Our journey took us to Zuid-Limburg (Southern Limburg), in the farthest of farthest tip of The Netherlands; a land that is so untypical of my flat homeland that it feels like another country.
The locals speak a lingo that is a cross between German and something entirely different, which enhances the 'abroad!' feeling. With my natural feel for languages, I could make out approximately 1 in 3 words. And it is hilly! And it has marl caves and quarries and narrow rivers which actually have (tiny) rapids.
We stayed in a small village called Hulsberg, in a nice country hotel called the Hof van Hulsberg, situated in a traditional Southern Limburg farmhouse. These farms are built in a carré, with a large courtyard in the middle.
From my front door to Hulsberg is a 3-and-a-bit hour drive, a skip and a jump for you Americans-and-other-large-countries-dwellers, but to me quite a trip, which necessitated a break in the middle for coffee and lunch.
Hulsberg is tiny, but like many villages in Southern Limburg it is built around a huge Catholic church, visible from the hotel terrace.
The next day we opted for one of the most touristy towns in Limburg, namely Valkenburg.
Valkenburg was built around a keep, and later a large castle and keep, dating from the 10th century but a ruin since William the IIIrd decided to blow it up to keep it from falling into the hands of Napoleon. Tourist trap though it may be, it is a charming town, with a nice car-free centre chock-a-block with bars and restaurants, and boasting 'the best beer terrace of The Netherlands 2015' right along the river Geul.
Well, too good to resist, right, especially since the weather was great?!
I had an Emperor Charles V blonde beer, and it was absolutely wonderful. But in case you were wondering what other beers they had, here is only a third of their stock:
Valkenburg was charming, and Mum loved it, although the hilly streets proved too much for her and we had to forgo the planned trip to one of the marl caves.
The next day promised to become a scorcher - up to 29 degrees C, which for us Dutchies is like walking in a desert. Maastricht was quickly abandoned as a destination, and we opted for a day in the zoo instead, as it is laid out in woodland.
Gaia Zoo in Kerkrade is only a 15 minute drive from Hulsberg and in 2015 has won the prize for the best Dutch Zoo four years running.
We loved it!
The architect has made very clever use of the hills and woodlands, and has created a beautiful parkland with plenty of space for the animals. It is subdivided into Taiga, Savanna, Rainforest and Limburg (with indigenous species). Yes, sure, they are in cages...but the cages are large and with greenery, shade and natural bathing water for all of them.
For instance, where in Rotterdam Blijdorp Zoo the huge infamous silverback gorilla Bokito* is banned behind inches thick plate glass and electrified fences and always makes a thoroughly depressed impression on me, in Gaia the 25 yr old silverback Makula sat in the sunshine on his large green island, surrounded by his family with several females and frolicking youngsters and looked sort of peaceful.
(*Bokito escaped some years ago by jumping the moat surrounding his pen and mauled a woman who had been harassing him for months, created havoc in the nearby restaurant by throwing chairs around and caused families to flee in panic. Mind you, he only taught that woman a lesson, in my opinion, as he did not kill her, and he did not harm anyone else. But he has paid his price)
We enjoyed ourselves tremendously and I had a righteous feeling because I walked off the nice lunch in the zoo restaurant by pushing Mum in her loan wheelchair up and down those hills all day in the blazing heat.
This gorgeous Ibis sat down next to us, close enough to touch. But I resisted.
So. Southern Limburg. Whenever you are in the neighbourhood, go check it out!