As I have about a month left in Maastricht, I’ve been focusing on how to make the most out of it. There’s always the temptation to take part in more activities, to spend even more time with the friends I’ve made here, and to try more types of food. However, one urge I’ve felt in particular since Period 1 ended – largely borne out of the realisation that there are so many places nearby that I haven’t been to yet – has been to travel as much as I can.
So after earmarking my desired destinations and making a fairly aggressive travel plan, which involved going somewhere nearly every weekend, I set about following through on them. There are still a few weeks to go and so a few places left to visit, but so far it’s been extremely enjoyable to tour around. While I’ve also been to the likes of Austria while here, below I’ll just talk about the places I’ve visited in the Netherlands and in its two neighbours, Belgium and Germany.
Within the Netherlands, Amsterdam is the obvious standout destination. It’s a crazy city, always teeming with people and energy at all times of the day. It also has a lot of diversity in terms of what it offers; regardless of your personality and preferences – it doesn’t matter if you’re an art lover or a history buff or even an aimless drug addict – there’s always something for you here. Den Haag is a lot more low-key in that respect, but is still worth a visit if you think you’d appreciate the couple of politically important buildings or the beaches or dunes that it has. Eindhoven in contrast has, to be honest, little for tourists to see or do in general, but I went there when it was having a Glow Festival, which was quite interesting (though not particularly spectacular). Also, I think it has the nearest Primark from Maastricht, which I suppose counts as a plus point. Amongst other places, I’ll be visiting Rotterdam, which I’ve heard is really modern and well-maintained, and Utrecht in the coming weeks.
I liked Brussels a lot; it conveys a strong sense of professionalism and ambition, while maintaining a certain level of homeliness – you tend to walk around admiring what this city has on offer and the way it lives its life, while feeling extremely comfortable despite being a visitor amidst it all. Antwerp is a great blend of the new and old, with some magnificent buildings from the yesteryear that for a second make you forget the bustling hive of activity stemming from the malls and shops that surround you. It also has strong historical elements embedded in all corners, so if you’re not in a rush I’d advise you to spend some time exploring the place closely. If you’re looking for a place that has a quieter and more rustic charm while maintaining a certain level of vibrancy, then Ghent is the city for you; nearly everything about the city is pretty, from its endearing juxtaposition of buildings of extremely different colours, shapes and sizes to its quirky canal-side bars and eateries to its unique medieval structures and museums. Especially given that it doesn’t take long to cover, this city is well worth a visit! You also have Liege, which is particularly nearby (on the weekend, tickets there are especially cheaper) and usually doesn’t have much in particular to offer visitors, bar this enormous flea market they have on Sundays (though I’m not sure if it’s across the whole year) at La Batte. There’s also Brugge, which I’ll be visiting only next week but is the Belgian city I’ve heard the most glowing reviews of from my parents and my friends who’ve been there.
Aachen in Germany is a popular hangout for many here since it’s just about 50 minutes away. Small, cosy and surprisingly a lot more crowded than you’d expect, Aachen has enough to see for at least half a day. If you’re nearby towards the end of the year, perhaps it would be best to plan your visit when its highly-rated Christmas Markets are up and running. Also, do try out Aachen Printen, a variety of gingerbread native to this town. Cologne is a lovely place as well; even if you’re just passing by it, you should at the very least set aside an hour or so to see its Cathedral, if nothing else. Bonn is a lot more low-key, but is probably a must-go if you’re a fan of Beethoven (who was born and grew up here). Munich is far from Maastricht, and most here seem to go there exclusively for the Oktoberfest. This is not too surprising, because a large part of what people associate with the city and its culture, is beer. In my opinion, while this isn’t incorrect in any way, there’s plenty else to appreciate about this cosmopolitan city, from its food and its attractions to the ways of its people. Travelling all the way there from Maastricht might put you off, but I would recommend it as part of any separate trip you make to that region. Another city that’s quite far away but I would strongly recommend you visit if you haven’t already is Berlin, where I very recently spent 3 days. Berlin has nearly everything – it’s cool, cultured, creative and has plenty of history. It’s one of those places you could set out aimlessly in and then, hours later, find yourself just half-way through a museum or happily lost in an alley of astonishing street art and quirky bars and shops. It’s one of those places that really has a flavour of its own, one that is strong enough to be felt by all but leaves room for each to internalise it in his or her preferred way.
A Few Tips
There’re a lot of things you can do to maximise your travel experiences; of course, you have all your standard pieces of advice – check the weather and then dress and equip yourself accordingly, bring the necessary travel documents along, bring enough cash, be open-minded etc etc.
5 other things I’d recommend doing are:
1) Hunt for and stay alert to travel discounts and deals, and make trade-offs/decisions that suit you. Something noteworthy about going to any of these places in the Netherlands is that there’re Facebook pages that allow you to form (virtual) groups with others travelling to the same destination to get tickets to and fro for as low as 7 euros. This makes it worth it even to make multiple day trips to these places, especially if you want to avoid the hassle of making hostel or other accommodation bookings. Of course, while you tend to save some money, you also lose the additional time you spend travelling, so it depends on how you’d like to evaluate that trade-off. Many I know can’t bear to sit in a train for too long, while others manage to expertly do their homework in their travel time.
2) Maximise your days (applicable for wintertime). As the months get colder, daylight also becomes a sparse commodity, and it gets dark really early. Aside for those places that have plenty to admire or do at night, it doesn’t bode well for your trip if you, for example, wake up late in the morning and get to your destination by the time it’s mid-afternoon. I’d strongly advise waking up early enough to reach your destination by time day breaks. Often this might mean sleeping early or catching up on your sleep while you travel, but I feel it’s worth it if your destination is a more of a day-place (like Ghent or Aachen) and you want to get as much as possible out of it.
3) Prioritise the experience over documenting it. To be more specific, pay more attention to where you are at and to the sights, smells and sounds you experience than to getting the perfect photograph. While it’s only natural to want a picture of yourself in front of a beautiful building, for example, there’s no need to obsess over it at the expense of the enrichment you get from a unique place you’ll probably never visit again. Besides, I feel those who take pictures for their own viewing tend not to look at them in the future as often as they think they will. And taking them to impress others seems even more absurd, because people who like you probably don’t need to impressed, people who don’t like you are probably not going to just because of a few beautiful travel photos, and those in between will probably forget about you after looking at your pictures for about five seconds and moving on to the next one on their newsfeed.
4) Look out for unique activities. I mean this especially for places that are nearby but you are undecided about visiting. Examples of this for me were Eindhoven or Liege – I didn’t think either place had enough to see to make a trip there worth it – but when they had the above-mentioned Glow Festival and flea market respectively, my decision titled in their favour.
5) Go on a solo trip every now and then. Travelling with friends is fun, but I’d strongly recommend just setting out on your own – and for the longer, the better – and immersing yourself miles away from your comfort zone. It’s a really refreshing experience and you tend to learn quite a bit about yourself. Also, you don’t have to worry about the preferences of someone else – you can see and do whatever you want at whatever pace you’d like with no qualms whatsoever.
That’s all from me for now! In my last post in a few weeks, I’ll talk more about my overall experience as a UM student and as a resident of this beautiful city.