the walls of the caves really was the icing on the cake.  They were fascinating.  Some of them are extremely well done, with great ambition, and great skill – some were a bit more simple but lively.  They were painted from the 18th century onwards and show different styles and approaches as well as a range of somewhat curious themes.

There is an 18th century chapel in the caves, which is very sweet, not least because all of the architectural detail is painted – there is only a small alcove in the altar, where they’ve placed a little gold cross.

 

Towards the end of the caves, there are a lot of silhouettes: these are representations of some of the American liberators of Valkenburg.  I found this really very moving – the need to pay respect to the men who’d brought back the locals’ freedom shows the depth of their gratitude.

As you get closer towards the end, there are fewer Christmas stalls, which means it’s a bit easier to focus on the paintings – and get decorating tips.

 

So In Summary

While researching this post I’ve discovered that little Valkenburg made it onto CNN Travel’s “15 of the best places to have a Christmas vacation”.  I haven’t been to the others on the list, but I definitely agree that Valkenburg deserves to be there because it’s truly unique.  There is a jolly vibe, and because of the controlled entry, it wasn’t so crowded that you started to panic about getting crushed.  I really hope to go back and see the other Christmas events in town – though I think I’ll arrive for opening time…

Further Information

Once you’re in the caves complex, I’m not sure how easy it would be to get out in a hurry, so those with mild claustrophobia should bear that in mind.  The ceilings can be both high and low, so again, it might not suit some people.

There is also an area with tables where you can have something simple to eat and rather good mulled wine.

Valkenburg aan de Geul is a small, pretty town that’s worth exploring.  It was extremely busy on the main streets, which are lined with eateries and drinkeries and little shops, some of which were more touristy than others.  We had a nice potter around – and took longer about it – than I anticipated.

For further information about the Velvet Caves, there is a website in numerous languages including English www.kerstmarkt-fluweelengrot.nl

There is also another Christmas market – the Municipal Caves (Gemeentegrot) – while at Mergelrijk, you can explore caves which tell the story of marlstone.  Sadly, I didn’t get the chance to visit either of these.

In town there is also a Christmas market – Santa’s Village – which was sweet and had a nice atmosphere.  If you can, try one of the poffertjes – these are just the most addictive mini-puffy pancakes, covered in butter and lashings of icing-sugar.  The icing-sugar goes everywhere, which makes you look like a cocaine-fiend.

We visited in December 2015.

Getting There

The Dutch public transport system is fantastically efficient and easy to use.  Their train website is available in multiple languages including English: www.ns.nl

You get in to the oldest still-used train station in the Netherlands.  It’s from 1853, and very attractive.

It’s a little walk from the train station to the town centre, and from there just head towards the Castle – you’ll see the queues for the caves and know you’re on the right track.

 

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